Web Hosting – What Are You Really Looking For? Points to Consider Before Taking the Plunge
You have a burning desire to get your views ‘out there’, or you want to harness the power of the ‘net to generate some income or grow your existing business, or any of the other myriad reasons that send people to their favourite search engine looking for somewhere to host their site.
A quick search throws up more web hosting offers than you can shake a stick at: some free; some sort of free; some paid. Some on single servers; some on clustered networks; some using VPS (virtual private server); some offering dedicated servers. There is a wide variety of combinations of features – disk space, bandwidth, databases, software and script support, site management, email provision etc etc.
How do you know what is best for you?
It is often what you are not told about a hosting plan that is more important than the headline details. We need to consider what we should be looking for and why.
Don’t be seduced by massive amounts of disk space
In most cases disk space is not an issue. The very least you are likely find will be about 50Mb (but you’d have to look hard for that!) and even this is more than enough for, say, a blog site. Your text data takes up an extraordinarily small amount of space.
These are the factors that determine how much disk space you are likely to need:
– hosting a lot of images or videos
– using a script like a CMS (Content Management System), a gallery, forum or gaming script
– hosting an FTP site: a repository for files, often quite large, for your visitors to download
Just because a host is offering you gigabytes of storage doesn’t make it a good deal. You probably won’t need it but, if you are in the market for an FTP site then look for one that specialises in file storage. They usually offer vast amounts of disk space but not much else and you can use a regular hosting account that links to those files for download.
Beware the bandwidth trap
Bandwidth is the amount of traffic your site is allowed to have per month before your host either starts charging you some stupid amount money for going over your allowance or, worse, suspends your account until the following month.
Working out how much you need is remarkably tricky so the more you can get the better. A small personal site intended for a small audience like, for example, a photo gallery aimed at just your friends and relations, is not going to use a great deal of bandwidth – providing you size your images for the web and keep your videos to short clips. The FTP example mentioned above will gobble it up.
So consider these main questions when looking at the bandwidth offered:
– how many visitors am I likely to get?
– how much data would a typical visitor access?
– is my bandwidth usage likely to increase with time?
Wot? No databases?
Most scripts of any substance need a database to run on. Check the database provision of any host you are considering very carefully: no host is going to say they don’t support them so it’s the absence from the feature list that should alert you. Even then it may not be clear. I came across a web host just the other day that listed PHPmyAdmin among its features (PHPmA is a tool for managing MySQL databases) but did not mention databases. I queried the database provision with the host who told me they didn’t support them! Not much use for PHPmyAdmin then.
One database is often enough because most scripts can share databases by means of prefixing table names to identify the ones they use uniquely. However, some scripts insist on having their own. It is also easier to manage, backup, restore and troubleshoot separate databases. Unless you are 100% certain that you are never going to need a database then steer clear of any plan that does not include at least one, no matter how good the rest of the plan looks!
But I want to be brilliantsite.com not brilliantsite.hostname.tld!
Most free hosts offer, as a baseline, a subdomain of their own domain on which your website will reside. These days though, most people want to host their own domain(s). Even if you are just starting out and are content to use brilliansite.hostname.tld there will come a time when you want to have your own unique identity. Make sure the hosting provider supports the addition of your own domain to your account – preferably more than one since once you have the domain-buying bug you’ll probably never get rid of it!
I’ve signed up and now I find that my host doesn’t support ASP (or whatever)!
This is why it’s good to have an idea of what you want to do with your site before getting your hosting account. Let’s say you want to run a forum. Research the forum software you want to use: find one you like, maybe by looking at other sites, and check out the forum’s home website for details of its requirements before you make a decision. The one you want may not run on a Windows server, or it may need ASP and hate PHP scripting. If at all possible, choose a host that offers what you need for your planned site, don’t chose a host and then make compromises to fit with their server configuration.
Help! My website’s hit the No.1 spot in Google’s ranking and I don’t have enough of anything anymore!
You should be so lucky:) But if you are planning to promote, syndicate, advertise your website or increase traffic to it by any other means then you need to plan for the future. Make sure that your free or nearly free hosting plan is upgradeable. This could be to a formal paid plan or by selective add-ons to disk space, bandwidth, extra databases etc. There is nothing worse than having to migrate an established site to another host with the consequent downtime and inevitable conflict between the facilities offered by your old and new hosts. Not to mention the potential degradation of your Google ranking!
OK, so I have a hosting plan. Now what?
Well you shouldn’t have one yet unless you can answer the following questions!
– What support does the host offer?
Often with free hosting plans there is no technical or other support at all. Those that do offer support usually do it solely through a ticketing system which may be integrated into their website or accessible from your site’s control panel, if it has one. Most free hosting providers are not interested in investing in you once you have signed up. They have your account which is probably displaying their ads to generate income for them – and that is the extent of their interest. If possible, look for a provider which gives you both technical support through your control panel and personal support through their website.
– What price am I really paying for my free plan?
Displaying your host’s ads, if they are relatively discreet, can be a small price to pay for free hosting but too high a price if you are left entirely to your own devices once your account is set up or if the ads detract from your site’s feel and impact. It is not always easy to see how intrusive the ads will be before you sign up. Try to find out and, if you can’t, look elsewhere: chances are the ads will be huge! Some free hosting plans rely on visitors to their own sites to generate income and simply use your site to encourage your visitors to go there by the addition of a small ‘powered by’ logo in the footer. For a small fee this can often be removed for you.
– How do I access my website’s files?
There are generally two ways of getting your files onto the server and manging them once there: an FTP client on your own computer and a control interface using your browser which generally includes a file manager.
A control panel is essential for managing your account. It is the means by which you can add and manage databases, domains, various site specific settings and email accounts among other things. If you are not offered one, don’t touch the plan! It will mean that you are at the mercy of your provider for making the smallest of changes to your setup.
What about email?
Most hosting providers offer some sort of POP account access as well as a web interface to your email accounts. Like disk space, the huge numbers here are probably not terribly important.
There are two main setups:
– POP email accounts created and maintained through your control panel
This is where you specify the actual email accounts to be used with your account, such as firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. These accounts are accessible individually with a POP client like Outlook Express, Outlook or Eudora. A limit is usually put on the number of accounts you can have.
– Catch-all email accounts
This is generally what you get when the plan features lists say ‘unlimited’ email accounts. It means that messages sent to firstname.lastname@example.org all go to the same mailbox. The advantage is that you don’t have to manage separate mailboxes for each address. The disadvantage is that is impractical if you have more than one user. The solution to this is to use GoogleApps. You set up a GoogleApps account; ‘reroute’ your email to Google; and setup separate accounts for your users which can then be accessed through the Gmail interface or by POP to your users’ client software.
So the only thing to watch out for is the restricted number of email addresses available under setup 1. Sometimes only a single address is available with others being added for a charge.
So there you are….
That covers the fundamentals. There are many other considerations, mainly concerned with what functions the host server(s) have switched on or off but these can become a little technical and are certainly not going to be covered in any features list.
If you know there is something you absolutely must have, such as cron jobs, clean URLs or lock tables (see? I told you it was technical:) ) then ASK! If you can’t ask or don’t get an answer, then look somewhere else.
Happy Host Hunting!
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