A website is a basic necessity for any business in today’s digital climate. Once up and running, it can be your virtual headquarters, information center, and storefront all in one streamlined destination. For most of us, the success of a website is linked to the company hosting it.
The relationship between me and my web hosting provider has been a rocky one to say the least. Verbal spats with the customer service crew. Ownership disputes over my domain. Locked out of my account with no access to nothing. I’ve been through it all it seems, and with everything I have invested, I kinda feel like I’m trapped with no way out. If only I could rewind time and apply what I know now to the selection process.
There’s no “do-over” button, but there are best practices you can follow to choose the right web hosting solution for your needs and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls that threatened to swallow my sanity.
Identify Your Needs (For Now and Later)
When I first signed up with my web host, I needed two simple websites with about 10 pages between them and nothing more advanced than PayPal integration. I figured the “unlimited” plan should cover it. What I didn’t think about was things I might want to do later down the road. As I expanded and looked to incorporate new functionality without straining my true resources.
Once you make a decision, you may be extremely limited in your ability to upgrade without some serious adjustments and possible downtime, which has always been my biggest fear. Look at where you’re at now and where you see your web presence in a couple of years. You know – if everything goes according to plan. Whether it’s adding new products or building a new website altogether, transition will be much easier when your hosting platform is structured with flexibility and scalability in mind out of the box.
Discover the Truth About Unlimited Hosting
The “unlimited” plan is still the biggest gimmick in the web hosting business. I wouldn’t call it an all-out sham, but some might. Even many of the top dogs claim to give you an unlimited amount of disk space and bandwidth all for one low price. Sound too good to be true? It is. If you think about it, you know every server, physical or virtual, has a certain amount hard disk space, RAM, processing cores, and so forth. And the mere discussion of the world possibly running out of Interet coverage tells you all you need to know about unlimited bandwidth – it’s just not happening.
I’ve read countless stories of customers having their accounts terminated with no warning for exceeding the disk space quota in their unlimited plans. I recently thought I was one of them until addressing some issues with my web host. Though I was lucky, it could easily be a situation where if you don’t backup your website like your offline data, you might be in for some serious heartache. If you consider anything with the term “unlimited” in it, ask the company to come clean about the actual amount of disk space and bandwidth you have at your disposal so you can determine if it’s a good fit.
Understand the Types of Web Hosting
Fortunately, the whole unlimited deal is generally only limited to shared web hosting. There are several other options at your fingertips, but let’s start there.
Shared hosting is the most common and affordable type of web hosting. Thanks to the virtual hosting concept, companies regularly use this method to run hundreds to thousands of domains on a single server. All these sites eat from the same RAM, processing juice, and other hardware resources. Since numerous customers are paying for the rent, so to speak, the cost is flat out cheap. You can easily find shared hosting plans for less than two bucks a month.
Shared hosting is like living in an apartment complex, so the traps are similar. When the neighbor upstairs is partying like a rockstar, their thunderous racket pours down on your unit as you try to sleep. When the neighboring business experiences a sudden surge of traffic, your website could run slow because of the extra bandwidth they command. Or worse, the careless tenant who leaves the main door open could put all other tenants at the risk of burglary – or render everyone else on the server vulnerable to a security breach.
Dedicated hosting is like the opposite of shared web hosting. Here you have an entire server at your disposal and all the control that comes with it. You can run your own programming packages (PHP, Python, Ruby, etc.), install custom applications, and even lease out server space to your own clients. It’ll cost you a lot more per month, but since you’re not sharing resources, you have all the disk space, processing punch, RAM, and bandwidth to yourself, which still isn’t unlimited, yet more than what you get in a shared hosting arrangement.
The control and flexibility of dedicated hosting comes at the cost of responsibility. Unlike the shared environment, where the hosting firm handles all the backend stuff, you are solely responsible for maintaining the server that houses your website. In most cases, this means you have to manage the operating system as well as the web server, database, control panel, and other software installed on the hardware. When it comes to dedicated hosting, server administration skills are critical to ensuring that your site endures as little downtime as possible and consistently performs superbly for visitors.
Virtual private server (VPS) hosting is like a mashup of shared and dedicated hosting. Virtualization software is key here as the host uses a hypervisor that allows each individual client to have their own virtual server. It’s like your own little VM running on the web. So not only do you have your own OS, you can manage the system from the root, allocate resources, and perform various tasks that just aren’t possible in a shared hosting solution. From a flexibility standpoint, it’s like having a dedicated server at half the cost – well, almost.
The limitations of virtualization are pretty much the cons of VPS hosting. Though you typically have more than what’s available in the unlimited shared hosting plan, you’re limited by the resources of the underlying hardware, which you’re still technically sharing with other clients. So if your IT administrator does a poor job of allocating resources or the host oversells by assuming customers won’t push the server to the limits, your cozy virtual environment could take a hit. If you want a smooth VPS experience, be dilegent in asking hosting firms roughly how many virtual machines they run per server.
Cloud hosting is a viable alternative to each of the aforementioned variations. From RAM to web apps, all the resources crucial to your website are distributed from a mass of servers optimized to handle the load. So there’s no running out of disk space like with shared hosting. No need to be as meticulous about resource allocation as you would be with VPS hosting. No need to upgrade to a big ol’ server you’re not even sure you can handle – ala dedicated hosting. Plus you only pay for the resources you use, so scaling up isn’t going to be as expensive as buying a whole new package.
The biggest downside to cloud hosting right now is slow penetration. Many of the industry heavyweights have yet to embrace the forecast with open arms, so cloud hosting solutions are still harder to find by comparison. This will likely change in the near future, but it’ll take some added diligence to make sure you select a vendor that can effectively integrate the cloud into the web hosting environment.
Know the Business of Web Hosting Reviews
Not all web hosting reviews are created equal. Some are written by customers who have firsthand experiences to share. Others are penned by affiliates who’ve never used any of the 10 to 20 services they’re promoting. Their job is to pump up the company and convince you to click their affiliate link so they can earn a commission on the subscription. I think both can be helpful to a degree, but while the affiliate reviews will paint a near perfect picture, it’s the customer feedback that’s going to touch on uptime, performance, support, and other points that are critical to making a decision.
Put Support on a Pedestal
If I had to pick out something I actually like about my web host despite all the hiccups, it would be their customer support. It didn’t start out the greatest, but has improved leaps and bounds over the years. So what makes good web hosting support? Three core values:
- Availability: A website is open to its audience 24/7, so the firm that hosts it should be available around the clock to provide support. Technical issues often arise out of the blue, so whether it’s during lunch or the wee hours of the morning, you should have a direct line to the support team. A combination of phone, email, and live chat support will better assure that you can get help at any time.
- Responsiveness: I’ve had to contact my support team far more than I’d like, but I can say that they respond promptly and work quickly to deliver a resolution. You can gauge the responsiveness of prospective web hosts by putting their support through a test of sorts. Contact them via phone or email with whatever questions you have, and how they service you then could be indicative of how they’ll support you as a customer.
- Resources: Are you the type who prefers to figure things out for yourself – with a little guidance? Some web hosts cater to self-sufficient clients with extensive documentation on everything from setting up email accounts to managing domains. These are nice resources to have because instead of waiting for a response, you can head over to the support center and get the answers you need, when you need them.
I credit my web host for settling my nerves when things go haywire, but the real reason I stick around is simply convenience. I now have a total of five websites on this one account, and I just don’t want to go through the hassle of migrating them all to a new server with a different company. Don’t be like me. Avoid the common pitfalls and eight years later, you’ll be still confident in your decision.
Photo Credit: Gavin Schaefer via Flickr