This article gives you several checklists to help you when you're selecting a hosting provider. No other decision is as important as selecting the right company to host your website. The more complex your solution, the more painful it would be to switch providers should a major problem arise.

Treat looking for a web hosting provider the same as shopping for a car. Buying the car is the first step; next you'll want to keep maintenance and upkeep to a minimum. The same applies to a choosing a web hosting provider. After you've determined your requirements and talked with others you trust, you'll want to look at a few reliable companies that you can work with for the long term.

I'll provide checklists for several categories of evaluation: bulk hosting, dedicated hosting, and cloud hosting. Depending on your situation, the checklist of questions will vary. For bulk hosting you won't typically work with an account representative. For dedicated or cloud hosting, depending on your account size, the hoster could assign a person or team to support your solution. This can be helpful when trying to migrate and get your application up and running.

Let's begin.

Locate Web Hosting Providers

In today's hosting climate, there are thousands of companies offering hosting services. Determining the right set of companies to evaluate is a task in itself. There are entire websites dedicated to offering reviews, rankings, and about every other type of information you can think of.

The first item your company needs to determine is what type of services you need. If it's basic web hosting, go to your favorite search engine, type in "I need basic web hosting." Or "I need advanced Microsoft web hosting." Typing in a phrase that describes your environment should return effective results. The goal is to find a provider or a web hosting directory or index. These types of sites are a good source of information.

For this article, I was able to locate several web hosting directories, here are a few examples:

         http://reviews.cnet.com/web-hosting/

         http://www.webhostdir.com/

         http://www.hostindex.com/

You should also ask others in your business how they locate IT services. Networking and consulting with others you trust in your business space can be a good source of advice. I went to http://www.yellowbook.com and was able to pull up a variety of companies that are local to my area. Having a hosting provider within driving distance has many benefits.

Low-Cost Bulk Hosting

The first category is low-cost bulk hosting. Companies with an interest in this category often want to use their website for marketing purposes. Typically there is no e-commerce on the site. The main goal is to have an Internet presence (such as a brochure site) or host a personal website.

The first thing you should do is visit the hosting provider's website. The provider should list various plans and options. Review all plans and write your questions down as you're reviewing the options. If you're unsure of something or need further clarification, send your list of question to their support team.

Another option is to go to your favorite search engine and search for reviews. For this article I searched "web hosting reviews example.com". In place of example.com, type in a real host name; you'll find several links containing good information. There's nothing better than looking at honest feedback. Another great technique is to talk with someone at a company who already hosts with the potential provider. This is a good opportunity to get unfiltered feedback.

A cautionary note: Explore carefully when the word "unlimited" is used. Don't expect to get an "unlimited" bandwidth or disk space for a few dollars a month. Spend a few hours doing your homework; doing so can save you time and money down the road. Before you allow cost to be the ultimate deciding factor, take into consideration how a potential hosting provider answers the following questions. These questions apply to all sizes of companies:

         Do you have a money-back guarantee? Is it for 30 days or 60 days?

         Is there a setup fee?

         Do you host websites and databases on separate machines?

         Can you describe your support process and hours of operation?

         Is there a memory limit on the process hosting my website?

         Would I receive an email when resources are close to hitting thresholds?

         How much data transfer or bandwidth do you have?

         How much disk space does your plan provide?

         Can I purchase additional resources?

         What kind of control panel do you have?

         Can I upgrade or downgrade my plan?

         If the hoster provides unlimited bandwidth and/or disk space, are there restrictions or exceptions?

         What types of backups are offered? Is the service part of the plan, or is it extra?

When shopping for low-cost or shared hosting, price is typically the primary focus. However, you should include other factors in making your decision. In addition to price, you should expect timely support that can be contacted via email, phone, or a ticketing system.

The meaning of timely support depends on the type of situation: If a server goes down and takes your site offline, you should expect a response and updates within a few minutes. For problems of a less drastic nature, either business or technical, you should expect notification within a few hours to one business day. Ask the vendor for a demo on how a support ticket is submitted. The support system is often integrated into the vendor's overall control panel. Take some time to visit the hosting provider's control panel.

