There are many hosting companies out there, offering different deals and packages. As with any purchase, it pays to do your research before deciding to go with a particular hosting provider.
One of the dirty little secrets of the hosting business is that the companies are often, in the kindest sense, pyramid schemes. That is, the hosting company that you deal with… typically isn’t.
The “real” hosting companies will almost never deal with small clients (i.e. anyone not a bank, a Fortune 1000 company, or a sub-hosting company). Instead, they will sub–contract the role to smaller hosting companies, who use their facility to host their own clients. In essence, you are likely to be dealing with a “front company”. This is not itself a bad thing, but sometimes it pays to enquire “up the line” to see who is truly hosting whom.
What's not important in a web hosting company?
Customers are always sold services and features they don’t need, and will never use. This is true of web hosting, as it is of every other industry. A few pitfalls to be aware of:
- It’s immaterial how much server space the hosting provider offers.
Space on a hard drive is cheap — it costs the hosting company less than 10¢ a gigabyte — so it’s common to offer a great deal of space, sometimes to offset the fact that other parts of the service are less than stellar. Unless you are hosting video, multiple PDFs, music, or major Flash pieces, it is extremely doubtful that you'll use over 20 megabytes, even for the largest sites.
- It doesn’t particularly matter where your hosting company is located.
In the vast majority of cases, you'll never see your server, or even meet any of the hosting company staff. So it makes no difference where you are hosted. Of course, if most of your expected audience is in North America, it makes sense to have a hosting provider somewhere in the vicinity. Language and time zones are important too — but don't get into a knot if you discover that you’re being hosted in Toronto, rather than Calgary. It really makes no difference.
What are important factors in choosing a web hosting company?
- How quick, available and honest are their technical support?
This is by far the most important answer to determine, especially for your first few websites. When problems happen — and they will — you need to be able to reach technical support staff who will respond quickly and honestly to your queries. Ideally, you want a personal relationship with technical support for the hosting provider. When that isn’t possible, you need to know the following:
Is technical support 24/7? If you have a problem at 5.05 pm or 2am Saturday morning, can you find human support, or will you need to wait until 9am the next business day?
How do you reach technical support? (Never accept “eMail only” support. You need to be able to reach a real live human being — not to be put in a queue, or in automated telephone hell. Ideally you need four numbers: an office number, a fax, a pager, and a cell.)
Is technical support honest? Do they know what they are talking about, or are they script–fed? (As a test, ask them some fairly complex questions to which you already know the answers).
- What are the features of the hosting company?
- Who has responsibility for backups: you, or the hosting company?
It’s very likely to be the former. If that’s the case, you need to take backup strategy and storage seriously.
- Does the hosting company offer guaranteed uptime?
If the hosting provider tells you “We have 99% uptime” that means that your site will be down three days in a year, on average. 99.9% is better — it means one day in three years, or a few hours every other month). What happens if that uptime isn’t maintained? How are you compensated, if at all?
- What are the prices?
Obviously, prices charged for hosting will vary based on location, competition, features, service and other factors. As a rough ballpark figure, a decent hosting company will run you $12 – $20 a month for hosting. It’s always possible to find cheaper alternatives, but as always, you get what you pay for.
Questions for medium sized businesses looking for hosting
- What is the hosting centre like?
do they have decent security? (a surprising number of sites go “offline” because the servers are literally lifted out of the server bays). How many people have access to the server room? What form does the security take? (Keycard, biometric scanner, keypad, etc) Can you get access to the server room (the good hosting companies won’t — you might be able to see the server racks through a bullet–proof window, but that’s about it). If you are allowed in, how is that monitored? Do you have an escort when you do so? When is that escort available? (Questions for the extra-paranoid: Are there cameras? Where is the feed from the cameras stored? How often are the video tapes from the cameras changed, or hard-drive records wiped?)
how is power supplied to the server room? What backups are in place? In the case of a blackout, what is the uptime of the servers?
In the event of a fire, how is extinguished? (If it has a standard sprinkler system, every unit in the server room is going to fry; if it’s hadron–based, anyone in the server room without an oxygen mask is going to die before any fire would reach them).
Don’t believe anyone's claims about how secure the hosting facility is without seeing it yourself. Your basic assumption — unless you trust your contact in the company implicitly — is that the hosting company is running out of a broom closet in New Delhi.
- What is the connection like?
how many web sites are hosted per server? The more sites on a hard drive, the slower each page will be loaded, as the hard–drive head will be skipping back and forth constantly loading different pages from different sites. Faster hard drives will alleviate this to some degree, as will RAID–striping them. Caching page content in RAM or SSD is the best solution).
How many servers are there in the facility? (the more servers that share the bandwidth, the slower the average speed).
What is the connection into the facility itself?
- What are the bandwidth limits or overcharges?
Hosting companies typically charge for an expected amount of traffic on your site, typically 1GB per month or higher. That is, if each page on your site is 100K in size, and there are 10 pages, a visitor looking at the site (and visiting every page) would download 1MB of traffic. 1000 other people doing the same thing over the course of a month would be 1GB of traffic. Note that what you pay is a standard charge, whether 1 or 1000 people visit your site. If you have more than 1GB of traffic to your site, the web hosting company will often begin overcharges for each extra megabyte downloaded, and these charges can be high. A typical website will not encounter that amount of traffic, but it is possible, if your site becomes suddenly popular (via a social site such as Digg or Slashdot) or if you are offering very large files for download.
- Is the hosting company geographically diverse?
You will tend to find this feature in only in the larger hosting companies, but it’s a good one for a medium-sized business. Having hosting locations in different areas is a benefit under catastrophic circumstances (one location is hit with a meteor; the MAE on that coast goes down) where your website can be moved from one location to another.