Choosing a web host
Originally posted on my site - http://www.olate.com
Every website needs to have a host to store the files on, and serve the web pages. However, in the current market, it can be very difficult to choose the right host for you with thousands of companies all trying to get your money. Different companies offer different services at different prices - but what do all these options mean and what should you ask the prospective company?
A web hosting company, or host, is a company that owns or maintains a number of servers which paying customers can rent space on. These servers are usually located in a large data centre with many protection features like air conditioning, backup power and security systems to name a few. Each server is connected to the internet via a large backbone usually provided by a large telecoms provider such as BT or Telewest (in the UK). The servers ‘serve’ the content stored on them to internet users when they request the pages stored on that server.
Most web hosts provide two core services – shared, or virtual hosting, and dedicated hosting. The shared hosting is where you rent space on a server which also has the files for many other websites on. You are sharing the bandwidth and processing power of the server with other paying customers. This is the most common type of hosting and it relatively cheap. On the other hand, if you have a large website, you can purchase a dedicated server where you own the entire server and you have direct control over it. That means only your site has to be stored on it and you don’t need to share it.
I am going to deal with both type of hosting individually:
When choosing a shared hosting plan from a company, you want to make sure that it provides more than you need. If you buy a package that has just what you need, the chances are that you will go over and end up paying more. You should look in the features list and search for features like how many POP3 mailboxes you get, if you can have e-mail aliasing, FTP access, how much diskspace you get and how much bandwidth you get. Added bonuses would include SSL, scripting features, databases etc. Don’t be fooled by the look of high bandwidth or diskspace – many websites only use a few megabytes of space, the entire Olate site, for example (excluding the database) is only 4.7Mb! Bandwidth is also an important aspect to consider. If you are expecting lots of visitors then make sure you go for a package that has a generous bandwidth allocation. 1Gb of bandwidth (1000Mb) is enough for approximately 100,000 hits bearing in mind that each page loaded, and each graphic downloaded is one hit. Read my article on Web Hosting Features for more information.
In addition to the features you are receiving, ensure that you have good support that, ideally, is available 24 hours a day in case you need urgent support. The best bet is 24/7 phone and e-mail support and make sure the phone number is not a premium number. Try e-mailing them a few questions (see later) or phoning them and asking them some questions to find out how quickly they respond and how good the answers are. I can almost guarantee that you will need to contact support at least once so make sure they are available. A large company usually has a response time of 60 minutes for all queries and a local rate phone line – one host even responded to one of my queries within 2 minutes.
Try and find out where the company is located. It is always a good idea to see if they have a contact address on their website as that will reassure you that they are a real company. Try accessing their website a few times a day for a week or so to see how quickly it loads and if it is constantly available as this will give a good indication on the reliability of their servers. If they have customer forums, read through the comments posted and investigate any complaints with the company.
Finally, make sure the package you want can grow with your site. Ensure that it is easy to upgrade and ask what happens if your site suddenly goes over its bandwidth allocation. It is no good if you site becomes really popular, then your host suspends your account because you go over your bandwidth.
Dedicated hosting, or buying a dedicated server, is the way to go if your site is mission critical and must have all the processing power and network availability possible. The entire server is dedicated to you and you can do what you like with it – host just your site, or host other sites and charge for it.
Dedicated servers offer the piece of mind of a Service Level Agreement – if your server goes down then the hosting company will repair it within a certain amount of time or you get your money back. Some companies provide a 60 minute downtime maximum for an entire month – if your server is down for more than that, then you get a refund.
As you get ‘root’ access to the server, you have direct control over what is installed, how it runs and any other aspect of the server. You can choose the operating system (generally Windows 2000 or Red Hat Linux) and can choose the hardware supporting it – from a small processor and one hard disk to four hard disks, multiple processors, backup systems and firewalls.
This sounds brilliant – your own server dedicated to your site, but there is a drawback. Dedicated servers are quite expensive – expect to pay more than £75 per month, plus a setup fee for the privilege of the server. You may also be tied into a minimum contract. Finally, you must also have in-depth knowledge of setting up and managing your server - which can be a full time job.
Questions to ask a potential web host:
When choosing your host, there are a number of things you have to find out that may not be available on their website. E-mailing or phoning in with the following questions will not only test out their support but also tell you what kind of service they provide. Some of these questions are taken from the Internet Magazine website:
Q Are there any hidden costs?
You need to find out if they charge you anything extra – do they charge VAT for example
Q. How many people are there in the support centre?
Find out if it is just one person running the company, or if there is a whole support team.
Q. What access speeds can I expect?
They should tell you how fast their connection is and may even give you an IP address to ping to find out the response time.
Q. What kind of redundancy do I get?
What happens if the server goes down? How long will it be until it is back up? Do you have any backup servers or systems ready to step in if the server goes down?
Q. What happens if I go over my bandwidth/diskspace allocation?
Make sure they allow a small amount of excess bandwidth, around 500-600Mb over should be allowed. They should not suspend you account if you go over and should always warn you when you are approaching your limit.
Q. Do you offer a backup service?
Is your content backed up every day in case of a massive server failure?
Q. How much experience do you have? Can you demonstrate your financial status?
Check to make sure they have not just started up and that they are not going bankrupt.
Q. Can I transfer in a domain name? Do you offer registration services?
If you have an existing domain name, find out if you can use it on a new account or if they will register you a new name.
Q. What are the restrictions on content?
Find out what you can and can’t have on your account.
Q. What happens if I want to leave?
Make sure they don't tie you in or charge you for leaving.
I hope that you found this article interesting and that you are now able to make a sound decision when choosing a web hosting company. Feel free to discuss any of the points raised in this article in the Forums. You can also read a review of the top UK web hosting companies here.
Read more articles like this, plus over 100 web development tutorials, phpBB and vBulletin styles and PHP scripts at http://www.olate.com