A Newbie's Guide To Hosting From Free To Dedicated

  1. cheat_master30
    So, your last experience with hosting a forum or website was a free board Invisionfree or Proboards hosted for you, and you don't have a clue what the different types of hosting packages are or mean eh? And I guess your budget has a limit, just like usual? Well no fear, I am here to help, with the official Newbie's Guide to Hosting from Free to Dedicated, where all your questions will indeed be answered.

    Free Forum Hosting

    I really cannot explain what this is in desktop computer terms, but in all, it's absolute junk half the time. But never the less, that's a bit harsh, so here are a few advantages of free forum hosting if you are desperate enough to use it:

    1. If something goes wrong, it's somebody else's problem

    To put it simply, if you screw up on your own hosting account or VPS or dedicated machine, it's you that normally ends up having to fix it, depending on how much you want to plead to the host's technical support. But on a free forum host, because you have no control to break anything or fix it, you can at least be comfortable in the knowledge that it's not your fault when the forum blows up and some poor tech guy has to pretty much fix about 3000 broken forums as a result. Run out of space? Their problem. Run out of CPU power and the machine crashed? Also the host's problem.

    2. It's idiot proof

    To put it lightly, free forums have one real advantage in any terms; they cannot go wrong via any real fault of the user. You cannot accidentally nuke the public html directory, you cannot accidentally corrupt the php files, destroy the database or lose your work to an accidental right click. Which means, to put it nicely, those who like clicking shiny red buttons and causing everything to come crashing down should most probably stick to a free forum host, no matter how bad they actually are for you.

    With the two advantages out the way, here comes the tough part, the numerous problems a free forum host actually has:

    1. You have no control

    This of course means you cannot actually add anything or change anything about the core product. You can't directly change the database, you can't directly integrate things with the database/forum and you are limited to the (often custom) admin control panel.

    2. No database access

    No backups, no data migration. If you want to leave on a free forum host, there are two possibilities. One is that you have no choice, you have no backup and you have to start from scratch, the other is that it costs money to do so. They pretty much expect you to stay with them forever once you join, that's the big problem. As for backups, this means that if something goes wrong on your host's end, you lose everything you've got. Members, posts, avatars, style... If they have no backup, then any mistake by your host is completely catastrophical to your forum. And they DO happen.

    3. You wait on the host for features

    Which means your forum can easily be left to stagnate for months in terms of new stuff being added, because free forum hosts very rarely actually update the forum software. They don't want the hassle, because most of the forums by users are all run off of one multi forum system that may not quite work for the latest version. They don't want anything such like, and hence when you're members get bored, there is only so much you can safely offer.

    With that out the way, onto Shared Hosting, the most common type of hosting currently around.

    Shared Hosting

    By far the most common type of hosting, this in all technicality also includes Free Forum Hosting as a sub category. Here, you have one machine, and dozens, maybe thousands of different websites hosted on that machine, IP addresses and all.

    Think of it like getting a folder on a computer. Or like those virtual PC accounts schools and workplaces give out where you get a bit of space for your files, permissions to access a few programs and everything else as locked down and non accessible.

    There are two major kinds of this webspace, free and paid. Free is (or at least was) sites like Geocities, Angelfire, Tripod, Freewebs, while paid is such like Hostgator, Lunarpages and thousands of others.

    Both have their own major advantages and disadvantages.

    Free Hosting

    Note: Some benefits and drawbacks are also shared by paid shared hosting, in which case the point will not be listed again under Paid Hosting.

    1. Freedom to upload (nearly) anything you please

    With the last kind of hosting, where you got a forum, or blog, or a wiki, you were limited to one kind of site, which could only be made and edited using one type of software (maybe two in some super deluxe cases). Here, you have no such limitations. You can upload files to improve a forum, blog or wiki, such as files for a unique style or theme direct to your hosting account. You can add modifications to the script. You can even run an entire standard website and choose the exact script you want for each feature within certain limits.

    2. Backups are Possible

    Since you can access your files, and in cases with them, your databases, you can start taking backups ready for the worst case scenario. No longer does being hacked mean you have to contact your host or just grin and start over from scratch, you can now just upload a backup and start again with minimal losses.

    3. You can decide to leave at any one time

    When it came to free forum hosting, you were pretty much locked in to your hosting company, due to a lack of access to the database. If you wanted to leave, you either had to pay, start over, or grin and bear it, continuing along the same route. However, with an actual hosting account of any kind, you can simply pull your files and reupload them somewhere else. As with the database, if applicable. If host A causes you problems, you can just take your content and move to host B, no questions asked.

    However, free hosting has it's drawbacks, and they are quite significant (and get less important as you move to proper paid hosting forms).

    1. There are Limits

    Strange as it is, there is potentially this one area where having a free (or even paid) standard hosting account might be a drawback and put you slightly worse off than just using a forum hosting service, and that aspect is the limits on space, bandwidth and server resource usages. When it came to free forum hosts, for all their problems, they basically gave you enough peace of mind not to have to worry about these technical aspects, or the prospect of your site getting too big for account or server. A forum on Invisionfree for example, for all it's benefits has virtually unlimited webspace and bandwidth. On a proper host, you can neither of these luxuries.

