Choosing hosting provider
- 1 Types of hosting
- 2 Web hosting choice criteria
- 2.1 Reliability and speed of access
- 2.2 Data Transfer (Traffic/Bandwidth)
- 2.3 Disk space
- 2.4 Technical support
- 2.5 FTP, PHP, Perl CGI-BIN access, SSI, .htaccess, telnet, SSH, crontabs
- 2.6 SSL (secure server), MySQL
- 2.7 Email, Autoresponders, POP3, Mail Forwarding
- 2.8 Control Panel
- 2.9 Subdomains, virtual hosting
- 2.10 Server
- 2.11 Price
- 2.12 Monthly/Annual Payment Plans
- 2.13 Resellers
- 2.14 International
- 3 Choosing a hosting plan
- 4 The Myth of the Perfect Commercial Host
Types of hosting
First thing that should be mentioned is that there are different hosting types. The following of them are mostly available:
There is a large amount of web space you won't have to pay for. But still, for e-commerce purposes it's hard to imagine any reason why we could recommend to decide on it. Such web hosting is extremely limited by all measures. Free hosts always place their own banners, text links or even pop-up windows with advertisement. Mostly they allow only a web-based file uploading (not via FTP) and browser-based editing. Traffic and disk space provided is not enough for a serious project, moreover, in case their servers are overloaded there's a great chance that your site will often be inaccessible for long periods. As for the site address (URL), the best you can expect is something like http://yoursite.hostingprovider.com or http://www.freewebspace.com/~yourname but never think or http://www.yourstore.com or any other 2nd level domain name to be granted for free.
Overall, only non-commercial or personal web projects get their start via free web hosting.
Using shared (aka virtual) hosting your site will share the same physical web server with dozens (up to hundreds) of others. A serious problem (such as configuration errors or overload) with a single site can be fatal for all the others. There are also some access and configuration restrictions (i.e. as you are not usually provided with your own copy of server software like Apache or PHP, you are not granted with rights to edit server configuration files, install new modules and so on). However, such restrictions are nowhere near as strong as in case of free hosting. As for shopping cart software, this type of hosting is mostly suitable, still, be sure to ask the hosting administration if it's possible to install any additional modules or make configuration changes on demand.
Virtual Private Server (or Virtual Dedicated Server) hosting
Designed to avoid the problems related to shared hosting infrastructures, VDS hosting offers the benefits of a dedicated server at affordable (a bit increased, of course) shared hosting prices. The main idea is following: all sites use the same physical (hardware) server and its components (CPU, RAM, HDD), but every site or account works on a separate software Web server, i.e. on a dedicated copy of software environment which behave exactly like an isolated stand-alone server. This way it's possible to configure every aspect of your site's environment, add or remove necessary program components and edit server and component configuration files, obtain remote root (administrator) access.
This is a good and reasonable deal for those who are going to sell Web hosting themselves. Getting a large disk space and bandwidth one can divide it up among any number of separate sites he wants and sell it to others at any price. Several reseller accounts usually share one physical server but there are fewer of them comparing to the sharing hosting.
With dedicated hosting, you lease your own hardware server. As a rule, there are no restrictions applicable to them except for those designed to protect the hosting network security. The user has to install and configure the software environment completely on his own or choose the hosting plan which includes the primary configuration service. Please note that this proposition is usually offered at much higher price in comparison with shared hosting and should only be considered by projects requiring high level of server-side customization, performance and expecting to serve at least several thousands of customers daily.
Simular to the previous one, but you have to buy the server yourself depending on your needs and install it at the data center. This is the most expensive and least cost effective option if you are not colocating many servers. User must pay extra for many services dedicated hosting provides by default. Colocated hosting is generally chosen by people with server administration experience and those with more significant needs than which can be satisfied by dedicated or shared hosting.
Web hosting choice criteria
Reliability and speed of access
Not only should the web host be reliable and fast, it should guarantee its uptime (the time when it is functional). Look for a minimum uptime of 99%. In fact, even 99% is actually too low - it really should be 99.5% or higher. The host should provide some sort of refund (eg prorated refund or discount) if it falls below that figure. Note though that guarantees are often hard to enforce from your end - the host usually requires all sorts of documentation. However, without that guarantee, the web host will have little incentive to ensure that its servers are running all the time.
Data Transfer (Traffic/Bandwidth)
Data transfer (sometimes loosely referred to as "traffic" or "bandwidth") is the amount of bytes transferred from your site to visitors when they browse your site.
