Part 3: How to choose the best web hosting company for your needs
Summary: In this section we are going to help you choose the right hosting solution. We'll talk about different types of web hosting, show how to choose the right hosting plan, and finally clear up any confusion you may have.
Web hosting server types
We previously discussed the different types of operating systems, but there is more to learn. We are now going to take a look at different hosting types that are offered. Like we've briefly mentioned in Part 1, hosting can be roughly separated in following categories: shared, VPS and dedicated servers. These options differ by the server space size and hardware packages, unlike previous Windows and Linux choices.
On a shared server you share space with other users. It is the equivalent of doing your business at a farmers market, meaning that you have some restrictions and what you do may affect others and vice versa. However, it is cheaper than a dedicated server and everything you need for a small business website is included in the plan. The price of a shared hosting plan is very affordable and may vary between $5 and $15 with the good providers.
Virtual private server
A “virtual private server” (VPS) is a hybrid of dedicated and shared servers, but you can also look at it as a higher class of shared server. It is equivalent of having your business in a mall. Unlike shared servers, where you share all of the resources, a VPS is divided into sections and each website resides within its assigned section. Each section is separated and they act independently of one another. Pricing is somewhere in between dedicated and shared hosting (from $15 to $100) and might be a good solution if you run a high traffic website.
Dedicated servers are the easiest to explain. They are, as their name says, dedicated. It is a physical server that you do not share with anyone else and no one else has access to. You can host one or more websites, it is up to you. It is the equivalent of having your own business on your own piece of land. They are the most powerful option, you can do virtually anything, but also the most expensive option, ranging from $50 to $2,000 per month. Unlike the other options you will need to have some IT skills, or hire someone who has them, because everything you do with your website is up to you.
- Cloud hosting essentially means that multiple servers are joined together to provide better and faster hosting performance. Having cloud hosting means that websites load faster and their workload is balanced. There is a small question of security for the most conscious users, because multiple websites share the same cloud. However, for the majority of users, the pros outweigh the cons.
- Colocated hosting is similar to dedicated hosting, it literally means co-located hosting. It allows you to place your own server on the service provider's location. It is the same as having a server in your own office, but located in a place specifically designed for servers.
- Managed hosting is almost the same as the dedicated hosting. You get your own server; the only difference is that you do not have full control over it. This way service providers prevent users from potentially changing configuration or modifying the server. But don't worry, you can still manage all of your data.
- Reseller hosting is where you (as a client) can become a web host yourself. What it means is that you buy a provider's services and sell them (for a profit) to third party. This option can include any other type of hosting, but it requires that you have IT knowledge since you will become a host, meaning that you will have to solve all hosting problems.
- Clustered hosting is where you have multiple servers that host the same content. That way even if one server needs a reboot or goes down, your site will still be online. This option is for sites with very high traffic.
- Grid hosting utilizes several server clusters that act like a grid and is composed of multiple nodes. That way multiple servers serve to one cause or in this instance one site and different parts of the website can operate independently of each other.
Note: In the most cases a “shared server” hosting plan would be enough to run your small business website or blog. But it is always good to keep in mind what other options exist, in case your site starts to grow and you start getting 1,000s of visitors per month.
Evaluate the web hosting company and its services
Occasionally, we receive emails from our readers asking us which web hosting company and plan/package they should choose for their upcoming website. Most web hosts that you will find offer different plans/packages to choose from. You also might be asking, “Can I trust a certain hosting company? What will happen with my website if it attracts a lot of visitors? Should I sign up for the biggest package right away? Etc.”. Let's answer these questions and look at the most common questions you should have in mind when choosing a hosting plan.
Checking to see if the company is trustworthy
The most important thing you have to check is whether you can trust the company. A good reputation is paramount. The rule of thumb is to check the website of the service provider for general signs of trust such as physical address, phone number, general company information, and testimonials. Ask yourself: “Would I trust and give this company my personal information”.
The truth about web hosting review sites
Let's talk about web hosting review and “top 10” sites. If you do your search for specific company reviews you will find many sites providing this information. As a newcomer you might find this info useful and decide to go with one or the other company based on the information found. But this is not always the case as many times the recommendations are fabricated by the website owner. These are sometimes based on the compensation he is getting from specific hosting providers, and not by actually displaying reviews from the real customers who are using the services. Simply put, you will see a lot of fake reviews and “top 10” lists, so be careful with that info.
