How to Select a Web Hosting Plan
By: Charles J. Lovey, Managing Member, The DCL Group LLC
Choosing the right hosting plan is one of the more important decisions in the process of establishing a website. While first class web hosting can do little to turn a poorly designed site into an online success story, it is equally true that even the best site will fail to achieve its goals if barriers such as downtime, slow server response, or the lack of critical functionality are keeping users away.
Web Hosting DefinedWeb hosting is, simply, the provision of some combination of the hardware, server software, internet connectivity, and related services necessary to serve your website to the public.
Virtually everyone is familiar with the major internet service providers (ISP's), and virtually every ISP provides web hosting services. The major providers offer hosting plans capable of supporting at least a medium sized site with some level of database and/or e-commerce functionality.
(Some ISP's even provide for the hosting of a very small [typically 1-3 page] site as part of their basic services. This can a useful, no-incremental-cost option if your needs are limited to establishing a personal or family webpage).
At the farther ends of the spectrum are specialized, large scale hosting companies offering much higher levels of support and security to their clients, and smaller, local or regional companies which offer similar services to the ISP's, often at lower costs.
Hosting plans can have a multitude of features, but all plans fall into one of the following three categories:
Shared Server Plans: These plans allow you to lease space on a server operated and controlled by the hosting company. You will be sharing space on the server with other users, often a great many of them. The hosting company is likely to maintain tight control over the types of activity permitted on the server: server-side scripting is likely to be restricted, and specialized software (for example, streaming media) will likely not be permitted unless offered as a standard service of the hosting company.
Shared server plans are the least expensive hosting alternative, and will typically support the needs of a small to medium sized business. They are the plans which we typically think of when we think of web hosting, and will be the focus of the content to follow. A large-scale commercial site will be better served, however, with one of the following options.
Server Co-Location: These plans allow a business to maintain a dedicated server by leasing space in the hosting company's data center. The server may be owned or leased, but it is not shared with others. Typically, the hosting company will maintain connectivity to the internet, but will not manage or administer the server. (This responsibility remains with the user's IT department, or with an independent webmaster). Since the server is not shared, and the hosting company is not responsible for maintenance, these plans offer maximum flexibility to the user in terms of the selection of operating systems, server software, application services, and the like.
Managed Services: A Managed Service plan allows the user to maintain its website on a dedicated server leased from and administered by the hosting company. Because the server is not shared, a significant level of flexibility is offered in terms of software and application services. Additionally, the hosting company will be responsible for 24/7 maintenance and support.
Finding the Right Hosting CompanyAs implied above, there are two major components to the web hosting decision: choosing the hosting company and choosing the plan. We recommend that clients approach the process by identifying a number of compatible hosting companies that they would be comfortable doing business with, and then comparing the plans offered by those companies.
The characteristics to look for in a hosting company aren't much different than the traits you would like to find in any significant supplier or service provider: you want to do business with a company that is reliable, flexible, competent, and trustworthy. The performance of your hosting company will (at least indirectly) be a reflection of your business to the entire community of users seeking access to you via your website. It is important that this reflection be favorable.
The process of finding hosting company information is fairly straightforward. A number of technology-oriented websites feature information, reviews and ratings on hosting companies, including CNet (http://www.cnet.com), PC Magazine (http://www.pcmag.com), and Ziff-Davis (http://www.zdnet.com). As might be expected, these sites focus their attention on the largest, national level hosting providers, although a strong regional company will sometimes attract their attention and receive favorable mention.
In addition to these technology generalists, there are a number of specialized sites dedicated specifically to providing web hosting information. Two of the better known offerings are Host Index (http://www.hostindex.com) and Top Hosts (http://www.tophosts.com). These specialty sites can serve up an overwhelming volume of hosting options, but are good sources of information if you are looking for a hosting company in a specific locale or have a unique set of hosting requirements.
In utilizing any of these resources, we would offer a few caveats. First, web hosting is a very fluid and intensely competitive business. A hosting company that might have been a top choice a few years ago may now be struggling through bankruptcy proceedings. Others may have been saved from this fate only by acquisition or merger with a competitor, who may or may not maintain their historical service level.
For these reasons, we would caution against giving too much weight to awards, user testimonials, or glowing media reviews, particularly if the information is not very current and the source is not unbiased and generally well regarded.
Also for these reasons, we believe that the best and most reliable information that you can obtain on a prospective hosting company is likely to come from friends and associates who have direct experience. Again, we would urge you to speak with webmasters or web designers in your area to find out which hosts they are suing and what their experience has been. Friends and business associates who maintain a web presence are also valuable resources. Try to identify those among your acquaintances who are maintaining websites that you admire and that seem to exhibit a high level of functionality. Their hosting requirements may be very similar to yours even if their underlying business is completely different.
Web Hosting ConsiderationsOnce you have identified a number of hosting companies which might meet your needs, it is time to consider the "nuts and bolts" of the web hosting plan. The following are among the issues to be considered in evaluating your options:
You will likely find a friend or colleague who has a site with a similar purpose and a similar set of requirements to yours. Obtain this associate's recommendations, as well as the recommendations of the web professionals who have helped you develop your site. Put together a list of prospective hosting companies, and make an informed investigation of their plans by considering the issues outlined above.
By using this systematic approach, you are likely to find a hosting company and a plan that fits your needs and budget, and presents your website to the world in the best possible light.