What is Web Hosting and do I need it?

You know how you have an ISP (Internet Service Provider) who provides you with access to the Internet? Web Hosting Providers connect your website to the Internet.

When you go to a website like Google, Microsoft, YouTube or Twitter, you are accessing files and applications that are stored on a type of computer called a server.

Servers do basically the same thing as your personal computer. The difference is, these computers are faster and more reliable than your home or work computer. Instead of one power supply they often have two or more. They are plugged into a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply which itself is backed up by a fuel powered generator for those times when the power goes out for longer periods of time. These servers are connected to the Internet through very high speed connections. In essence, good service to these folks means that your website should be up close to 99.9% of the time. Some of servers stay up and running for a year or more before they are rebooted. I don't know about you, but I find that I have to reboot my computer way more often than that.

There are different types of Web Hosting. Unless you have a very specific requirement, most small businesses can operate just fine using a type of service called Shared Hosting. It is called Shared Hosting because the server hosts many different websites. Each website owner has their own space on the server which can not be accessed (or at least should not of they are doing their job properly) by others. This makes such a service very affordable to small and medium size business. From a typical visitors perspective, they have no idea that where your website is hosted. For all they know, you have this huge computer room with high paid IT staff running the system 24 hours a day.

What to look for in Shared Web Hosting

Even within Share Hosting, you will find that providers have two levels of service. Companies will have different names for their services and some may even split them down into even more sub-products however can be grouped into two categories:

  1. Personal, Starter, Basic -- This level of service provides you with a spot to host your HTML files. They don't typically offer any ability for you to take advantage of CMS (Content Management Systems) or other types of applications such as blogs and shopping carts unless you go to a third party provider. More on CMS in the next sub-category. In order to take advantage of this level of service, you need to be able to create your webpages using a site builder application, if your web host provider offers such a feature or an application on your own computer such as Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe Dream Weaver or Mozilla Seamonkey. You could even use Microsoft Word or OpenOffice Writer. If you know HTML, you could also your favourite text editor. Many people like Notepad++. My personal favourite is PSPad. Regardless of the tool, although this level of hosting is less expensive, you will end up paying more in time and effort, not to mention the higher learning curve. It also becomes problematic to maintain your website once you go beyond 4-5 pages as it becomes overwhelming to maintain consistency in the look of your website, not to mention the exponentially growing web of links between your pages.
  2. Business -- The second sub-category is typically the one you will want. In addition to the features included in the Starter or Basic edition, this level adds the ability to take advantage of web applications such as CMS (Content Management System), Blogs, E-commerce and shopping carts, photo galleries, CRM (Customer Relation Management) systems, Discussion forums, email marketing and more. Many of the best applications out there are available as something called "Open Source". Open Source is a type of project which has been contributed to by potentially thousands of people around the world and is often available for you to use for free. If you have been around on the web, there is no doubt that you have visited websites running on Open Source software. One of the better known applications you may have heard of is WordPress, the most popular blogging application in the World today. In order to enable these applications to work, this level of service includes two things: 1) Support of a programming language. The most widely used web programming languages include ASP or ASP.Net, Perl, JSP and ColdFusion however you will quickly discover find that most of the Open Source applications are written in PHP. 2) Support of a database. Again, there are several available such as Postgres SQL, MSSQL (or Microsoft SQL) however when it comes to Open Source applications, the most popular is called MySQL for a couple of reasons. First, like PHP, it's open source. Second, it was made to work specifically with PHP.

If the hosting company you deal with has more categories, it will have to do with quantities. Besides the price, what usually changes are:

