You’ve got your new business all established now and you’re ready to take the next step and set up a website to tell the online world that you’re here and you’ve got something to offer. You’ve found a catchy domain name to call your own and now… what next? Well, the answer is that you need to find web hosting for the website you’re going to build. So what does that mean and how do you figure out what kind of web hosting you need? First let’s start with the basics.
Just what is web hosting anyway?
In simple terms, web hosting is renting space on a web server. A website is not simply a domain name, it is a collection of files linked together by HTML code to display text and graphics on a computer. In order for anybody to see this collection of files you’ve created, it has to be housed on a computer somewhere that has access to the internet. Not just any computer will do, of course. A web server is a computer set up with special software that allows it to receive requests from the internet for the website files it has stored on it and to send those files out over the internet so that the requesting computer can display them. It is very much like a waiter in a restaurant taking your order and bringing the food that you ask for from the kitchen, hence the name “server.”
Along with making sure your files can be seen by internet users around the world, a web server provides other important services as well. First and foremost is the ability to create email addresses based on your domain name and to send and receive email with them. The web server also has various types of software installed on it that allow your website to run programs, create and manage databases, display video, and many other functions you might find useful. Almost any type of computer can function as a web server, but it’s the software that’s on it that makes it a server.
When you buy webhosting, the monthly fee you pay goes to the continued maintenance and upgrading of the server’s hardware and software, the cost of keeping it online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in a secure data center with a fast and powerful internet connection, and to pay for the expertise of the people who do all that work. It is completely possible to turn your own home or office computer into a web server if you really want to, but in most cases it is far more economical to pay someone else who is dedicated to providing this service in a properly reliable manner than it is to try and do it yourself.
What kinds of web hosting are there?
Shared Hosting – Most websites are not huge affairs with hundreds of pages and thousands of files and graphics, and they are targeted toward a particular audience, so they will not get as many visitors as the large general sites like Yahoo! that are targeted at everybody who uses the internet. As such, the average website therefore is not going to require the full resources of an entire web server to run it. Web servers are designed to be able to handle dozens, even hundreds of websites at once because they are powerful machines.
Shared hosting is simply the concept of hosting more than one website on a particular server. Over 95% of all websites on the internet are being run in a shared hosting environment. Since the resources of the server can be split among the clients hosted on it, so can the costs of operating the server, so shared hosting is universally cheaper than any other type. Shared hosting packages are generally designed so that each client is allotted a certain amount of each resource, with different payment levels representing different amounts of resources such as disk space, bandwidth, email addresses, and so on. Shared hosting is also known as virtual hosting.
Dedicated Hosting – If you do have a big, powerful website that gets lots of visitors and has a tendency to hog resources, then you might want to have a web server all to yourself. Some companies also prefer the extra security of not having to share the server with anyone else who could do something accidentally or on purpose to crash it. Renting the use of an entire server is known as dedicated hosting. The web hosting company still owns the machine and takes responsibility for maintaining the hardware and the web hosting software, but you have greater control over the configuration and use of the server. There is also such a thing as semi-dedicated hosting, in which a web server is only split between a very small number of clients, such as 2 to 4, with strong partitions between each to prevent them from interfering with one another. Since the hosting company is still responsible for the upkeep of the server, this type of hosting is also known as managed hosting. For obvious reasons, dedicated hosting always costs significantly more than shared hosting.
Server Co-Location – If you really want complete control over every aspect of your web server, you might very well choose to buy one and maintain it yourself if you have sufficient knowledge. However, chances are that you still don’t have the resources to keep your server completely safe from power outages, roof leaks, thieves, unwary employees and other hazards and keep it on the internet on a fast, high-bandwidth connection at all times. You need a data center to provide those services for you. Co-location is the rental of physical security, continuous electrical power and a fast, reliable internet connection for a server that you own. The data center is not responsible for any of the hardware or software maintenance of a co-located server, you are. This can be a cheaper alternative to dedicated hosting if you have the necessary expertise and time to run a web server yourself.
Some web hosts are offering UNIX hosting and Windows hosting. What’s the difference?
