In this article, I'll discuss 10 facts you need to know about web hosting. Selecting a web hosting provider can be as important as deciding where you locate your business. Making the right decision can make the difference between your website surviving or not.

Internet web hosting comes in all shapes, sizes, and offerings from major registrars offering dozens of different plans, to budget hosting; from middle of the road to high-end enterprise hosting; there are almost limitless offerings. Before you decide to use an external web hosting service or even have a web presence, you should thoroughly determine whether the benefits and costs are going to bring a return on your investment.

ADVERTISEMENT

1. Cost

Cost is a critical consideration, but it's only one among many. Before you go looking for the cheapest host with most features, you should evaluate what your budget is. Once you know your budget, it'll be easier to evaluate all providers. Treat your website like a business, not your personal website.

Low-cost or budget hosting seems appealing and many organizations want to try it. Keep in mind if low-cost hosting appeals to you, that the hoster can target having hundreds or thousands of sites on a single server. It only takes one or two sites to cause issues. One outage can be the same as a power outage for a brick and mortar store. Have you ever seen how many businesses close during a power outage? Evaluate these offerings carefully.

Medium to higher-end hosting targets enterprise-level services. Some of the services can be specialized such as email and web hosting. Others will work with you to provide a single server or multiple servers depending on your needs. Cloud computing is a newer offering that throws a twist into traditional options.

Partnering, planning, and coordinating with a host that can grow with your needs can be beneficial. Using an outside provider can help streamline the process of getting a solution in place for a big promotion in a short amount of time. I've partnered with a couple higher-end hosting providers, and it was a good experience. They had the knowledge and the expertise to handle pretty much anything that was asked of them.

For larger companies used to controlling their own systems, turning over control can be an adjustment. When partnering with a high-end hoster, you should engage a lawyer to review your agreements. (This is always a good idea, no matter what size hoster you're dealing with.) Things work out best when expectations are clearly set out by all parties. Having a set of rules in a contract protects both sides. In the contract, you can define overage charges, refunds during outages, expected communications, and so on.

Review all costs involved including overage charges, adding additional features, or deploying custom solutions. There could be setup and ongoing fees. Although cost will be a major factor, choosing a web host shouldn't be solely decided on price. Cheap does not necessarily mean good value.

2. Support

Support can be a very broad term in web hosting. Normally, a provider handles hardware needs, server administration, patching, connection to the Internet, and general maintenance of systems. The site owner normally decides what technologies are used: PHP based, ASP.NET, Java, the database solution, along with any third-party technical solutions. It's important to determine what you, the owner, want supported and what your hosting provider supports. Here are a few things to consider:

         Do they have live chat or IM?

         Phone support?

         Email support?

         24 x 7 x 365?

         What's the response time?

         Ticketing system?

         Business-related questions?

Live chat support is increasingly becoming mainstream and can provide quick access to support personnel. The use of live chat can vary on what types of questions are covered. General sales or technical questions are handled using this technique. I wouldn't expect to have a third- or fourth-level engineer on instant message (IM) to handle general questions. If you do, that is a bonus for the web host!

Phone support is another technique of contacting your web hosting provider. Depending on the question or issue, phone support can be frustrating. In my experience, smaller operators who are not as technically savvy enjoy using phone support. Another variable for what type of support you receive is whether you want to use in-house personnel or a contracted Help desk.

Email support is probably the most common way of obtaining support. Depending on the host, a general email alias or formal ticketing system is the way you first interact with them. The ticketing system can be integrated with some other form of control panel or dashboard. Unlike phone support, you need to describe the issue you are having. Email has become almost second nature to people as a communications method. It isn't the most personal method of communication, but it's effective in most cases.

Does the host provide 24 x 7 x 365 coverage? I've been involved with hosts that were available all the time. Others had set hours with 24 x 7 x 365 emergency coverage. The type of solution you choose and how much you spend will determine your level of support. The key is to determine support expectations and availability up front.