    Free hosting on it's own has a few exclusive limitations too. Some free hosts give you no database or scripting language usage, meaning you cannot run a forum or blog of the standard kind on their servers. Not that this is as much of a problem now with many of the major limiters going slowly out of business altogether (Geocities, etc), but it's an issue to be wary of.

    Paid Hosting

    A step up from free hosting, this is the cheapest and most common form of paid hosting, giving you a small amount of space and a few resources on a server shared by many hundreds of other websites.

    1. You have more options

    Unlike free hosting, paid hosting will at least give you numerous options for what kinds of scripts and programs you can run on the account. Indeed, you can run PHP scripts with MYSQL databases usually, which is key to many major free and paid scripts such as phpBB, vBulletin, Drupal and Wordpress. Depending on your hosting, you can also get numerous other scripting languages installed, such as Active Server Pages (ASP), CGI/Perl scripting, Python and Ruby on Rails. This is the level of hosting where you finally begin to have some form of decent control over what you can install on your site's webspace.

    2. Email Accounts

    Another feature of which paid shared hosting accounts can boast of which free hosting cannot provide, are email accounts. Okay, free hosting can technically provide these, and some do so, but this is usually not the case. Why? Because a paying customer has some kind of responsibility, and won't usually try to lose money by signing up to a random hosting company and sending numerous spam emails to random people who don't want to receive them. Free hosts however get a lot of these kinds of users, so most simply don't let their free clients go anywhere near a server email program.

    The other benefit, is that of professionalism. Instead of a random Gmail, AOL or Hotmail email account being used to send your important messages to people (such as possibly potential clients or advertisers), you can have a nicer looking account like [your name]@[your site].com instead. Plus, it's slightly less likely to be blacklisted by IP than if you even got this functionality from a free hosting account.

    3. No Advertisements

    Because you're paying the company, they don't need the money from adding advertisements for random businesses on your web pages. In turn, this also allows you to add your own advertisements, something against the terms of service for most free hosts, and make your own income from your site.

    4. You're not stuck figuring everything out

    As you pay, the company can give you support with any issues such as installing scripts, setting up emails or whether your site is down, which is incredibly useful for the newbie webmaster. Especially considering the attitude towards problems on a free host is practically 'put up and shut up, you're getting this service for free'.

    However, as with all other forms of hosting, shared hosting is nowhere near perfect, and brings it's own set of problems and pitfalls. Be wary of the following, since they may make your life a complete pain.

    1. There are still strongly enforced limits

    Believe or not, even with the ridiculously over the top stated amounts of space and bandwidth given on the websites of the various hosting companies, paid shared hosting still comes with a lot of limitations. In fact, the main one, and one that many people do not expect (because it's non existant to people using forums hosted by a forum hosting company), is memory/CPU/server usage.

    This is not a metric you will see advertised clearly. Heck, most hosting companies seem to want to keep this hidden nicely away in the small print, because it wreaks havoc with their whole overselling plans. But the general gist is that it depends on what programs/scripts you are running on your site and how many people are accessing them per minute or so. Stuff about queries and all that. And about connections in the database sense, where 50 connections might be fifty people trying to view a page at exactly the same time.

    But basically, it's limited. You usually have a limit of something small like 1% of the server resources, you're allowed to go a bit over in some instances, and if you use too many resources for long periods of time, the company simply often suspends your website.

    Also keep in mind that things like modifications for forums and generally high amounts of individual scripts running at once on a server will cause problems.

    And that running a proxy on one of these hosts (or a free host, if you're utterly suicidal) is a nice way to get thrown out.

    Note: What's overselling you may say? Simple, the company sells more resources on a server than it actually has to offer. Which is surprisingly common, and the major secret behind the 'unlimited' and high resources offering shared hosts. They usually bet on most customers barely using any resources (whether CPU usage or space or bandwidth), and then the few using a decent amount with the resources that the first group may have got if they used more resources. As you can tell, high resource usage in the form of lots of queries or database connections is problematic with this kind of setup.

    2. You cannot install new scripting languages or modules for the server

    It's not a VPS or dedicated server, hence you cannot completely add whatever you want to run to the server. Don't have PHP 6 and want to add it? You're pretty much at the mercy of the hosting company to do so, and many don't upgrade these things as often in case of upsetting 2% of prehistoric customers using archaic PHP scripts and what not whose sites would be rendered unusable by the upgrade.

    Also, don't expect whole new coding languages to be allowed to be run at the drop of a hat.

    3. Still at the mercy of everyone else hosted on the same server.

    Again, simple problem, and barely changed from the free hosting. You share a server, hence everyone shares the resources of that server. If a site takes way more of the resources than others, it will cause slowdown and maybe errors across other websites on the server. This of course is why high resource usage gets a person's shared hosting account suspended, because it wrecks the experience for every other customer on the same server.

    Similarly, if your server IP gets blacklisted say, for spamming, you're again at the mercy of the hosting company.