What if my website grows?
Many newbies don't want to agree with the fact that their new website will hardly have any traffic. We're not saying that you won't be there one day; we simply say that it will take some time. If you are not some celebrity or planning to spend big money on advertising, we recommend you go with the basic shared plan. When your traffic exceeds your current site's allocation, and you're certain that this new traffic level is going to be permanent, simply upgrade to a higher package that meets your needs. Don't rush to upgrade on the first hint of traffic, sometimes that burst of traffic is just where some popular website or blog notices your site and talks about it, sending some of their visitors to you. In other words, as long as your web host allows you to upgrade your packages without issue, you don't have to worry about your site's future expansion. We have upgraded packages numerous times since we've launched FirstSiteGuide, without any problems or intervention on our end.
Read the terms and conditions
We all do it, check the box with the fine print that says, “Terms and Conditions” without ever opening it. Nobody has time to read these endless pages. Web hosts' terms and conditions can be slightly different from one another but they all usually sum up to this: By reading this, you agree to our terms and conditions, where we listed an enormous number of things that we find illegal and/or unacceptable, and if we find you in any kind of violation of any of those, we will take actions and suspend and/or even delete your account without any upfront notice. The good news is that usually this won't happen.
Price and payment options
As in any industry, you can find extremely cheap and extremely expensive offers. The trick here is to make sure you get a web host that lets you upgrade or downgrade your web hosting package without any problems. If your web host requires you to pay an additional fee simply because you need to switch your shared hosting plan, I suggest you look for another host. Obviously if you upgrade to a new plan, you will have to pay some extra for the new package. I'm referring to some sort of penalty or transfer fee that is charged simply because you want to change from one plan to another. As a rule of thumb you will end up paying somewhere around $515 per month for your shared hosting plan plus your yearly domain registration fee.
Promos and up sells
If you do your research online you will find amazing deals and offers that go as low as $1.00/mo for web hosting. If you read the Terms and Conditions for this kind of offer you will understand that this is just a promo price to get you in and after the first year with the company that rate will usually go up significantly. I've seen people caught by surprise when the renewal date comes so we want you to be aware of that. Also with the low offers, watch for the up sells that company might offer to get more money out of you. Keep this in mind, search for the company that will suit your needs and don't rush to buy the cheapest plan out there or even go with free option.
Most companies offer certain full money back periods (30, 45, 90 days) and in that period you will get a full refund. You might see “Anytime money back guarantee” claims from some companies. This usually means that you will get the prorated amount back after the suggested period passes. Make sure you read their “Terms of Services”.
Does the company's technical support function 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Note that I will not accept a host which does not have staff working on weekends or public holidays. You will be surprised at how often things go wrong at the most inconvenient times. Incidentally, just because a host advertises that it has 24/7 support does not necessarily mean that it really has that kind of support. Test them out by emailing at midnight and on Saturday nights, Sunday mornings, etc. Check out how long they take to respond. Besides the speed of responses, check to see if they are technically competent. You wouldn't want to sign up with a host that is run by a bunch of salesmen who only know how to sell and not fix problems.
Unlimited is not always unlimited
Web hosts usually offer “unlimited” plans for your website. However, nothing is unlimited and it's just a simple math formula where the host knows what the average customer uses. Two main things that you need to know here are: disk space and bandwidth. Hosts know that while one customer might be using more than average space and bandwidth of the server (basically being unprofitable to them) there are hundreds of customers that are using very little to none.
Disk space is a space for your website and you can think of it as a size of your business place. You can get “unlimited” disk space because web hosts know that web pages are very small, 40-50 KB in average. 20 MB is more than enough for average websites. To put things in perspective, today you can buy fairly cheap external disk drive, and on one that is 1 TB in size you can store 500,000 average sites.
Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred from the web server your website is on to the browser of a person that is viewing your website. You can look at it like the number of customers that can go through your business space. Majority of websites use less than 2 GB of bandwidth a month. Those are the ones without uploads and/or downloads of software, audio or video material. If you do that, your consumption will probably be around 50 GB. Of course, here we do not take in account websites that are designed specifically for upload and download.
There are many websites that are under-performing. By under-performing we mean websites that don't use up too much server space and don't get too many visitors. When you take that into account there is always some free space if somebody needs a bit more than average disk space or bandwidth.
Reliability and uptime
What is uptime? It is a measure of time that tells us how much a machine, in this case server, is available and working. The opposite of that is called downtime and it is a measure of time when the machine is not working. Any web host that offers below 99.9% uptime should not be considered. But why should you not ask for a 100% uptime? The reality is that every server needs a time to reboot and fix eventual hardware fails.
0.01% of downtime means that your server could be unavailable about eight and a half hours over the course of a year. If we take in account that servers should be rebooted every month for maintenance, and let's say that reboot takes about a half an hour that leaves about four more hours. Maybe this does not sound terrible, but for some business websites each minute counts. The reality is that servers are pieces of hardware and, though quite reliable, need maintenance from time to time.
Location of the company and servers
If you don't stay in the USA, you have the option of hosting your site with some local provider. The advantage here is the ease of dealing with them (they are after all easily accessible by phone call or a visit), your familiarity with the local laws and easy recourse to those laws should it be necessary. It should be your choice if your target audience is local (e.g. a local fast food delivery service). On the other hand, hosting it in USA has the advantage of faster access for what is probably the largest number of your overseas visitors (particularly if you have an English-speaking audience). You also have a large number of hosting companies to choose from, and as a result, cheaper prices.
The Internet is global and you can see everything on it no matter where the servers are located. For example if a website has a French web address that does not mean that the website is actually on a server that is located in France. Although data is traveling at exceedingly high speed, there will always be a bigger time delay with a bigger geographical distance of a server and user's computer. The best solution would be to locate your website on a server that is geographically closest to your audience, so do not forget to check where web host actually locates their servers.
Web server and operating system
We have discussed this issue in the previous part of this guide. In general, most people will want to sign up for a web host offering a Linux based system and running the Apache web server. Most web-based software assumes your website is running on such a system, and you will usually experience fewer compatibility issues with it. In my opinion, the only time you want to use a Windows server is if your site will be running Windows specific programs, like ASP.
One thing that we mentioned before and we will mention again is backup. here can be A huge difference between web hosts' backup options. It is important to have a good backup plan, so the best option would be a host that performs daily backups. The worst option would be to go with a host that has no backup plan. Many web hosts offer backups for some additional fee, so check that out. If price seems reasonable then it is most definitively worth the cost. Remember, if your website goes down and you have no backup, there is no way you can get it back. To repeat once more: regular backups are a must!
Different hosting control panels
With hosting control panels, you do not manage content of your website, but you manage everything administrative that is associated with your web hosting plan. Inside a control panel you will find sections to manage email accounts, users, file management, security and different applications. There are number of variations, but for now, we are going to mention a few of the most popular ones and describe them in detail in Part 4:
- cPanelthe most popular and widely used, very customizable
- Plesksimilar in functions to cPanel but with different layout
- ISPConfigopen source, with the ability to manage multiple servers
- OpenPanelopen source, very user friendly and easy to navigate
SSL (secure server)
If you are planning on selling any goods or services through your website, you may want to see if the web host lets you set up SSL (a secure server). You may have seen this on other websites where their web address begins with an “https://” instead of “http://”. Setting this up will normally involve additional charges or a higher priced package. At this point, the main thing to do is to check if they are available at all before you commit to the host. You will definitely need to have as SSL if you plan to collect credit card payments yourself. If you're relying on a payment gateway instead, like PayPal, and are not otherwise collecting sensitive or private information from your customers, it's possible that you don't need this facility.
Programming languages and other features
If you are paying for a web hosting account, you want to make sure it supports multiple programming languages and other features. Some of the most common are: FTP, PHP, Perl, SSI, .htaccess, SSH, MySQL, Cron. If you are not planning to develop a custom website from scratch you probably won't be dealing with many of these. However, if you are hiring a developer to help you with some of work he might need some of these features.