Whether you are running a small business, a Fortune 500 enterprise, or something in between, Web hosting providers may have something to offer.
Once you decide you need Web hosting services, you need to do some research to determine whether a specific hosting company is a good fit. Small businesses will depend more heavily on their hosting provider, as their entire Web infrastructure may reside at a hosting company. As businesses get larger and acquire their own IT staff, they tend to start running their own Web servers. At some point, maybe due to cost-cutting measures, companies may revisit the hosting option. If it’s really only five dollars per month, then why not?
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Hosting companies also offer virtual machines your own IT staff can run. These are a great alternative to hosting disaster recovery servers in remote data centers. VM plans are more expensive than a regular shared Web hosting plan, but not much more. With both options we need to pay close attention to the hosting company’s track record and value-add services. Keep in mind that the Web hosting market is extremely competitive, and not many companies survive.
What to Expect
There are literally hundreds of popular hosting companies out there. Each has its own tools for managing your domains, and each offers its own unique set of value-add services.
At a minimum, there are a few things you should demand from any Web host. Due to the brutally competitive nature of the business and interchangeability of these services, you should never be shy about demanding a new feature or picking up and moving to a new provider. A few of the basics you should expect are:
- a Web interface to manage your domains, billing, and user accounts
- shell, SFTP, and various other methods of remote access
- unlimited MySQL databases, and an easy way to create and manage them
- easy, automated installation mechanisms for common open source Web applications
- unlimited e-mail boxes and a few options for Web-based access
- log analysis and detailed reporting
- and lately: unlimited disk space and bandwidth
Five or ten years ago you would not find most of these features with the most popular hosting companies. These days, however, they all offer most of these items and a lot more.
Companies that offer VM hosting, or Virtual Private Servers (VPS) as some call it, will provide a basic set of tools to manage your virtual machine. You can generally select from a few operating systems and reload it at any time. Afterwards, however, you’re on your own. You get the root password and are free to install whatever you need.
Is it Worth It?
Psychologically, most people have a problem purchasing something that appears too cheap. When looking at Web hosting services, the list of options leaves most people drooling. Then they see the price: sometimes less than five dollars per month, for unlimited disk space, bandwidth, accounts, and with a free domain registration. How can they do that?
The servers must be horribly overloaded as these companies cram more and more customers onto them. At $60 per year per customer, the hosting company can’t exactly afford to buy top of the line servers, right?
The truth is, hosting is brutally competitive. Most companies fail. The ones that survive have a high level of automation to allow them to manage their servers with very little man hours. Even at today’s sub-$5 pricing for a monthly plan, that equates to one $3,000 server per 50 customers, at their yearly rate. A properly configured Apache Web server environment should be able to handle 300 Web sites on today’s hardware without a problem.
Of course, someone could write a PHP script that goes wild and consumes way too many resources, slowing down the entire server. The hosting companies monitor the servers, and this type of thing is usually dealt with quickly. However, it is worthwhile to ask your chosen hosting company whether or not they allow adult content. Adult sites are generally very high-traffic, and if your site is sharing the same Web server, it may suffer performance issues.
The Case for Secondary Hosting
Enterprises should not rule out hosting providers. You don’t need to outsource your entire Web team, but part of a good disaster recovery strategy will certainly include multiple off-site resources. Instead of paying co-location fees and moving your own servers to a datacenter across the country, why not get a few virtual machines in multiple locations?
If your physical server dies, you may be sending employees to the remote site to replace the hardware. In a hosted VM environment, you never have to worry about taking employees away from their daily work and paying travel expenses. Just click a button in the hosting provider’s Web interface to create a new VM if something goes awry.
You can host your own Web servers, secondary DNS, or just about any other service your company relies upon. If you’re worried about reliability, you can always select two or three VM providers in separate parts of the country (or world). To equal the cost of one server in a co-location environment, you’d have probably 10-20 virtual machines spread throughout the world.
If you’re interested in hosting Web sites with a Web hosting provider or VMs, the next step is to do some research. Read reviews of various hosting companies, and pay attention to issues people cite. There will always be a certain amount of people unhappy with a service, but pay careful attention to what they are saying went wrong. Likewise, pay attention to the few positive reviews you might find. Most happy customers remain silent, so when you find a positive review it holds more weight than a rant.
“Cheap web hosting” is a great Google search. You will find a few unbiased sites that list providers, the services they offer, reviews, and pricing. We don’t want to make any recommendations, but just remember: More expensive is not always better in a fiercely competitive market such as Web hosting.
Charlie Schluting is the author of Network Ninja, a must-read for every network engineer.