In the first article of this 2 part series, I gave an overview of what Web hosting is and described the two main types of hosting (shared and dedicated). In this article, I’ll describe the basic features you should look for in a hosting plan as well as the essential qualities and services a good host should have in order for you to make the best possible choice. Let’s start with these.
Essential Qualities of a Good Web Host
This one is a no brainer. No matter how fabulous your plan’s features might be, or how well designed your site is, if your site is down often, it will reflect very badly on you or your organization. This is one of the main reasons why most cheap hosting companies just won’t cut it. Don’t expect to get reliable service or a fast web site from a $2.95 a month hosting plan. At that price, they have to cut corners somewhere to make a profit and that often means putting too many sites using up limited resources on the same server machine. Don’t skimp on hosting costs to save a few bucks a month. This is your image and reputation we’re talking about here. What is that worth to you? Great reliability and uptime are essential.
Of course, reliability is hard to judge if you’ve never done business with a particular host but look for some reviews online. Better still, ask for recommendations from your friends, colleagues or social networks. Nothing beats first hand experience. There are exceptions here and some hosts offer pretty reliable service at a very low cost but most of the time, this will be at the expense of other services, like support:
This is where we separate the boys from the men. Everything else being equal, support is the single most important criteria you should be evaluating. Support is what can differentiate a great host from an OK one from a pure nightmare…
So, what to look for?
24/7 phone and email support : To me, this is key and this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. At the very least, if the host’s Web site does not display a phone number prominently on the home page, look elsewhere. I’m not kidding. You want to be able to reach these people quickly if there is a problem with your site. Additionally, if your Web site or any services related to it (like email) are business critical for your organisation, 24/7 phone support is essential. Most cheap hosts won’t offer that. The knowledgeability of the people you talk to is also key. When your site goes down on a Saturday night and your host won’t respond to your calls or email until the next Monday morning, you’ll regret not choosing a host that’s there for you all day, every day. Again, what are your organization’s image and reputation worth to you?
10 Essential Technical Criteria
These are the more technical things you should be looking for in your host’s plan. There used to be a big difference between hosts here but most will offer more than adequate packages and support for the most common Web technologies. If you do not understand what some of these things are, your Web designer/developer or your in house IT people will… and they will expect them. These features are common in good modern hosts but many cheap ones will cut on some of these.
- Web space : This is the hard drive space allocated to your account. If your plan lets you run more than one site (and domain) on your account, this space will be shared among all of them. Only you can know what is an acceptable limit for your needs but many host offer unlimited space now. Of course, the more space available the better.
- Bandwith : Same as with space, bandwith is often unlimited now but if it is not, it is also shared among all the sites on your account. Again, there are some exceptions out there but be wary if a host’s plan is unlimited all around for $2.95/month. In hosting, over promising and under delivering is more common than the opposite… Bandwith caps around the 1 TB / month are good.
- FTP access : without that, look elsewhere. This is very basic and essential. You should be able to create FTP users with limited access to specific folders.
- SSH access : if your host is a Unix/Linux host, you should get SSH access. It is essential to perform some operations on your account (like creating symlinks for alternate domains to point to a main domain folder for example). If you have a very basic Web site, this is probably not essential.
- .htaccess support : If you are on a Unix/Linux host this is a given but many Windows hosts do not support .htaccess because it requires installing additional software. If your site is running on WordPress, you need this. If it’s not supported by the host you’re evaluating, move on and look elsewhere.
- PHP and MySQL : most hosts offer more than these (Perl, Rails, Python, etc) but PHP and MySQL are essential for most dynamic Web sites. WordPress requires recent versions of PHP and MySQL (PHP 5.24 and greater and MySQL 5.0 and greater). If your site will be running on a CMS like WordPress, Drupal and others, look at their baseline requirements and make sure your host supports them. If you are hosting on Windows, ASP.NET is common and your project may require it. Other technologies that are not as common are JSP and ColdFusion. Either may be required for your projects so double check your technical requirements with your Web people before choosing a host.
- SSL (secure server), Shopping Cart : if you plan on doing eCommerce on your site, you need a host that supports SSL and https. Most hosts do. Look for additional fees if you need a private SSL (and most poeple should go for private SSL). Hosts often offer shared SSL in their base packages and can charge hefty additional fees for private SSL.
- Email : aside from the Web site itself, email is the most important feature in a hosting account and the one where quality can vary the most. Your host should offer Web based email and access to settings through a Web based control panel where you can add and delete users. Also keep in mind that, email storage usually counts towards your total package’s space limit (if any) so be careful if you use the IMAP protocol (instead of POP3) and send and receive a large volume of emails with large attachments. Your host’s email server should also support basic things like email forwarding and autoresponders.
- Control panel : when working with a host, the quality, power and ease of use of their Control Panel can make the difference between a great or a frustrating experience. Many hosts have “home-made” control panels than can be great… or not. When you ask around for recommendations, ask about the hosts’s control panel. The control panels for both Windows hosts I use are just OK. But the control panel on my main host (Linux based) is incredible. Powerful, flexible and complete. These people have gone the extra mile. It makes a huge difference.
At minimum, your host’s control panel should let you add and delete email accounts and users, add and delete FTP users, change the password for your account, add domains/sub domains (if your package offers that), add, delete and manage databases, etc. What you DO NOT want is to have to go through the host’s support to perform any of these tasks.
- Remote database connections : This criteria is rarely mentioned and often overlooked… but to me it is essential. Most hosts let you use PHPMyAdmin to manage your MySQL databses. Personally, I think it’s a huge pain… I use a desktop application called Navicat to manage all the databases on the 3 hosts I use from my desktop computer. The interface is better, backups are easy and stored locally, etc. If your host won’t let you connect to their MySQL database server remotely, look elsewhere. Again, I’m not kidding. Don’t let them fool you with bogus security concerns. You can connect remotely to databases on your host securely. If they won’t let you, it doesn’t bode well for their competence and it might mean they’re more interested in making their own lives easier than to help yours… Is that the kind of people you want to do business with?
I have been working on the Web for over 15 years and I have tried a lot of hosts. The main host I use now is the best I have ever done business with by far. For me, that is priceless as the quality of their service directly reflects on my own reputation with my clients. This choice is just as important for your organization so shop around carefully and don’t be fooled by outlandish promises at bargain bin prices.
If your site is a mission-critical part of your business, you should plan to pay at about $20/month or more for good shared hosting. Your will get the reliability you need along with great support. Dedicated hosting is of course more expensive. If your site is more basic, gets lower traffic or it’s not an essential part of your business, you may go for cheaper plans but prepare to compromise somewhere. It will vary by hosts but 24/7 support is often the first thing to go. Weight your options carefully.
This piece was not written to promote any specific hosts but I’ll gladly make recommendations if you contact me.
Happy host shopping!