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What is web hosting?

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Web hosting provides space and access for your website on the Internet

Before visitors can view your website, it must be published on a webserver. This is done by uploading all the files of your website. Webpages are made up of HTML and JavaScript, and images and videos and fonts. All of these must be uploaded to your web host so that they can be accessed by your visitors. A web hosting service provides the space for these files, and allows them to be accessed over the Internet.

How to choose a web host

Your web hosting service thus plays an important role, in how well your website will function. Everything from the servers and hardware that are used to the software that is implemented can affect the browsing experience of your web visitors. When considering how to choose a web host that is right for you, it’s in your best interest to take into account what features and capabilities are provided. Although you may not use everything that is available today, the website’s popularity may prompt you to expand and upgrade later.

Operating System

When it comes to hosting websites on the Internet, there are two main operating systems to select from: Windows and Linux. Both of these platforms work well for displaying content to viewers, but they have significant differences in functionality. If you’re not planning on doing much more than a basic blog, then the operating system may hold little concern when choosing a web host provider.

linux or windows logos

Windows

The Windows-based web platform is engineered for ease of use. A lot of online applications support this operating system making it easy to expand and upgrade. However, it’s believed that Windows also utilizes more resources than that of its counterpart. This means that the system doesn’t run as efficiently as it could. The trade off for this decreased efficiency is the ease of use and compatibility.

Linux

Linux operated websites are some of the most common on the Internet due to it’s effective use of hardware. This operating system is less constrictive on computer resources allowing sites to offer higher performance. Although branded software designed for Windows will not work on Linux, alternative similar apps and open source projects are common giving this system a wide berth of compatible software.

Which web hosting operating system is right for me?

What it really boils down to is how you plan on using your website. If you’re getting involved in app programs or work with developers that use a certain programming language, then the choice between Windows and Linux will be based on your immediate needs. However, the difference in functionality may be insignificant if your only looking for the basics of web design and operation. Many people often let the web hosting company choose which is best when they set up a blog or other low-traffic site. If you need to choose, Linux is an all round safe bet, unless you know that you need something offered by Windows, such as ASP.NET or Microsoft SQL Server. If you are just setting up a simple WordPress blog, or a Drupal site, or which uses any kind of a PHP site software, then Linux will do the job for you.

What is uptime?

Websites operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week. When a site goes down for any reason, visitors cannot access the content. While web hosting companies work diligently to keep the system operational, problems do arise. Downtime can occur due to faulty hardware, DDOS or hacker attacks, damage to hardware due to fire or flood, network connectivity issues, or even planned maintenance of hardware. Keeping a website up and running 100% of the time is extremely difficult, so you will see a lot of 99%, 99.5%, and 99.9% uptime guarantees. The more critical uptime is to your business the higher the uptime guarantee you should be seeking. Each extra “9” added to a 99.99% uptime will cost you!

An organization that can offer a guaranteed uptime can reduce your losses. This is especially beneficial if you’re setting up an eCommerce site or web-based application that relies on continued functionality for your business to make money.

Types of hosting available

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting is one of the more common methods for website hosting. It is also the cheapest, and least reliable. This is when several website owners are sharing a single server including all resources such as CPU, memory and drive space. This is the most cost efficient as all of the different website owners share in the operational expenses of the single server. However, you can suffer from “bad neighbour syndrome”: if another website is sharing the same webhost as your site, and if it is very busy, then it will hog the CPU and RAM and network bandwidth of the web host, resulting in poor performance for all the other websites on the host. The result of this will be that all sites will load very slowly.

There are also security risks with this kind of hosting. If one of the other websites gets hacked, or infected with malware, then it is very likely that the other websites on the same webhost will also be infected since the all run on the same computer. And if there is a DDOS attack on one of the sites, then, again, they are all affected because they share the same resource.

This type of hosting should only be used for small sites that are not expecting much traffic.

Dedicated Hosting

For those that rely on maximum performance and an ultimately secured platform, dedicated hosting provides that functionality. In this environment, a single person leases an entire server eliminating resource use by other website owners. This means that 100 percent of the system is operating for your purposes alone. This also gives you full control of the machine, so that it can be configured any way you like, with whatver software, or modules and as little or as much security as you want. Dedicated servers are also one of the most expensive hosting options.

VPS Hosting

A Virtual Private Servers, or VPS, is a virtual machine running on top of a real machine. Several VPS servers may run on a single real server machine. A VPS runs its own separate copy of the operating system on its own separate space on the host server, and so can be treated as if it is really a separate computer. This means it has the advantages of a dedicated server in terms of having full control over the machine, but not the cost. The drawback is that performance will not be as good as a dedicated server, but it is far better than shared hosting. The main difference between VPS and shared hosting is that each VPS runs an entirely separate operating system instance inside its own virtual machine, whereas on a shared host, only one single operating system runs which is shared by all the websites.