The terms UNIX hosting and Windows hosting refer to the operating system (OS) that is running on the server. The operating system, of course, is the software that allows the computer to function and manage all of the other hardware and software that is installed on it. Chances are good that you are reading this on a computer running a version of the Windows operating system, the most popular operating system in the world for personal and business computers. Other operating systems that are growing in popularity are Macintosh and various versions of Linux. However, the operating system you use on your computer is irrelevant to which type of hosting you choose. Here are some of the main features of UNIX and Windows:
Most of the web servers in the world today run on one of the many variants of UNIX. The UNIX operating system was originally developed by universities for servers and networking, and many different versions have been written by programmers around the world under the open-source protocol, which means that the code for the operating system is openly available for programmers to customize and make improvements. Linux and BSD are the most popular forms of UNIX and come in many varieties, such as Red Hat Linux, Debian, SuSE, and FreeBSD. Most of these different versions (and much of the software that runs on them) can be obtained for free, which makes UNIX hosting cheaper for a web host than other operating systems and allows them to offer lower prices. UNIX hosting platforms are generally considered to be stable, secure, powerful and fast. Most web programming applications can be performed by software that is available for a UNIX platform. “UNIX hosting” has become a generic term to refer to any platform that is derived from the original UNIX.
Microsoft has developed its own operating system for servers as a special version of its Windows operating system, Windows Server 2003. It is a commercial product which requires the operator to purchase a license, which increases the cost of operation for the web host and usually results in higher hosting prices. Windows is designed to be user friendly, but it is generally considered to be less powerful and secure than UNIX for operating in a network environment. ASP, ASP.NET, and ColdFusion are scripting languages which will only run on a Windows server, as will the Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Access database programs. These are popular for certain web programming applications, and if you are planning on using them to build your website, you will need to find a Windows host.
What are some of the terms I need to know when I choose a web host?
Disk Space or Storage – Because your website is a collection of files being offered on the internet for viewing, they have to be stored somewhere for retrieval and take up space. Each web server has a finite amount of hard disk memory to divide up and offer to hosting customers. Typically that space is divided up by different package levels so that the more you pay, the more space you are allowed to store pictures, web pages, videos and whatever other files you like on the web server’s hard drive. If your website gets bigger than the space you are given, you will need to purchase more disk space from the web host.
Bandwidth or Data Transfer – Whenever you visit a website and view a page, you are transferring a copy of the files that make up that page over the internet from the web server to your computer. If the page you are viewing consists of an HTML file that is 3KB in size and three pictures of 47KB, 100KB and 250 KB, then you have just used 400KB of bandwidth or data transfer, because that is the total amount of data you just downloaded from the web server to view that page. Bandwidth is a commodity like disk space that the web host has to buy from its internet service provider, so it too is divided up and offered to the customers in specific amounts. Bandwidth amounts are usually measured in gigabytes (GB), because while only one copy of your files needs to be stored on the server, thousands or even millions of copies may be downloaded for viewing. If your website is viewed more times than the amount of bandwidth you are allowed can handle, your website may be turned off until the next billing period starts, or you may simply be billed for the excess amount used, depending on your host’s policies. You can always purchase more bandwidth as your site’s traffic increases.
Uptime – In an ideal world, every web server would be up and running and offering your web pages to the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week forever. However, web servers are computers, and like any other computer, things happen to make them fail, or they get old and out of date and require maintenance and repair. When a web host gives you a 99% uptime guarantee, they are saying that the web server will be up and running for 99% of the billing period. If they fail to meet this guarantee, most web hosts will refund a certain portion of your money depending on the amount of excess downtime they experienced.
Traffic Statistics – Website traffic statistics programs try to track visitors to your website. They can track how many times your site was visited, how many visitors were unique and how many returned more than once, which pages were most popular, where the visitors came to your site from, what search terms they used in the search engines, and many other types of information which could be useful to you in marketing your website to a target audience. These statistics can be displayed in tables, graphs and charts by hour, day, week, month or year. Some statistics programs are better than others and offer more types of data, better displays, easier navigation or other useful features. Most web hosts today offer some sort of traffic statistics software with their hosting packages.
CGI Scripts – Many web hosts offer a variety of free CGI scripts with their packages. These are things like hit counters, guestbooks, form mail programs, message boards, and other programs that allow your website to perform commonly desired functions. You can use the ones your host provides you with or you can upload and run custom CGI scripts written by yourself or somebody else to perform different tasks like conducting a survey or processing customer information to produce an automatic price quote. Most CGI scripts are written in common programming languages like Perl, PHP or ASP.
You could spend a long time trying to learn everything there is to know about web hosting, but if you’ve read this far then you should be armed with the basic knowledge you need to understand what different web hosts are offering you. Your next task is to figure out what you need and go out and find a host that wants to give it to you at a great price!