What is web hosting?

In order for a web site to be available on the World Wide Web, it must be hosted on a server. This is referred to as web hosting. There are several different methods by which this is done. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP), for example AOL, may make limited web space available as part of your subscription. There are also free web hosting services, although in order for the service to be free they will place advertisements and pop-ups on your page. For full control, including the ability to choose your own domain name, the only option is to pay a company to host your web site.

How does paid web hosting work?

Paid web hosting is available in three different ways. The most common, and cheapest, is shared or virtual hosting. This means that your web site is one of many that are all hosted on the same server. For the vast majority of sites this is more than sufficient for their needs, and a visitor will never know that your site is not held on its own server. If you expect your site to be very busy, or to use a lot of bandwidth, then you may need to consider a dedicated server. This means that your site will be hosted on its own server, and that all of those servers’ resources, such as CPU time and hard-drive space, will be used for your web site. However, a dedicated server is still owned by the hosting company – you are only renting it for a period of time. Finally, you may consider a co-located server. In this case you own the server, and are paying the hosting company for housing it and for connecting it to the Internet.

Can I host my site from home?

In theory, it is possible to do this from home. However, there are many potential problems involved in this. Most ISPs will not allow a public server to be run from a home – they will insist you upgrade to a more expensive business plan, typically costing a minimum of 3 or 4 times your normal monthly fees, making this costlier than most web-hosting plans. Bandwidth is an issue too – upload speeds from home are much slower than download speeds – remember, your upload speed is your visitors download speed. As more people visit, your site will slow down dramatically. Then, the average home computer will not have the hardware resources to handle multiple visitors, all wanting to see a different page on your site. What about security? Are you prepared to have total strangers wandering through your computer files? Finally, what do you do when the system goes down? If you go the do-it-yourself route, then you have to fix the problem. All-in- all, it’s far better to let a company that specializes in web hosting take care of these issues for you.

How much is web hosting going to cost?

Prices vary, depending of what type of web hosting your site needs. The most common is shared web hosting, which means that your site is stored on the same server with other sites. This allows hosting companies to cut on their costs and charge less for their services. These days the average cost of shared web hosting is between $4-8 a month. Most of these plans will include an ample amount of disk space and bandwidth (monthly transfer), a free domain name, control panel and a bundle of additional features. For a dedicated server the cost goes up to $75 and up per month.

How can I decide which web hosting company to use?

Let’s take a look at some of the different factors involved – maybe that will give you a better idea of which companies would better suit your needs. The two most important factors involved are how much disk space you will have available (often referred to simply as “space”), and the monthly bandwidth you will be able to use. These two factors play the biggest part in how expensive a plan or company will be. To put it in simple terms, as the price rises, so do the space and bandwidth available for your use. Other things to look for are support for SSL, needed if you are planning to sell from the site, support for various programming languages, if needed, and whether the host company uses a Windows-based or Unix/Linux-based server – this may be important if you need to use scripts or databases, for example. Then, there are the intangibles that may or may not be important to you.

I’ve made my choice for a web hosting provider, now what?

The next thing to do is to open an account with your choice of web hosting company. Typically payment is made by credit card on a monthly basis, but some will offer a lower rate if you offer to pay for a year in advance. Other forms of payment may also be available, depending on the company and the plan you chose. Once you have an account set up, they will tell you how to upload your files, normally through an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server. There are several ways of doing this. Some web-development software contains modules to do this, or you can use programs such as Cute FTP or WS_FTP. The company will also tell what their name servers are called. These are servers that hold the addresses of the web sites hosted with that company. You will need to go back to the company with who you registered your domain name, and change the name server information there to that of your new host. The change will not happen immediately, as it needs time to spread around the Internet, but within 48 – 72 hours you will be able to open your browser, type in the name of your site, and see it open.

How much disk space will I need?

That depends on the type of web site you intend to design. All of your web pages will use space on the servers’ hard disk. A page that uses a lot of graphics, or maybe has video or audio embedded within it, will use more space than a simpler page. Similarly, if you intend to have some form of database available for your visitors that too will take up disk space. Email also takes up space, as do any files you may have available for download by visitors. Don’t try and limit yourself too much – the space that is just enough now may be too restrictive in just a few months. Always leave some space available for expansion – you may not need it right now but it will be a comfort to know that it is there if needed in a hurry.

What is bandwidth?

Bandwidth is the amount of traffic that a site may use per month. As with the above section on space, the amount of bandwidth you need depends on the type of site you will be running. A simple web site, for example for a club with just few members, would not need the amount of bandwidth a commercial site would use. You can estimate the amount of bandwidth needed from the size of your site and the number of expected visitors. Again, don’t limit yourself here, as exceeding your monthly bandwidth allocation will mean you will be charged for the extra usage, typically at a much higher rate, or even shut down for the remainder of the month.

What is a domain name?

A domain name is the method by which your site is identified on the Internet – the name that a visitor types to get to a web site. A domain name consists of two parts. The first part is normally the name of the business, institution, club etcetera. The second part, the “.com” for example, is called the top-level domain, and is normally used to identify the type of site. There are a number of top-level domains – we already mentioned “.com”. Others in common use are “.gov” for U.S. government web sites, “.edu” for universities, colleges and schools, and “.org” for charities. Other countries have their own top level domains, for example “.co.uk” would be a business operating in Great Britain, whereas a company in Brazil may be “.com.br”. Some web hosting providers offer a free domain registration forever with your hosting plan.

What is SSL?

SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, and is used to ensure the security of financial transactions on the Internet. If you’ve ever shopped online then you will have used SSL when you checked out and used a credit card to pay for what you bought. If you plan to sell using your web site then you will need to be able to offer SSL. You will also need to purchase your own SSL certificate from a company like VeriSign, at a cost of around $100/year. Also, check to see if the web host offers a static IP address – setting up SSL will be much easier in that case.

Java? Perl? What are these?

There are many programming languages that may be used within a web site, if the host supports them. They can be split into two types, client-side and server-side. Java, JavaScript and Flash are examples of client-side programs. Although some web hosting companies claim them as featuring in plans this is misleading as in reality they run entirely on the visitors’ own computer. Perl and PHP are examples of server-side programming languages. Whether you need the support for these will depend on the type of web site that you will be running.

I use a Window PC – should I choose a Windows-based

Not necessarily. The type of computer you use to design your web-site has nothing to do with the type of software that the server uses. Unix/Linux based servers will run web sites developed using Windows software without any problems. Having said that, you may need to run scripts on your web site, and it will be easier to write the scripts on a computer using the same software as the server uses. If you need to use databases, that too can affect your choice of server software.

You mentioned “intangibles”.What do you mean?

Intangibles cover several things. Look carefully at the web hosting company web site. Is it easy to navigate, and quick to load? Good-looking? Answer all the questions you may have? After all, if their own web site is poorly designed and maintained, and slow to load, do you really trust them to host your site? Read their terms and conditions carefully, too, as there may be hidden surprises. Try emailing a question to their support and see how quickly they reply. There are also web sites that host forums for discussion. Check these out and see what other users think of a particular company. How much does it cost? Does that seem very cheap compared to other companies offering similar plans? Remember, if a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is!

How do I know how many people visit the site?

Most web hosting companies offer a variety of reports that show a number of things. Apart from the actual number of visitors to the site, you will also be able to see how many different pages they looked at and how long they spent looking at a particular page. This can help you “fine-tune” the site to increase the length of stay. The reports should also show from where the visitor arrived, which may help you to see how you rank in various search engines. It can also show you where dead links are within your site, making site-maintenance easier for you.