Dedicated and Enterprise Hosting

Your hosting needs could include email, directory services, and collaboration along with traditional web hosting needs that include web and database services. Finding a provider who can support not only the infrastructure but a variety of applications can be critical to your business success. Having everything integrated with one provider streamlines support, upgrades, and overall experience in working with an outside company. In addition to the questions I've listed, here are a few more questions to ask your hosting provider:

         Do you have a disaster recovery solution?

         How many Internet carriers does your data center(s) have?

         How long are backups stored onsite?

         Do you have offsite backup capability?

         If required, do you support VPN to VPN for other carriers?

         Will my dedicated solution have its own network, or will my equipment be shared with other clients?

         Do you offer dedicated firewalls?

         What types of high-availability solutions do you have?

         Do you offer SAN storage? What types of SAN?

         Is there a specific team that supports my environment?

You should research backup and disaster recovery plans and clearly understand your options. For example, asking a prospective provider how it would handle a database restore is a good exercise. Imagine your website is compromised and sensitive customer data is affected. More than likely you'd take your website offline to restore to a last-known good backup. What you are trying to find out is how the provider would handle a critical incident. The provider's response will help clarify your next steps. When you have to sign a contract, including this type of situation is a good way to protect yourself and your company. Ask questions that are critical to your specific business situation when you make your initial contact.

Smaller companies will look for the hosting provider to be their IT department. As in the case of traditional IT departments, small companies will want a timely response to get services back online, so that impact to the business is minimized. The website will probably be the location where orders are taken and interaction with customers occurs. Frequent interruptions will have a negative impact on business.

For medium to larger companies, the technology that's handled by the provider is a part of the business. It could be the company's Internet e-commerce site. For a traditional brick and mortar company, it's common to host an e-commerce site with a third-party service while regular business IT services remains in house.

Cloud Computing and Utility Computing

There's a lot of industry buzz around the latest category in web hosting cloud computing. Cloud computing takes mainframe-like computing power and expands it to web hosting. You may want to host your services with a web hosting provider that includes cloud computing if your company needs to provide high-volume service in multiple geographic areas.

For smaller companies looking to have the ability to expand resources on demand, cloud computing offers a great choice. Companies such as Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft are major players with offerings in this space. Knowing what you're trying to achieve is critical. Are you looking simply for storage services? If you're running a website with a provider that has excellent web hosting but high costs for storage, you can look at using this type of solution. Amazon offers a service for storage only, for example.

Software as a Service (SaaS) takes advantage of the cloud computing environment. If you're exploring SaaS, here are a couple of questions to ask:

         How much do you charge for your service?

         What components are needed to integrate into my application?

For more traditional hosting with cloud hosting capabilities, companies are offering virtual hosting. They use technologies such as VMware or Microsoft's Hyper-V to provide a base OS. If resource demands increase, more CPU, disk, and RAM can be allocated on demand without adding physical components.

Virtual plans can be cost effective and allow for isolation from other clients. The thing to remember when running in a virtual platform is that the underlying infrastructure is shared among other clients. Along with questions from the previous two categories, here are some questions you should ask about virtual plans:

         How many virtual servers are on a physical host?

         Do you have some type of failover in case of a failure to a single host?

         Is it possible to get more resources on demand?

         If one client is taking more resources, are they isolated so that it doesn't impact my environment?

For smaller companies with fewer resources that like to keep up with the latest and greatest, virtual server plans can be an excellent step for partnering with a third-party provider. For medium to larger companies, using a cloud computing solution is a good way to have high availability and still control costs.

Cloud computing will continue to grow and expand in the near future. The category will become more refined as more companies expand into this space.

Questions You Should Ask Yourself

Before you contact web hosting providers, you need to have a handle on some basic information about your website(s). Your answers to the following questions will help a hosting provider determine what type of solution is best for you:

         How many visitors per day and requests per second (normal and peak) do you have?

         How much bandwidth does your website(s) use?

         How many databases do you have, and what size are they?

         Are your customers local, regional, or global?

         Do you need any type of failover/high availability?

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 and has been an IIS MVP since 2006. He's currently a senior support specialist for a large Midwest company.