If you have ever looked into having a website, then you will have had to look into the wonderful world of internet hosting.
A website needs to be stored somewhere- it needs to be in a place that is accessible to visitors right around the world. The ability to store it on that "accessible place" is called "hosting". This means storing your website and related data on a server or a series of servers. Servers don't just store websites- they can also store databases, email and much more. A hosting provider is just a company that provides the facilities to host your website.
The problem is that there are so many hosting companies out there offering different products with levels of services. You'll soon find out how many there are if you type in Web Hosting into Google!
Some have an excellent reputation and others do not. Some are cheap (£1/$1 per year for example) or even free, and some might need you to get an extra mortgage on your house to pay for their services! Some will offer shared hosting or a dedicated server. Then there is all this talk of bandwidth and some offering "unlimited" bandwidth. It's a bit of a nightmare!
Finding the perfect host for you can be quite an ordeal. This article is designed to give you a bit of help and is based on some of the experiences I've had. My main advice is to try and be as clued up as you can and make sure you are asking the right questions.
1. Decide on What Type of Hosting
I'm going to cover four hosting types- shared, reseller, virtual and dedicated. I'm not going to go into cloud servers in this article, perhaps another time!
Shared hosting means that you share a server with other people's websites. It could mean that you share with one other website, but usually, it means tens or possibly hundreds of other websites. Usually, the servers used for shared hosting are very powerful so that the memory and processor aren't overpowered by the number of requests to view all the web sites. The best way to find out is to ask. Some companies will be very upfront and some will not be.
One of the disadvantages of Shared Hosting is that requests to another website on your server can affect the performance of yours. For example, if you share a server with a very popular website, you may find that your website loads slower as a consequence. Most hosting providers will only allow you to run certain software and will stop you from customising certain things on your hosting space. The reason for this is to make sure the server is running as fast and smoothly as possible.
If you run a small website then these disadvantages may not bother you. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. When I started building websites back in 2000, shared hosting was what I opted for-and it was perfectly adequate for the small and simple websites I was building.
Reseller Shared Hosting
Most hosting providers offer another shared option, and that is a reseller account.
This still uses a shared server, but instead of giving you the option of hosting one or two websites, you can host multiple websites (perhaps up to 20 in the same account). This still has the same disadvantages of a shared server but is usually quite a bit cheaper than a virtual or dedicated server.
If you really want to have more control over your websites and hosting environment and not worry about other people's websites slowing down yours, then a virtual server may be the best option.
Whilst you're not actually getting full control of a full server machine, you do have pretty much all the advantages of a dedicated server. A virtual server runs as a "virtual machine" on a dedicated server. A dedicated server can have several virtual machines running which makes it sound similar to shared hosting. The difference is, that your virtual machine is not affected by any other machine on the server. Each virtual machine has a set amount of RAM, disk space and other resources allocated to it. You are also free to run your own software and have full control over the hosting environment.
Another advantage is that it is very easy to upgrade and downgrade. Do you need more memory or disk space? Then your hosting provider should be able to reboot your virtual machine and instantly allocate it more resources.
If you really want power and full control and you find a virtual server isn't going to be enough, then perhaps you need to go for a full dedicated server. Here, the whole server is yours and you get the full resources allocated to your web sites.
One downside is that a dedicated server is less flexible in upgrading and downgrading. If you need more memory, then a technician is going to have to physically upgrade your machine, or transfer your data to a different dedicated server.
2. Do your Research!
If you are looking for a new hosting provider, or perhaps your first hosting provider, it's vital that you do your own research. A blog post by Clook Internet makes some very good points on how to find a good host. Despite this being written by a hosting company, it is not very biased and is well worth a read. The three points raised in the post are as follows:
- Length of trading
- Uptime Statistics
- Reviews and Reputation
I couldn't agree more. The most important in my view is the last one- look at what customers are saying. All hosting companies will get a few negative reviews but beware of the company who gets significant numbers of negative reviews. The easiest way is to Google the name of the hosting provider together with word "reviews". For example "Clook Internet Reviews"
As well as deciding what type of hosting service you want (shared, reseller, virtual or dedicated server) you'll need to decide whether want a fully managed solution or not. A managed option is where the hosting provider will keep the software up to date, update security and update other settings. Do you want the server to run Windows or Linux (for example, if you want to run WordPress, you'll want to go with a Linux solution)? Do you want to have PHP or ASP and have databases such as MYSQL?
3. Ask Some Questions!
Once you have decided on the above it is time to make a list of questions that you want to ask each company. You can then either email the questions or use them as an aid when you phone them up.
Last time I switched, I came up with a set of questions which I could refer to when I emailed or phone up hosting providers. I was looking for a dedicated or virtual server at the time.
Your list of questions will be different to mine, but as a guide, I've put the following questions which I hope will help. Most of these questions are geared for virtual and dedicated servers, so you'd have to tweak them if you are after shared hosting.
- What operating system & version do you use on your servers? Can we choose?
- What versions are you currently using for Apache, PHP and MYSQL? Can I choose which versions?
- Do you automatically upgrade the OS, server software, PHP/MYSQL when new patches become available or do I have to ask you? Is this done as part of the management?
Hardware, Specs, Backups and Monitoring:
- What backup solutions do you offer? Does this come as part of the package?
- Do you have separate name servers, or are these handled on the same server? If my server were to go down, would the name servers and so domain names stay up?
- How do you monitor your servers? Would I be able to receive emails or text messages if the server goes down for example?
- Do you know which part of the country/world your servers located? In the future is it possible to have additional servers in different locations?
- For shared packages, how many other accounts will be on the same server?
- Can I have root access?
- What is the monthly bandwidth limit? If you offer an "unlimited" package, what is the catch? Do you slow or "throttle" the connection if it goes over a threshold?
- Do they have good security in place? It's important to do a security audit to make sure you are satisfied your data will be secure.
Contracts & Service:
- In a couple of years time, our hardware might be a little old, do you upgrade the hardware as part of the package? Or would I have to upgrade and go through this process again? Say, for example, I opt for the lowest spec server now, in 4 years time my server will be out of date, will you upgrade the hard drive and memory to your current bottom server specifications, or do I have to ask you for an upgrade?
- How long are your contracts?
- Do we have a dedicated account manager? If a support issue is causing me concern, can they follow such issues up?
- Do you offer a 24/7 support team? Where is the team based? How big is the team (roughly)? As well as sending support requests by email, can I phone if it's an emergency? What is your normal response time?
- How much notice do you give us on a change to prices of the server? What is there to stop you doing a massive price hike?!
- Is there a full price list? This would include extra services, domains etc
- What control panel do you offer? Is it possible to have access to a demo one to see what it offers?
- With managed hosting, what do you include as part of this?
- What email facilities do you have? Where are emails stored?
- Could you give more information on your spam filtering and virus detection?
- Can you offer POP3 and IMAP using the same settings?
- Can you offer secure email facilities using SSL, would this be included?
- What is the mailbox quota per account? Can we set this quota?
- How many POP3/IMAP accounts can we have?
- How many emails can you send out per hour?
- How many recipients can you send to in one email? Is there a limit?
- What's the maximum size of the email (including attachments) that can be sent (and received)?
- Is it possible to create auto-responders on email addresses and can these be set to switch on and off on certain dates and times?
So, those are my thoughts on finding the best host. What is your experience? Do you have any other steps that you feel are important when looking at a new hosting provider? I'd love to know. I may even tell you more about the horror story that put me in the position of having to look for a new host. As ever, please do leave a comment below!