Web Hosting (Is Not) For Dummies

There’s nothing quite like discovering that you really can build your own Apache web server and host your own web site even running Windows XP Home Edition. Having done that, the next question you need to ask yourself is why anyone would want the everyday chore of wrestling with security patches, dependencies, libraries, compilers, and on and on unless you just happen to do this sort of thing for a living. Assuming you’re still with me, the next question becomes where to turn for web hosting services. Typing “web hosting” into Google returns just over 25 million hits so that’s probably not the best approach. Having used five fairly good web hosting companies over the past two years, I thought it might be more helpful to sketch out what to look for rather than just providing an outright endorsement of a particular vendor, but we’ll get to that. To begin, here’s a short list of the Top 5 Things to Look For in a Web Hosting Provider.

Reliability means so much more than 99.9% uptime. Is there a guarantee? What do you get if the system isn’t up 99.9% of the time? For many businesses, the guarantee isn’t nearly as important as finding a service that really, really is up 99.9% of the time. After all, you really don’t want your $20 back. You want customers to be able to order from or see your web site. So here’s what to look for in reliability. Does the provider use the latest and greatest web server hardware? Visit Dell and compare. Does the provider use multiple pipes to the Internet from different companies? Is the provider hosting from a network operations center that has backup power? Does the provider make system backups? Many don’t! Does the provider publish a phone number to call when the servers go down? Is the provider using the latest versions of Linux and/or Windows Server?

Performance also matters. The latest hardware and big pipes to the Internet help but, once you leave the mom-and-pop operations behind, most providers meet these two criteria. The true measure of performance has more to do with how many users share a server with your domain, what types of customer applications are running on that server, and how carefully the provider monitors activity on your shared server. How do you know? The short answer is you really don’t until you sign up. So look for a provider that gives you short-term rates (preferably month to month) and a 30-day money-back guarantee. Having said that, even with good providers, the addition of one disreputable customer who runs a hundred spam scripts an hour will cause immediate problems for you.

Response Time Solving Problems. There are two pieces to this puzzle: how quickly can you get word to the provider that your server has croaked and how quickly can they fix it. Good providers have multiple ways for customers to report problems: through the web, pagers, faxes, and phone calls. If your provider only offers a web form, there’s probably a reason. How quickly a provider fixes problems is quantifiable, but it will be unusual for you to know about most issues other than your own. The bottom line on response time is pretty simple. If you’re having frequent outages that are forcing you to worry about response time to fix problems, your provider has problems. Look elsewhere!

Scope of Services. The most important feature you can have with your domain hosting account is a quick way to move to another provider when things go south. If you use MySQL databases and cron scripts, backing up your own data (assuming you can get access to it) is painful to put it mildly. If a provider uses cPanel as the shell for your accounts, there are tools that will let your next provider grab virtually everything in your account and transparently move it to your new provider’s server. So, unless you have little more than static web pages which you back up regularly, look for a provider that runs the latest (commercial) version of RedHat Enterprise Linux with Web Host Manager (WHM) and cPanel for managing your account. The standard mix of applications should include POP and IMAP email accounts, web mail, MySQL and PostgreSQL data base management systems, PHP and PHPmyAdmin, and SpamAssassin. Virtually all the providers give you FTP access to upload and download materials for your web site. Some provide Secure Shell access (SSH) for an additional fee, but this exposes them to additional security risks so don’t count on it. If your needs are more for creative web tools such as e-commerce, project management, customer service and support, photo galleries, discussion forums, or blogs, then you also should look for a provider that includes Fantastico which makes complex script installations a breeze. For example, this WordPress blog was installed, configured, and ready for use in less than five minutes using Fantastico.

Cost. Luckily for us, it’s a buyers’ market for web hosting services. So long as you get 25 million hits on the words “web hosting” in Google, cost will be the least of your worries. To host one or a few domains should rarely cost more than $10 a month with plenty of bandwidth to support normal access. You do pay for bandwidth which is measured with virtually all reputable providers. If a provider advertises “unlimited bandwidth” and the price is too good to be true, it probably is. Either the provider will terminate your account when you begin using excessive bandwidth (by their definition, not yours) or the performance of your site will be so miserable that it won’t matter how much free bandwidth you have. Unless you’re hosting something illegal (such as music) or pornography, both of which most reputable providers frown upon, 20GB of monthly bandwidth will usually suffice for all but the most heavily traveled web sites. Another issue to explore, of course, is the cost of switching hosting plans or upgrading bandwidth as your requirements grow.

Bottom Line: WestNIC.net gets my vote for the best overall hosting company. And an honorable mention no longer goes to HostDime.com. Since leaving HostDime a year ago, many of my colleagues have followed so things appear to be headed in the wrong direction there. Your mileage may vary.

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