The following suggestions are offered in a realistic, common-sense approach to web hosting. It may seem simple but it is often overlooked. When it comes to choosing an Internet hosting provider for their web sites, the majority of business owners, companies and individuals know little about making the best decisions.
What makes a good Internet web host for a business web site? What makes a bad one? How can an Internet web host help or harm your business? What are the different types of web hosting services? Which ones are best for which industries?
Here are some tips to help you make the right decisions:
1. Understand the similarities and differences between shared, co-located, VPS or Virtual Private Servers, unmanaged dedicated and managed dedicated hosting. It is crucial to understand the differences among the types of hosting offered. As the web hosting industry has matured, hosting offers have split into a few distinct categories, each with strengths and weaknesses.
Shared hosting (sometimes called virtual hosting) means that you are sharing a server with other clients of that company. The host manages the server almost completely (though you maintain your site and your account). Good hosts limit the number of customers on a server to increase performance. Some do not. Relying on review sites that present ping and uptime statistics is usually a waste of time because the results are advertiser driven.
However, companies other than your's use the resources of that server. That means heavy traffic to one of the other sites on the server can hammer the performance of your site. Also, you typically are unable to install special software programs on these types of machines because the host will need to keep a stable environment for all of the clients using the server. Software like GD Library and ImageMajick are usually standard when a server is installed.
Co-located hosting means that you buy a server from a hardware vendor, like Dell or HP, and you supply this server to the host. The web host plugs your server into its network and its redundant power systems. The host is responsible for ensuring its network is available, and you are responsible for support and maintenance of your server.
Many hosts offer management contracts to their co-location clients so that you can outsource much of the support to them and come to an arrangement similar to managed dedicated hosting. Many co-location hosts do not offer this service, however.
Unmanaged dedicated hosting is similar to co-location except that you lease a server from a host and do not own it yourself. Some limited support (typically web-based only) is included, but the level of support varies widely among unmanaged dedicated hosts.
This type of server can be had for around $99/month. Support levels typically are provided only in general terms. Ask the host to go into specifics about what support it will provide — will it apply security patches to your server? — before signing up. This service is typically good for gaming servers (like Doom or Counterstrike servers) or hobbyist servers, but not for serious businesses that need responsive, expert-level service.
Managed dedicated hosting means leasing a server from a host and having that company provide a high level of support and maintenance on the server that is backed by quality guarantees. This maintenance typically includes services such as server uptime monitoring, a hardware warranty and security patch updates.
Ensure that your managed dedicated host is specific about its managed services so that it does not disguise an unmanaged dedicated offering as a managed dedicated server. This has been known to happen, which is why it is important to do your homework and ask the right questions.
2. Ask whether your potential host's network has blacklisted IPs. To say that many hosts care little about who is hosting on their networks so long as the clients pay their bills is an unfair statement to make. I've read this before on marketing or review sites that promote their advertisers in a pseudo-review manner. They will say that many hosts will allow porn sites, spammer's and servers that create security issues on their network for the sake of the dollar. This is not the case, at least with IP management. IPs are issued by an authority higher than the web host and repeated blacklisting will cause the loss of the entire subnet. Only the most disreputable hosts won't care.
Check with hosts you are considering to see whether their networks are blacklisted. Also, here is a link to a third-party source that tracks blacklisted networks and lists them: www.spamhaus.org/sbl/isp.lasso
The following URL is a good resource to help you understand what is labeled Spam and what isn't: http://www.spamhaus.org/mailinglists.html
3. Don't confuse size with stability. Just because a web hosting company is big it does not mean it is stable and secure. Many of the biggest have filed for bankruptcy protection or were saved by being sold to another company, in some cases causing uncomfortable transitions in service for their clients. Having been involved in three acquisitions I can assure you that the receiving host will do everything in their power to keep you after the transition. Companies are bought and sold all the time. The bigger issue is not the size of the company, but the performance and reliability of their network.
How do you protect yourself? Ask some key questions:
How long has the web host been in business?
Do they operate under any other names?
Do they operate their own network or rents servers?
Are they resellers of a larger company?
None of these is necessarily bad. In fact, smaller companies are often able to offer more personalized service. If services are obtained from a comapny above the host, what you really want to know is whether or not their network is stable.
4. Don't make price your only priority. The old saying “you get what you pay for” applies to most things in life, and web hosting might be one of them. When you over-prioritize price, you might risk getting a host that provides you a connection to the Internet and little else in terms of support (and even that connection may be running at maximum capacity or have uptime issues). The reality is that web hosting has become such a commodity that one cannot evaluate a host based on price alone.
5. Ensure your web host has fully redundant data centers. When dealing with smaller vendors, ensure they have their own data centers and that those centers are fully redundant in terms of power and connectivity. Here are a few questions to ask, but I suggest that unless you know what the answers mean, asking the questions is just a waste of everyone's time. On the other hand, if you ask the host what they mean and they are willing to spend the time with you answering them -- you've found a winner.
How many lines do they have coming into the facility?
What is the average utilization of their connections? (No matter how large the connection, if it is running at maximum capacity it will be slow.)
Do they have redundant power to the servers?
Do they have a generator on-site?
How often do they test their generator?
What sort of security measures do they have for the network?
What physical security do they have?
What type of fire suppression systems do they have?
6. Find out whether they have actual experienced systems administrators on their support staff. When you call in for technical support, it can be frustrating to be stuck talking with a non-technical “customer service” representative when you really need to talk to a systems administrator who can resolve your issues. But keep in mind that especially with shared hosting it is your responsibility to know enough about web hosting to manage your site and not the responsibility of the host. The host is responsible for the physical functioning of the hardware and hosting software.
If you have managed services find out the structure of the support department, how quickly you can reach a systems administrator when you need to and which systems administrators can help you when you need help.
7. Ensure the host is flexible. It is important that the web hosting provider understands how important quality servers are to its clients' businesses. Even most managed dedicated hosts will not go near supporting applications that are not part of the initial server setup. Find a host with vast experience to support a variety of applications, and one that can bring that expertise to you through its services. Refer back to section 6 where we talked about the responsibility of the host versus your responsibilities. If, for example, you have written a custom application, you should not expect the host to support it in any way. The same applies to applications installed by auto-installers, like Calendar, or phpBB. These applications are best supported by their developers.
8. Find out what former/current clients say about them. Can your prospective web host provide you with success stories for clients with similar configurations to yours? Can it provide references from clients who can tell you about their experience using that company? These are great questions to ask but I can tell you from experience that you will never be given a story about failure.
9. Ensure the host's support doesn't include extra charges. Ensure that any host you consider provides you with a comprehensive list outlining the support it offers so you understand what is supported for free, what is supported at a fee and what is not supported at all. Some hosts try to hide a sub-standard level of free support behind non-specific statements of high-quality support, so make them get specific to win your business.
Web hosting is a commodity and presents the challenge of common-sense to both the customer and the host. We recommend being prepared for this. By this we mean that one should not expect extreme above and beyond support and free services when you are only willing to pay $5 a month for hosting. On the other hand, if you select a hosting company that charges $20 a month but is guaranteeing in writing a much higher standard of support, then it is reasonable to expect that they deliver.