How often have you worked with a company that took several days to respond? When there's an impact on your website, it's critical to have a fast response. Even if the response is not good news, any news during a crisis can help you communicate to your customers.

Last, but not least, consider the business of support: You have to work out non-technical matters such as billing, authorized contacts, or other account-type changes. In my experience, if can be challenging to get address changes, account updates, and other updates.

It's helpful to look at an example to see how your host will react to an issue. Consider a scenario in which your application is ASP.NET driven and the vendor has offered an upgrade to enhance the product. The new features will expand your website offerings. You really want to upgrade. To perform the upgrade, all you have to do is copy new files to the server, run a couple of database scripts, and your application is upgraded. But if all things went smoothly, IT people wouldn't have a job.

Something breaks, so you initiate a support ticket with your host. How will they respond? Are they willing to take network or memory traces? Are they willing to run SQL Server profiler to determine any database issues? Will they search the event logs, provide access to raw Microsoft IIS logs or basic reports to help narrow down where the issue is happening?

Helping to get your business up and running quickly is something to think about when determining a host. Most times, things will go smoothly and you will not have to engage their support. The occasion that something goes wrong will determine whether the host is worth working with. When challenges occur, customer confidence in your website really counts. The advice I can provide is how much money will you lose every hour the site is unavailable? If it's $1,000, spending $1,000 a year or ($100 a month) is a good place to budget.

Support is a large topic and can vary widely from host to host. When searching for a host, don't be afraid to ask a provider questions about how they handle particular cases. If you're an enterprise-level client, it's a good idea to have these concerns addressed in the contract. Support is critical to keeping your site available.

3. Communication

How a host communicates with its clients is important. You should look for a hosting provider who sends regular emails. Newsletter communications should happen on a periodic basis. The content can include items such as showing how the company is performing, discussing any new trends or technology it has deployed, or plans to deploy. Other types of communication can include blogs, forum discussions, social networking, or interactive articles posted on various subjects.

When the hosting provider performs maintenance, the provider should send an advanced notification to clients affected by the change. For example, if the provider wants to perform a generator test during your prime business hours, you can communicate the importance of doing such things during off-hours. Other notifications can be for security patch deployments. Make sure you can set up automatic notifications to let you know when limits are almost reached. Generally, a provider will make these types of communications available in your control panel or dashboard.

4. Features

Features are what draw anyone to most products or services. A web host is no different. Here are some questions you can ask to get information about key features:

         What technologies do they support?

         What technologies do they consider themselves experts in?

         Application Pool memory limits

         Auto-responders

         Bandwidth options

         Control panel

         Costs for additional services

         Custom DLLs or packages

         Email

         Reseller programs

         Sub-do mains

         Web statistics

This list is a start to evaluating a host. Ask if the hoster is the type of site that is on the bleeding edge and stays very current to the latest trends. Does it deploy the latest version of the .NET Framework on day one, or are they a version or two behind?

As mentioned, don't look for the cheapest host with the most features. Look for a host that provides the most features that fit your requirements and is within your budget.

5. Types of Hosting

In today's hosting environment, there are several main types of hosts. I'd classify them into these categories.

Low-cost or budget hosting. This type of hosting is also known as shared hosting. They offer several low-cost plans with a decent amount of features. The cost can range from just a few dollars per month to $20 per month. They cover a broad range of technologies and usually are good for personal or starter sites.

Medium-level hosting. Medium-level hosting focuses on small to midsize businesses (SMBs). The typical plan can range from $50 to $500 per month. The types of plans can be higher-end shared hosting, virtual to dedicated server plans. The dedicated plans can be a single physical or virtual server.

Enterprise-level or managed hosting. This is the highest level of hosting. Enterprise-level plans can run from several hundred to several thousands of dollars per month. If you completely externalize your infrastructure, costs can be even higher. Enterprise-level or managed hosting is where the provider owns the equipment and you pay a monthly charge. It could be considered rent since you are not buying the equipment. When signing a contract, check with your host on replacement of hardware. This will help you stay current and not use old equipment.