    VPS/Virtual Private Server Hosting

    Yet another possible step up from Shared Hosting, this is basically the halfway house between shared and dedicated. You get a fixed amount of resources such as memory, space and bandwidth, yet the freedom of nearly a dedicated server when it comes to scripting and what can be installed.

    As per usual, there are good points, and there are bad points. And it's very different from shared hosting.

    1. You get guaranteed resources (space, bandwidth and memory)

    In a simple way, you know what you've got, and you can rightfully use all of it to help your site. That space is yours, you have exactly that amount as space to use, and that memory or whatever is the same and can be used up to completeness.

    You also tend to get more resources in terms of CPU/memory/connections than on shared hosting. There's a catch to this, but you'll definitely be thankful for a VPS (or dedicated) if you run a site like a forum or wiki.

    2. You have more freedom when it comes to what can be done on the server

    You can install nearly anything when it comes to scripting languages, you can update things like PHP and MYSQL yourself without intervention from your host, and you can install practically any web based script you can think of regardless of the risks and whether it's server intensive.

    However, there are still negatives, of which you definitely need to be cautious. It's not quite as simplistic as your standard hosting, that's for sure.

    1. Resource limits are realistic (often lower than paid shared hosting)

    Except for server usage/CPU/memory or what not, resources have lower limits on a VPS due to the fact overselling is far rarer for a VPS than it is for shared hosting. However, this does mean problems for those few people who like the 300 Gigabytes space and 20 Terrabytes bandwidth some overselling shared accounts get promoted as having, since they'll usually have to either cut back on their massive space/bandwidth usage, or go and get a dedicated server.

    Don't expect unlimited anything either.

    2. No leeway when it comes to resources. You have strict boundaries, but guaranteed amounts.

    Second downside, while the hosting company doesn't just shut your account down whenever they feel like it or think it's using too many resources, you do have a hard limit, especially on CPU. Hit the maximum here, and expect things like fatal errors and database errors galore, because you just plain can't go past the limits rather than getting a slap on the wrist by the host.

    This is where it may be problematic for some forums with a huge amount of activity for example.

    3. It's a bit more tricky to set up/manage

    Ever noticed the higher you go up the hosting ladder, the more knowledge is required to manage your account/website? That's where a VPS can be tough for some people. You see, you often have pay more for fancier versions of control panels like CPanel many hosts bundle it for shared accounts, and even with those, there's quite a lot of options, management and things to go horribly wrong on a Virtual Private Server.

    Oh, and remember that freedom to install modules and scripting languages and other things on the server? There's a catch there, you have to do all those things yourself, usually involving command prompts and programs, black screens with white writing and a decent amount of technical knowledge related to computers.

    Dedicated Servers

    This is where my expertise and experience ends for now, since my current site is still on a VPS, but I'll give the most vague outline possible of what exactly running a dedicated server is like.

    Your site only

    First things first, if you had not guessed this already, a dedicated server is exactly what it sounds like. You control the entire computer your website is hosted on. Maybe you rent it in some data centre, or maybe it's literally in the middle of your office with all files hosted right there (the latter is more common with large corporations than individuals), but you control everything. Only what you want hosted on the server is hosted there, so there's no battling for resources against other customers.

    If shared hosting is like having a folder on a computer, and VPS is like having another account on the computer, then the dedicated server is just owning/renting the computer itself.

    The Freedom to add anything

    If you want to add anything, you just do so. No one limits what fancy languages are installed or what modules or features are enabled, and no one limits what programs like vBulletin or Wordpress are installed. You can run a proxy server confidentally by this point.

    However, there is a major 'negative'...

    Do It Yourself.

    As you may now have guessed, there are problems with this. The simple and foremost one? You have to manage the server itself. This means you have two choices:

    1. Manage everything yourself, update all the programs, install everything you need. This requires a decent amount of knowledge involving computers and (usually) Linux. Doing this wrong can screw up everything, or get the server hacked.

    2. Pay someone else to manage it. This may be an individual technician like they have in some moderate sized companies, or it may be a company, but basically, you pay more, but have the peace of mind it brings with it.

    Make your choice very carefully...

    Finally, here's a few afterthoughts about the whole hosting thing. You may not agree with them, or believe what I am about to say, but it's important to keep in mind.

    The first one of course, is not to trust the hosting directories. They're usually just affiliate marketers pretending to be neutral, are filled with fake reviews (intentionally or unintentionally), and order sites not by their quality, but how much they pay affiliates for referrals. Trying checking the source code, you'll see exactly what I mean when you check where the link is going.

    Try reading this for some information, or search the Web Hosting Talk forum:

    http://www.webhostingtalk.com/wiki/W...ng_directories

    [​IMG]

    Note how it says an id word and then something identifying the 'directory' site you came from to get to this host? Yeah, the directory then gets paid for everyone who signs up from clicking on that link. Nothing against the host in question, just the sleazy directory trying to con people into this stuff.

    Hope this helps people know about hosting for their websites.

    Original site here:

    A Newbie's Guide to Hosting from Free to Dedicated - DS Ultimate Forums- Nintendo DS forums

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