Cloud Hosting

Instead of relying on a single server to host a website, the Cloud alternative utilizes a network of machines to provide the content. A single account could be spread out across many different servers which could include those in other cities or even countries. This provides reliability, scaling of size and faster recovery times in the event of a disaster.

Server Specifications

The hardware within the hosting server will play a profound impact in the website’s functionality. Things such as processing power, memory, hard drives and network connectivity will determine if your site loads quickly or not. This is then further affected if you’re using a shared server. It’s possible that an older dedicated server could outperform a newer shared server because of the load on this hardware.

HDD vs SSD

One of the latest hardware technologies to come webservers is the Solid State Drive (SSD) which is a mass storage device like a traditional Hard Disk Drive (HDD), but without any moving components. This means it’s much faster to read and write to SSDs, and this results in faster load times for webpages hosted on a webserver with an SSD. SSDs are more expensive per GB for hosting, so you should decide whether space or speed is more important to you. Image or video-heavy site will require more hard disk space than a mostly text-based site.

ssd

RAM

RAM is important too. The amount of RAM will affect how fast the site will load. Higher is better. The amount of RAM offered with any hosting package can vary from a few hundred MBs on shared hosting accounts, to 32GB or more on dedicated servers.

Managed or unmanaged hosting?

One of the most important differences between managed and unmanaged web hosting is the level of support that is offered. Managed accounts often include software support, problem solving or various tasks beyond basic maintenance. Unmanaged accounts are usually cheaper, but they don’t offer anything more than keeping the hardware intact. For example, a managed web hosting provider may give assistance installing and setting up WordPress on your site. An unmanaged provider doesn’t offer that help as it has nothing to do with the direct functionality of the hosting server.

Managed hosting providers often include backups as part of the service. These are usually automated and can be greatly beneficial in terms of recovery if something happens to the site. Unmanaged accounts require this backup be done by yourself.

In many situations, unmanaged hosting providers do not automatically upgrade software beyond the basic functionality of the server. Any additional apps that you put onto your site will be your responsibility for regular maintenance. Managed providers will often keep third-party applications updated.

When moving your site from one provider to another, managed hosting companies will assist in migrating the data. If you don’t know how sites operate or the importance of keeping a data table intact, this can be difficult. Many unmanaged providers do not offer this migration assistance.

The Control Panel

Most web hosting providers of a Control Panel option on most of their offerings. Control Panels, such as Parallels Plesk, or cPanel, offer a web based interface for server and website management. For multi-domain hosting packages, control panel functionality will allow you to easily set up and provision new hosting accounts. Control panel functions for single websites enables site adminitration task such as uploading files, setting passwords on directories, setting up databases, managing email accounts, and even installing web server applications, such as CMSs like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and e-commerce sites like ZenCart and OSCommerce. Ease of use from the control panel could play a role in finding the right hosting services—cPanel and Plesk make setting up the website much easier for those without a lot of experience.

plesk-wordpress-drupal

Server location

The actual location of the web hosting hardware will affect accessibility for your target audience. For example, a host located in Europe will have slower access times from users located in the United States. The closer the server is located to the target audience, the faster the access becomes, so be sure choose a host that is geographically close to the target audience location.

Hosting costs

Most web hosting companies offer variable costs depending on the services you need. Usually, you’ll pay a bit more if you pay for hosting month-to-month. However, a single payment per year could greatly reduce the cost of the hosting service over the span of 12 months. For example, you’d save $36 if you paid $108 per year rather than $12 per month. The drawback is in flexibility, limiting your ability to move web host mid-contract unless you forfeit your payment.

Reputation of the hosting company

Finally, one of the most important aspects to web hosting is that of the company’s reputation. Customer service goes a long way with a lot of people, and a company that is easy to approach and helpful is ideal in almost any situation. This is often depicted in testimonials and reviews regarding each organization. Support and contact information should be easily identified in the event you need further assistance. in many cases, even the time the company has been in business could signify a level of success. The organization must be doing something right if people are still using the services over a long period of time.

By now you should have a good idea of what web hosting is. How to choose a web host will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish and the skill level of the site developer. While a basic blog might not need all of the bells-and-whistles, an e-commerce site may require constant upgrades and scaling to remain successful over time. Cost doesn’t always have to be a factor if you’re planning on developing a site with potential to be immensely popular.

Main image: Andrew Hart
Content image:Nicholas Erwin