Don't believe any commercial web host that advertises "unlimited bandwidth". The host has to pay for the bandwidth, and if you consume a lot of it, they will not silently bear your costs. Many high bandwidth websites have found this out the hard way when they suddenly receive an exorbitant bill for having "exceeded" the "unlimited bandwidth". Always look for details on how much traffic the package allows. Actually it is recommended to stay clear of any host that advertises "unlimited transfer", even if the exact amount is specified somewhere else (sometimes buried in their policy statements). Usually you will find that they redefine "unlimited" to be limited in some way.
To give you a rough idea of the typical traffic requirements of a website, most new sites that are not software archives or the like use less than 3GB of bandwidth per month. Your traffic requirements will grow over time, as your site becomes more well-known (and well-linked), so you will need to also check their policy for overages: is there a published charge per GB over the allowed bandwidth? Is the charge made according to actual usage or are you expected to pre-pay for a potential overage? It is better not to go for hosts that expect you to prepay for overages, since it is very hard to foresee when your site will exceed its bandwidth and by how much.
For the same reason as bandwidth, watch out also for those "unlimited disk space" schemes. Most sites need less than 5MB of web space, so even if you are provided with a host that tempts you with 200MB or 500MB (or "unlimited space"), be aware that you are unlikely to use that space, so don't let the 500MB space be too big a factor in your consideration when comparing with other web hosts. The hosting company is also aware of that, which is why they feel free to offer you that as a means of enticing you to host there.
Does its technical support function 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (often abbreviated 24/7), all year around? It's hard to accept a host which does not have staff working on weekends or public holidays. You will be surprised at how often things go wrong at the most inconvenient of times. Incidentally, just because a host advertises that it has 24/7 support does not necessarily mean that it really has that kind of support. Test them out by e-mailing at midnight and on Saturday nights, Sunday mornings, etc. Check out how long they take to respond. Besides speed of responses, check to see if they are technically competent. You wouldn't want to sign up for a host that is run by a bunch of salesmen who only how to sell and not fix problems.
FTP, PHP, Perl CGI-BIN access, SSI, .htaccess, telnet, SSH, crontabs
If you are paying for a site, you really should make sure you have all of these. Note that some commercial hosts do not allow you to install PHP or CGI scripts without their approval. This is not desirable since it means that you have to wait for them before you can implement a feature on your site. .htaccess is needed if you are to customize your error pages (pages that display when, say, a user requests for a non-existent page on your site) or to protect your site in various ways (such as to prevent bandwidth theft and hot-linking, etc). Telnet or SSH access is useful for certain things, including testing CGI scripts, maintaining databases, etc. Cron jobs may be needed for programs that you need to be run periodically (e.g. once a day). Check to see if these facilities are provided.
SSL (secure server), MySQL
If you are planning on doing any sort of business through your website, you might want to look out to see if the host provides these facilities. These facilities normally involve a higher priced package or additional charges. The main thing is to check to see if they are available at all before you commit to the host. You will definitely need SSL if you plan to collect credit card information on your site.
Email, Autoresponders, POP3, Mail Forwarding
If you have your own site, you would probably want to have email addresses at your own domain, like email@example.com, etc. Does the host provide this with the package? Does it allow you to have a catch-all email account that allows firstname.lastname@example.org to wind up being routed to you? Can you set an email address to automatically reply to the sender with a preset message (called an autoresponder)? Can you retrieve your mail with your email software? Can it be automatically forwarded to your current email address?
This is called various names by different hosts, but essentially, they all allow you to manage different aspects of your web account yourself. Typically, and at the very minimum, it should allow you to do things like add, delete, and manage your email addresses, and change passwords for your account. Who would go for a host where he'd have to go through their technical support each time to change a password or add/delete an email account? Such chores are common maintenance chores that every webmaster performs time and time again, and it would be a great hassle if you had to wait for their technical support to make the changes for you.
Subdomains, virtual hosting
For those who are thinking of having multiple domains or subdomains hosted in your account, you should look to see if they provide this, and the amount extra that they charge for this (whether it is a one-time or monthly charge, etc).
Is the type of operating system and server important? Whether you think so or not on the theoretical level, there are a few practical reasons for looking out for the type of server.
In general, if you want to use things like ASP, you have no choice but to look for a Windows NT/2000/XP machine for your server.