Co-location. Co-location is a compromise where you own the hardware and locate in a third-party facility. A dedicated cage could be provided so you have access to your hardware. Or you could partner with the provider to maintain your equipment. There are some providers that handle only the data center portion. These types of providers handle the building, Internet connection, and power.

Cloud hosting. Also known as cloud computing, it's a different approach to providing resources. Cloud computing is definitely the buzz and should be reviewed when evaluating web hosting. Hosting providers claim dynamic resources are available for peaks and valleys. Many service providers are offering on-demand resources such as bandwidth, server processing, or disk space. The prices can vary depending on the type of resource. The cost can include a few cents per gigabyte of disk space, for example. The direction of cloud computing is unknown, but it appears to be going nowhere but up. (No pun intended!)

6. Security

This topic could be an entire article. Here are some highlights to help determine whether a host is ready to meet your security needs.

         Does your site require PCI compliance?

         Do you need to be HIPAA compliant?

         Do you require Sarbanes-Oxley?

         Is the host SAS 70 compliant?

         Does the host deploy security patches and the latest service packs?

         Are intrusion detection system (IDS) implemented?

         How do you handle Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks?

Each question is a subject within itself. How a host answers can help you determine whether your site would be safe and secure. Your site might not require all of the items listed, but it's good to know that the host can meet these requirements, if necessary.

7. Host Size

In hosting, bigger isn't always better. I'd evaluate the numbers of domains, customers, and turnover rate when evaluating a host. Low-cost or budget hosting tends to target signing up more clients than they lose. This is how they measure success. The larger hosts that target higher end services shoot for longer-term relationships.

Another way to measure a host's size is how many data centers they currently have and how their equipment is deployed. For example, if their equipment resides in a single data center, they could be at a higher risk for having issues.

8. Length of Time in Business

How long the host has been in business doesn't always speak to a company's success, but if a company has been in the hosting business for several years, it's a good sign that they've learned how to compete. It's an indicator that they know their business model and may show that they can be trustworthy.

Internet years can be measured regular years times three. For a hosting company to be in business for 10 years is like being in business for 30 years elsewhere. Things change so fast, any company that doesn't keep up quickly disappears from the scene.

9. Limits

It's exciting to have a busy website that has a lot of traffic. Knowing your limits can help avoid overage charges. Fortunately, hosts provide a range of options when it comes to limits.

For bandwidth, each host will handle bandwidth or data transfer differently. How much bandwidth your sites uses can depend on what type of content a website has. Streaming videos and music will increase the amount quickly. Static pages or database-driven sites won't use as much bandwidth.

Disk space can depend on whether you store a lot of files or are database driven. If your site experiences content growth, make sure your host can meet your needs.

Another limit to be aware of when using shared hosting is application pool or memory limits. Shared hosting can limit the amount of memory a website uses. If you exceed your limit, the host could restrict availability or perform recycles, which will have an impact on performance.

Finding a host that provides unlimited bandwidth, disk space or other resources can help control unexpected costs and maintain a responsive website. Cloud computing can be a compromise and should be evaluated. I would check the fine print to ensure unlimited really means unlimited.

10. Location

The three most important things for a business to succeed are location, location, location. In the Internet, where a host is located can be key to performance and stability. If most of your customers are in Denmark and your host is located in the United States, it's worth evaluating the experience your clients will have.

You can work with your host to see whether they provide monitoring or have other clients with similar experience and get their feedback. Also, when determining a location, inquire about how many network carriers are used. How many Tier1 connections a host has will determine availability when hiccups occur on the Internet.

There are a lot of variations when it comes to web hosting. Knowing your requirements can go a long way in determining whether web hosting is for your business. I hope these top 10 things to know about web hosting helps when deciding which way to go.

Steve Schofield has been a senior systems administrator for a Windows-based hosting provider. He had one of the first websites to run ASP.NET in production. He was an ASP.NET MVP from 2002 to 2006, has been an IIS MVP since 2006, and is currently a senior support specialist for a large Midwest company.