Your website is essentially your face on the web. You realize the importance of having your business or brand accessible 24x7. You hire a great agency that brings fresh ideas to the table, you plan out the interactivity and functionality on the website, go through lengthy QA processes and finally you have a website you're proud of.
Now, all that is left is for you bring your great new website to your users by uploading it to a server and taking it live. Simple right? Not quite! You can have a great website but if your site isn't accessible and fast loading, you have just wasted your time. Now use this example with anything 'online', including web applications, mobile sites, mobile application backends or CMS solutions
Choosing a web host is one of the most underrated decision. You're understandably busy building a great product but ignoring an effective delivery channel(read web host) is criminal.
So, what factors should you consider when you're in the market for a web host? Here are a few tips :
Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
While its important to find a solution that fits into your budget, don't be unwilling to shell out a few extra bucks a month for a better service, it will go a long way.
An important factor to consider here is the actual nature of your website. Sure, a static site with just a few pages would be fine on a cheaper host but when you're running a dynamic website such as an e-commerce site or any solution that relies greatly on a database, you need to take into account the minimal amount of customization a cheaper host will offer.
Let's look at database connections on a dynamic website. Low-end hosts generally have a limit of 20 concurrent database connections at a time or 1000 maximum connections an hour. What happens if your site visitors just lap up your content and you exceed this connection limit? Your site will be switched off.
Again, opting for a cheaper host may meet your short-term needs but cheaper hosting may often mean low-end service, a non-supportive support backbone or even a weak SLA. Many budget hosts aim at serving quantity over quality so don't expect any 'heroic support' on a low end host. So when your site truly needs to be online all the time, don't skim on hosting costs.
Shared, VPS, Cloud or Dedicated?
With budgets being spoken of, the next decision is the type of hosing you need. Essentially, you have 3-4 broad options.
- Shared Hosting - Where you are one site on a server that houses 1000s of websites
- Virtual Private Server/Dedicated Virtual - Where you are one site on a server housing 4-10 others
- Cloud - Redundant or Elastic VPSs
- Dedicated Server - One server, One website
Now of course, you don't need a dedicated server for a relatively straight forward website, that would just be a waste of hard earned money. however, depending on the requirement of your website such as custom configurations with PHP, custom modules such as mod_security, you need to scale upwards towards a dedicated server.
That being said, you can be perfectly happy on a shared hosting service if your site isn't too demanding and can migrate to a better solution with time. The best guide on the type of hosting is your development team. Since they're building your website, they would be the best judge of your website's requirements.
What about the Cloud?
Well a cloud in its true sense of the word is a fully redundant solution. What this means is that no matter what, your site will always be online. What happens often though, is that web hosting companies market 'elastic' VPS solutions attached to a SAN(Storage Area Network) as a cloud. These solutions, however, are not bad. They provide you with a high level of configuration and customization and more importantly, allow you to scale your server horizontally(with more space and power to your machine) or vertically(with more instances of your server).
There's no such thing as Unlimited
There's no doubt that you will find tons of hosting providers that offer Unlimited hosting for a meager cost. Don't be fooled by marketing talk and read the fine print. There's no such thing as unlimited and your usage is subject to a 'Fair Use Policy'. Somewhere in the SLA, you will find a mention of how much is too much.
As your site grows, you will realize that you're hitting these limits more and more. Pretty soon, you will max out your 'unlimited' bandwidth and space resulting in your site being switched off.
Gone are the days where you need to sign up for a yearly commitment. Hosting these days gives you the flexibility of paying on a monthly, quarterly, half-yearly or yearly basis. Some solutions, especially cloud based, offer you the options of paying by day or even by hour. This allows you to try out the service before you setup camp permanently. This simply takes the fear of committing to a particular host without having experienced them first hand and throws it out the window.
Read the SLA
SLA or Service Level Agreement is essentially a contract between you and your hosting provider. It generally covers
Your web hosting providers limited commitment to you
- Up-time Guarantees
- Service Commitments & Response times.
- Generally who is responsible for what.
A very important point here it the Up-time guaranteed to you. If for any reason, you do not receive the guaranteed up-time, most hosting companies will either offer you a discount on your next bill or credit towards it. This is your right, enforce it!
Support is something most users take for granted but honestly, in today's hosting market, support is an integral part of the service offering. Support levels can be of many types
- Basic - Where your host will support only hardware related issues
- Semi-Managed - Where your host will support hardware and bottom line server issues
- Fully-Managed - Where your host will support anything and everything related to your server
So which option is for you? Well, it depends. If you're running a simple website.you'll probably float on by with basic support and probably never have to speak to your host unless there's a disaster. However, if your website is complex, relies on a lot of dynamic section and you need to operate your website in a highly customized environment, then you're better off with atleast semi-manged or better yet, fully-managed support.
'But I already have a web design agency so why do I need a support level?'
Honestly, your web agency does what they're good at ie. building you a great website and maintaining your code. This makes up your software. Rarely will you find an agency that hosts your website. Hosting is almost always handled by an expert hosting company and that is the hardware part of things. So yes, while your agency can do a top notch job of making sure your application runs smoothly, hardware support would need to be provided at the hosting end.
We're not trying to get off the hook here. Yes, we're an agency and we do some pretty high end development. That's our forte. When it comes to hosting, we need to rely on support from the web host we go with for a client website simply because they have the best expertise and have dedicated teams that handle sever faults & issues on a daily basis. While any agency can provide you with things like setting up domains, emails, configs and the rest, certain tasks are best done by the guys running the hardware.show.
Support levels can often be opted for as an addon to your basic hosting package. This generally works on a per-month or per-ticket/issue pricing so make sure you ask your host about the support level and whether it is inclusive or extra.
Web hosting is like any business and like any business, customer acquisition is tremendously important. In most cases, if you're going in for a VPS, Cloud or Dedicated hosting service, your future webhost will be more than happy to oblige you with freebies such as
- Free Migration
- Server Installs
- Free Service Trial
- Waiving of Setup Costs
Remember, you can't expect to receive freebies on a low-end service but mid to top-end hosts will be happy to oblige.
Finally and most importantly, do your research!
While all this information should help you choose the right type of hosting solution and the right provider, nothing beats public opinion. Make sure you spend some time surfing the web to find reviews on your choice of web host. Forums like www.webhostingtalk.com provide a keen insight on how good a host really is.