Otherwise it's preferable to sign up for accounts using the often cheaper, more stable and feature-laden Unix systems running the Apache server. In fact, if dynamically generated pages that can access databases (etc) is what you want, you can always use the more portable (and popular) PHP instead of tying yourself down to ASP. Another reason to prefer Unix-based web hosts (which include web hosts using systems like Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, etc) using the Apache web server is that these servers allow you to configure a lot of facilities that you typically need on your site (error pages, protecting your images, blocking email harvesters, blocking IP addresses, etc) without having to ask your web host to implement them. Knowledge about configuring Apache servers is also widely available, and can be found on many Web sites as well.
We were actually hesitant to list this, but we guess it's futile not to. However, we'd caution that while price is always a factor, you should realize that you often get what you pay for, although it's not necessarily true that the most expensive hosts are the best.
Monthly/Annual Payment Plans
Most web hosts allow you to select an annual payment plan that gives you a cheaper rate than if you were to pay monthly. But still, for many people the preference is to pay monthly with all new web hosts until they're assured of their reliability and honesty. Paying monthly allows to switch web hosts quickly when you find that the current host does not meet your requirements: this way, you're not tied down to a bad web host because you have prepaid for an entire year.
Not all hosting companies own or lease their own web servers. Some of them are actually resellers for some other hosting company. The disadvantage of using a reseller is the possibility that you are dealing with people who don't know much about the system they are selling and who take longer to help you (they have to transmit your technical support request to the actual hosting company for it to be acted upon). However, this also depends on both the reseller and the underlying hosting company. It is thus wise not to rule out all resellers; there are a number of reliable and fast ones who are actually quite good and cheap. In fact, a number of resellers sell the same packages cheaper than their original hosting company. If you find out that a particular company is a reseller, you will need to investigate both the reseller and the real hosting company.
If you don't stay in the USA, you have the option of hosting your site with some local provider. The advantage here is the ease of dealing with them (they are after all easily accessible by phone call or a visit), your familiarity with the local laws and easy recourse to those laws should it be necessary. It should be your choice if your target audience is local (e.g. a local fast food delivery service). On the other hand, hosting it in USA has the advantage of faster access for what is probably the largest number of your overseas visitors (particularly if you have an English-speaking audience). You also have a large number of hosting companies to choose from, and as a result, cheaper prices too.
Choosing a hosting plan
Many people get confused with different hosting packages from the same provider. Namely, they can not choose appropriate package and ask questions like "how many products, categories, visitors can it handle?"
It's easy to understand that all packages are served on the same hardware base so number of products and categories does not matter actually. But number of visitors do matter.
Generally it is difficult to estimate how many products or visitors a site should have as page sizes and the number of images in a page vary greatly. A user who has 5 products listed on a page will use less bandwidth than a user who has 30 products listed on every page.
Bandwidth is the amount of data transfer that you are allowed to have for a hosting package. Let's say you have a web page that is 48KB in size, now each time a user opens your site and goes to that page he downloads 48 KB of information on to their computer. If a 100 users view that page one time each then there has been a total of 4800 KB of data transferred from the server on which your files are stored for the computer of users.
Size of web Page: 48 KB
Number of users who viewed the web page: 100
Total amount of data transferred: 48KB * 100 = 4800 KB
Bandwidth is the term that is used to denote the amount of data that has been transferred from your web space.
The amount of bandwidth that you require while choosing a host depends on two factors: the size and the popularity of your site.
If your site is not very huge and you do not have any audio/video downloads and it's not very popular i.e. not a lot of people visit your site then you do not really require a lot of bandwidth, on a average a web site uses up only 500 MB of bandwidth per month. Or if your site is small but extremely popular then you might have to go for a web hosting package that offers high bandwidth.
On the other hand if your web site is huge, providing audio/video downloads, as well as being very popular then you would certainly require a huge amount of bandwidth. Let's say you have a video file that is 15 MB in size and in a single day a 100 visitors download the file. This means that 1,5 GB of bandwidth will have been used. If you multiply that by 30 days for the month it comes to 45 GB.
The Myth of the Perfect Commercial Host
In general, there's a great doubt that there are any "perfect" web hosting companies around. Note that even if you are prepared to pay a huge price for your hosting needs, it does not guarantee that your host is any good. This is an interesting industry where a high price does not necessarily yield quality hosting and support.
On the other hand, one thing you can probably be sure of is that you will not get top-notched support if you only pay (say) $10 a month. At that price, which company can afford to hire enough good help to cater to all its users?
Like everyone, you'll probably wind up settling for a trade-off between price, reliability and features that you're willing to live with.