A website needs a place to run so it’s available to public all over the world. That place is called a web server. A web server is basically a powerful computer, on which website’s files and databases are stored and processed.
Web hosting is a service that allows you to store those files and databases onto those web servers.
This service is usually provided by big companies who own multiple web servers in places called data centres. There are also companies that only resell this service, they don’t own the actual equipment but are often a better option in terms of customer support and price.
Types of web hosting
What kind of web hosting you need is very much dependent on the type, size and expected traffic to your website.
For a simple, personal site, which you don’t expect to attract too many visitors, you’ll do fine with shared hosting. It’s usually well priced package that offers a decent amount of space to store your website’s files. This sort of service very often includes an option to create an email address with your domain name after the @ symbol. This is good if your website is a business one, hotmail or yahoo mailboxes just don’t cut it if you’re serious about your company.
Shared hosting pros:
- easy to use
- comes with one-click installation scripts for WordPress, Drupal, Joomla
- some packages offer visual web building tools
Shared hosting cons:
- limited/restrictive computing resources
- no option to customise scripting variables (such as maximum file upload size).
- server is usually used by hundreds of other websites, which is a security as well as performance problem.
Virtual Private Server Hosting
A significant step up from shared hosting, suitable for larger, high traffic sites or for sites with special requirements. A VPS is a lot more expensive but it does have its advantages (and a few disadvantages, of course).
This service comes either as managed or non-managed. The main difference is that with non-managed VPS you are on your own when it comes to VPS installation, configuration and troubleshooting. Non-managed VPS is usually a lot cheaper than its managed counterpart but if something stops working you have to fix it, or pay a pretty high fee to someone who will do it for you.
VPS hosting pros:
- guaranteed resources
VPS hosting cons:
- higher price
- requires technical knowledge (non-managed option)
Dedicated Server Hosting
If you need complete control and maximum performance for your website, dedicated server is the way to go. It’s a pricey option but given the boost in speed and fully customisable web service environment this is actually a good value. And in many cases a lot cheaper than a comparable virtual private server. As with a non-managed VPS, you will need technical skills or someone with those to manage your machine.
Apart from the obvious advantages (computing power, security), there is another advantage that can make a difference: uplink connection speed, which is how fast the connection to the internet is. We’re talking uplink speeds of 100mbit/s and faster. To put it into perspective, most shared hosting packages limit you to 10mbit/s. There are even providers out there that offer connection speeds of 250 or 500 mbit/s.
Dedicated Server Hosting Pros
- computing power and speed
- flexibility in terms of server and hosting service configuration
- guaranteed/dedicated resources
Dedicated Server Hosting Cons
- requires technical skills to install/manage/troubleshoot (for non-managed service)
- usually expensive, but still good value for money compared to similar spec VPS machine
- additional hardware or services may be needed if load balancing or server redundancy is required
Most people who really want to keep the costs low (and don’t mind some limitations) would choose the shared hosting option. It is a great starter point, at a reasonably low price.
Other Web Hosting Types
The above services are the main ones on the market. There are other services to choose from: cloud hosting, mail only hosting, etc. There is also a special hosting service which revolves around a very popular content management system called WordPress.
WordPress hosting is optimised for WordPress and nothing else (no emails, no web builder, etc.) so your website is really fast, with minimum downtime. It is slightly more expensive but then again, you get a great service and you don’t have to learn to work with a web hosting panel since your WordPress site is installed for you.
What to look for
The number of web hosting companies is growing very quickly. Their offers are often very complex. Most of them try to impress with technical terms and numbers, making it even harder for a novice to actually make a decision. So, what to look for?
Good customer service
Surprisingly enough, technical specifications are not the most important thing to check. It’s the customer service. Without a timely and helpful customer service your task of creating and managing a website can prove very difficult. You want to make sure that when you hit a road block, encounter a problem, the customer service is there for you no matter the hour of a day, and ideally responds within minutes or within an hour at worst.
Some companies respond within one hour but a typical response time is 24 hours, some of them let you wait a lot longer. And some of them don’t do support on weekends.
Service Uptime Guarantee
Always check for the uptime guarantees. Most companies declare 99.99% uptime, which basically means that the amount of time your website may be down/inaccessible due to failures or planned maintenance is about 5 minutes a month. Five minutes may not look like much but for super-busy e-commerce websites this could be a loss generating problem.
Pricing for Year Two and Onwards
It is a common practice that web hosting companies offer a significantly discounted hosting service for first year. They often include a ‘free’ domain name or other extras. But when it comes to year two and onwards, the prices can be a lot higher.
What You Get for Your Money
Obviously, you want to get a good deal for your hard earned cash but —as the saying goes— you get what you pay for. Well, in most cases, anyway. That being said, a cheap web hosting package is not necessarily a bad one. At the same time, an expensive service can turn out to be very, very bad.
Check how much space you get (for a small website you shouldn’t need more than 2GB), check if emails are included, or if there are one-click installers for popular content management software such as WordPress, Joomla, etc. They’re a great help if you have no idea how to install those yourself.
Watch for money back guarantees. Also, before you subscribe to a package, read the reviews, search discussion boards, or consult friends or colleagues who already run their website for some time.