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Web hosting options 101

First, a brief explanation of what web hosting is for those who would rather not pay attention to such things. When you want to start a website you need to do a few things, like choose a catchy domain name, decide what you want your website to look like and what you want it to say, who is going to design it for you, and lastly, where you are going to ‘host’ your site. You can’t just leave your great web design on your designer’s computer – it has to go somewhere so that other people can see it.

That’s where web hosting comes in. There are as many choices as there are differing opinions on which company you should go with, how much it should cost, and what kinds of options you need. It’s a little overwhelming, even for those of us who do it all the time. You can get away with spending just a few dollars a month, all the way up to several hundred. The choice should be solidly based on how secure your site needs to be, how much traffic you expect, how complicated your content is, and whether you need features like email accounts thrown in. This article is my feeble attempt to help you sort through the mess and make a decision that is right for your business and your website.

Hosting companies

You have probably heard horror stories about various hosting companies, especially GoDaddy. The company that you ultimately decide to go with is entirely up to you, but there are a few considerations that are very important.
  • How long have they been in business? You don’t want to go with a start up company, only to have them shut down six months later. That would leave you with the costly process of moving your site to a server with a different company.
  • How is their tech support? This is critical. Nine times out of ten you will need them at night or on the weekend. Are they there? How long are the hold times? How knowledgeable and responsive are they? Can you actually call, or do you have to email or chat?
  • What is their reputation for security and reliability? You don’t want your site continuously going down, nor do you want it to be hacked (more on that in a minute).
  • How much do they charge? You really do get what you pay for when it comes to hosting companies.
  • What is their infrastructure like? Are they using servers from the 1990’s with all kinds of limits on memory, bandwidth and disk space? If so, move on.
  • What plan options to they offer (see below)? If you don’t see the plan that you probably need they obviously aren’t a good match.

Hosting plans

Your budget for your web hosting should actually be one of the lower priorities when it comes to choosing a hosting plan. More important are considerations like the speed, security, reliability, memory, disk space and other features that your site needs.
  • A barebones shared hosting plan is fine for sites that don’t have a lot of pages, don’t change much, and don’t have high traffic. These plans often have free email accounts available and maybe even a free domain. The cost is usually between $4-$20 per month. The downside is that you are sharing a server with hundreds of other websites, which makes your site more vulnerable to security breaches and it also results in more downtime when traffic spikes. Sites that are running software like WordPress or Joomla on shared servers require vigilance to ensure that they are constantly updated. These plans always come with some sort of control panel to make it easy to upload files, add software, manage databases and set up email accounts.
  • Virtual private servers are the next step up. They are generally much more expensive ($25 to $150 per month), and you will need to be comfortable with performing many server administrator tasks yourself. These plans are good for businesses running online stores, sites with lots of content that changes often, and higher traffic. The servers are still shared with other sites, but not nearly as many as the shared servers. You have more control over the server’s software, configuration, backups and security.
  • If you want to go all out you can get a dedicated server plan. In this case, the ‘box’ (server) is yours only, which also means that it is yours to maintain and you have to be a web geek to operate it. These plans are for websites with tons of traffic, lots of content, and strong security needs. Plans can run as high as several hundred dollars a month.

Hosting plan features

After you decide which type of plans is best for your website you’ll need to decide which one to put in your shopping cart based on the features that are available with each plan. Here are some of the options decoded.
  • Linux or Windows? I usually recommend Linux, unless you are running .asp pages or an Access database.
  • How many websites can you run? The basic shared hosting plans usually only allow you to run one website. If you anticipate running more than one site choose a higher plan that will allow that.
  • Memory/disk space/bandwidth are often unlimited for shared hosting plans, or they don’t even mention it. Again, you will need to decide how much traffic you anticipate and what your disk space needs are so that you can make an informed decision. The pricing for virtual private and dedicated servers are based on memory, CPUs available, disk space and bandwidth. You can start by signing up for the lowest plan and then upgrade in the future if necessary.
The bottom line: While it’s good to be informed about your web hosting options, your web designer is your best resource for signing up for a plan that works for you.

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