Selecting A Web Host
It doesn't matter how much time you might spend writing decent content for your website, optimising your code or dedicating hours to producing quality services or information, if you can't find a stable platform to host your site then most of that time is wasted.
It's a sad but true fact that the web hosting industry is one of the few that has almost no regulation. Unlike applying for an account with a new bank, hiring a lawyer or gas fitter, there's very little protection for the consumer in the hosting industry and as a result, people finding their website and data have vanished without any guaranteed process for being compensated is pretty much a daily occurance. The points I'll cover below are not meant as a complete and foolproof guide to prevent you from being left stranded, but they hopefully give you a fighting chance.
I may at some point expand on this article. For now we'll talk about resources, location, finding a real company, domain registration and special requirements.
What do you really need?
This is where we cover one of the most commonly used terms in web host marketing .. 'unlimited'. As an active member of one of the web's largest hosting related communities, most days I come across people looking for web hosts that offer things such as 'unlimited space' and 'unlimited bandwidth'. I can actually understand those requests in most cases, unlimited sounds perfect right? surely it means you never have to worry about increasing the costs to host your site as it grows, you can pay x amount per month and no matter how many files you upload to your site, or how many visitors it starts to get, you never need pay more, but stop there .. let's put some logic around this for a moment.
You're reading this from some type of web-connected device. It might be a desktop PC, laptop, netbook, even a smartphone. Whatever it is, it'll have a limited capacity for the amount of data or files it can store (hard drive, flash media card etc.) and eventually, it'll get full. Server hard drives are really no different to what's in your PC, they might spin a little quicker, you might be able to pull one out and replace it with the server still running, but they still only hold a limited amount of data. Imagine pouring water into a bucket, at some point it'll be full so if you want to hold more water, somebody needs to buy another bucket. Unless your host is a charity, there's only so many buckets they will be willing to buy on a fixed income before they start losing money.
Bandwith is not much different, just a little harder to explain in such simple terms. The more people that visit your website, the more data that is transferred across your site and it's underlying network. The amount of data that can be pushed across that network in any given time without additional cost to those running the network is also limited, a little like the connection or download limits imposed by your ISP.
In short, unlimited storage and bandwidth are just marketing terms used to draw you in. The reason many hosts can get away with this is because the vast majority of their customers will only ever use a minimal amount of each, and you'll normally also find that these hosts protect themselves with an 'acceptable usage policy' meaning they might say 'unlimited' but hidden in the small print they determine the real limit, at which point they will probably kick you off the network.
Enough about the term unlimited, my point is there's not really any such thing (in storage and bandwidth terms at least) so as a starting point you should sit down and identify what you really need. What amount of space will files that you're uploading to your site from day one need? add 50% to this if you want to allow for growth, but use that number as a starting point to identify what your actual needs are. Bandwidth again is a little harder to calculate, if your site is already online you should be able to calculate this, and as with the storage requirement, add some headroom for growth. If your website is new, no matter how great you believe your service or product to be, the reality is you're probably not going to see thousands of visitors a day from the start. If you're not offering large files for download, or streaming music or video then from day one, your bandwidth requirements are more than likely to be minimal.
If the above made sense, then hopefully by now you have a good idea of the storage and bandwidth requirements you actually need. If you still feel that your site will be the next Google, Facebook or Twitter and 'unlimited' still appeals to you then keep reading regardless, any decent webhost will have the ability to grow as your site does, so you can still start out with a realistic request
A brief point, but now you know what resources you're going to need, please spare a thought to your visitors. Whilst this isn't a golden rule as performance depends on the quality of the hardware and network your site is on more than anything, if you know that the majority of your visitors will be from the UK for example then it makes little sense to host your site on a US infrastructure. The opposite is true also, if your target audience is in the US, a server in Europe is probably not going to be your best bet.
There are other benefits to picking the right location also, at least in terms of where the host is based. If your visitors are going to be split across various countries, you might want to find a host who's based locally to you. This at least means that even if they are offering 24/7 support, their 'office hours', and times when you might want a quick response for billing or general account requests are inline with the times you're awake.
Don't get too hung up on this point, just don't ignore it either, especially if your visitors are going to be limited to a specific region.
Finding a real company
Going back to my point earlier about there being almost no regulation in the hosting industry. A big downside to this is that almost anybody can start a hosting 'business', and it takes a very minimal amout to do so. This is where a little research into the credibility of hosts you might be looking at can help. Do you really want to trust your website to a sixteen year old child running their services on pocket money, and only around to help you in the few hours after school? they do exist, and I can assure you there are plenty of them. Below are a few points you can look out for to at least try and ensure your website is in the hands of a real company.
- Are they actually a business, and registered as such in their country of operation? - Use local services (such as companies house in the UK) to confirm the business name, check if they exist and are listed as actually trading.
- Do they list a phone number and trading address on their website? - The kids in their bedrooms and fly-by-night companies usually wont. Call the number, see if it works.
- Does their website make sense? - By this I mean have a good read through, keep an eye out for spelling and grammatical errors. Any serious company would get this right, even it means paying somebody to proof read their site and fix any errors.
A few quick notes on the above. Please bear in mind that for the third point, there can be slight differences between UK and US english for example. Also note that as per the article introduction, none of the above is an absolute guarantee of trouble free services. A registered business with a phone number, address and perfectly crafted website can still fail when it comes to delivering what you pay for, and sadly, sometimes they do.
There's only one point I will cover here, as anything else I can say about domain names doesn't really relate to choosing a home for your website.
Keep your domain host (registrar) and web host apart. Most web hosts will offer domain registration, and it might seem more convenient to transact both at once, but should you end up with a host that does suddenly go offline and they also control your domain name, then getting back online quickly becomes more of a challenge. This approach doesn't just give you better ability to move your site elsewhere if needed, there will also be no disputes over who actually owns the domain - some hosts that offer domain names with their packages will sometimes call on small print to keep your domain if you decide to move.
We're nearly at the point where you should have a few ideas on what to consider, and what to avoid when selecting a host. Before I wrap up, it's also worth taking some time to understand if your site has any special requirements in regards to server configuration, operating system etc.
If your site will be driven by one of the common CMS or forum scripts such as Wordpress, Drupal, phpBB, vBulletin etc. then most shared hosting environments in their standard configuration will be fine. That said, there's never any harm in checking beforehand that the minimum requirements of your chosen script will be met - this is also a great excuse to fire off some pre-sales questions and test host response times. If instead your site has been specifically developed and isn't something that's available 'out of the box', you might have more specific needs. In these cases make sure you provide as much detail as possible about your code and it's requirements. If something doesn't work on a specific platform, and you didn't check first then you can't usually blame your host. Remember that some compatibility issues cannot be fixed!
On occasions where issues can be fixed, you might just need some changes to the hosts standard configuration. Most decent web hosts will be happy to accommodate these, just note there will always be some exceptions. If a change would impact the security of a shared hosting environment for example, you can't expect it to be done. If this is the case, you should hopefully be given some detail around what the issue would be that'll help you move forward, rather than just a 'we don't support that' type response.
I've only started to scratch the surface here of what can be a complex and confusing industry with hundreds of options, and thousands of web hosts .. some good, some bad and some in-between. I hope that at least you can take away a few useful points to consider and if so, you'll have a fighting chance of finding a home for your site that'll serve you well for years.
If you're still just as confused, are struggling to find something that meets your needs, or simply want a useful resource for finding reviews and experiences of hosts on your short-list then it's worth paying a visit to webhostingtalk.com. Any answers to host related questions you can't find on those forums, are probably not worth knowing.