  • Storage: This is usually includes the amount of information and the total size of all your files. The business level of service usually includes way more space than you will need. When signing up, be sure to ask if you can upgrade later should your needs grow.
  • Bandwidth: This is how much information is sent to and from your website. Each time someone comes to visit your website, every webpage, graphic, audio, video, document they access counts towards this number. If your provider puts a limit on how much bandwidth you have available, make sure they include a way for you to monitor that number. Going over that number can result in unexpected high additional costs, sometimes hundreds to thousands of dollars per month. It might also be a good idea for you to ask them to lift that limit for the first month so that you can get an idea of what your needs will be and have the opportunity to adjust your package accordingly.
  • Email accounts: The more expensive your package, the more email accounts you will have available to you. Keep in mind that you don't really need that many email accounts. One per person in your organization is often plenty. What is important here is how many email forwarders you can create. Think of an email forwarder as an alias for your email account. For example, you could have sales@yourcompany.comcustomer.support@yourcompany.com and firstname@yourcompany.com all forward emails sent to those addresses to your.name@yourcompany.com so that you can get all your business mail in one spot. And should you ever hire someone to work with you, it will be easy to change the forwarding address of these aliases to another person.
  • Number of Databases: While each application need not have it's own database, it is often recommended to avoid any potential conflicts. In general, my recommendation is to use one database per application. Not only does this make it a lot easier to backup a specific application (should you decide to move it to another account or hosting provider, but it will make it easier to get rid of old applications. For example, as I stated earlier, WordPress is the most popular blogging platform in the world right now. However in a year or two from now, there may be something new, something even better that takes the world by storm. It would be difficult to separate your WordPress site from your website in order to replace it if they both shared the same database. It would almost be like trying to separate salt and pepper after they have been mixed together. It's possible, but it would be a lot of work. Also, over the year, you may want to upgrade your blog to the latest version in order to get the latest features or just to get the latest security fixes. These upgrades often make changes in your database. Even though there may not have been a database conflict between applications when you first installed them doesn't ensure that this will remain the case in the future. Bottom line, having more databases available is better, even if you don't end up needing them today.
  • Windows vs Linux/Unix: Some web hosting companies will charge you more to be hosted on a Windows server than a Unix server. In my humble opinion, the only time using a Windows server will work to your advantage is if you are using an ASP or ASP.Net application since both ASP and Windows are made by Microsoft. Otherwise, I recommend that you go with a Unix / Linux server for best compatibility and highest reliability with Open Source applications.

TIP: Note that unix servers are case sensitive when it comes to file names. You will need to pay close attention when naming files, folders and links. AboutUs.html and aboutus.html are not considered to be the same filename. Some people find this a little confusing at first, especially if they create a working webpage on their computer and then upload it (copy it) to a Linux/Unix server just to discover that it no longer works.

What else to look for when shopping for Web Hosting

Shopping for web hosting can be very confusing. I have seen prices that range from less than $2 per months all the way up to several hundred dollars. Understand is that more expensive does not necessarily mean better. For example, in the case of domain names, if a hosting company is a reseller of a reseller, each level will add their profit margin thereby increasing the price. Companies who can offer you the same domain name at a lower price may simply be closer or at the top of the chain of resellers. In the case of web hosting, reliability and availability of your hosting service is certainly very important. Although not always the case, some Web Hosting Providers simply have a more efficient and automated system for managing their clients and their servers. For example, if it takes one provider 15 minutes to setup a website for you while another provider can do it in under a minute, the first provider will need more staff and hence, have to charge you more for an otherwise equivalent service.

When recommending a Web Hosting Provider to my clients, I take this into consideration. I am also a big fan of keeping  things as simple as possible. When a provider is well organized, it is reflected in the tools that they make available to their customers. My favourite provides include a Control Panel called "cPanel" where you can manage all of your email addresses and domains, upload and manage files on your website. It may also include access to your webmail, an on-line image editor, allow you to view statistics for your website showing when and how many people visited your site, as well as which parts of your website attracted them the most. My favourite providers also offer a one-click solution called Fantastico which allows you to install and uninstall applications on your website with minimal knowledge or interaction. Ease of use for our clients is very important in our quest to provide our clients with sustainable solutions.

Web Hosting also includes support. While they won't fix your website (that's not their job), they take care of making sure the servers are running and connected to the rest of the Internet. You should have several ways of contacting your provider in the event that something goes wrong. For example I like being able to reach someone by phone 24 hours a day or to send a support question in by email or at least though a customer support page. On occasion, I also take advantage of the live text chat offered by my providers support team.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, if you would like us to make a recommendation for web hosting provider or if I can be of service to you.

With best regards,

Michael Milette, Life and Tech Coach