A Web hosting company gives you a place to set up your Web site. In order to understand what hosting does for you, it helps to understand a little about how the Internet works.
The Internet is a huge worldwide network. When you connect to the Internet through a modem or high-speed service like DSL, your computer becomes part of that network.
Every computer that connects to the Internet is given a unique identifier called an Internet Protocol, or IP, address. This address is like your phone number: your friends, family, and favorite telemarketers can communicate with you by phone because they have your number. On the Internet, other computers find and communicate with yours using your IP address. If you use a dial-up connection, your Internet Service Provider usually assigns your computer an IP address from a pool of reserved addresses. You never know what your IP address will be until you connect.
Fortunately, a facility called DNS (Domain Name System) makes it so you can use a name instead of an IP address. Just as you would look up your friend's telephone number in the phone book using their name, computers can communicate with one another using a name (like www.LogicalExpressions.com), which is also called a URL (Uniform Resource Locator). On the Internet, the lookup process is automated. When a computer requests access to a particular URL, the Domain Name System translates that name into the corresponding IP address. DNS is basically a big, Internet phone book.
To make your Web site available to the Internet public, you need to place it on a Web server that is permanently connected to the Internet with a high-speed connection. A Web server is usually a specially configured computer that runs software to provide Web services and security features. Setting up and maintaining a reliable Web server is not an easy task. That is where hosting companies come in. For a fee, you get space on their Web server, software that drives your Web site, and the benefit of their expertise.
Hosting vs. Dial-Up
An important point to understand is that hosting puts your Web site on someone else's server where it is available to other Internet users 24/7. It has nothing to do with your home dial-up account, which allows your home computer to connect with the Internet. In fact, most hosting companies do not even offer dial-up service.
However, you DO need a dial-up or broadband connection in order to update your site, because you need a way to transfer files from your home computer to the Web server that hosts your site. If you already have an Internet connection, you are set.
You probably got a personal e-mail account with your dial-up service. In addition, your hosting company may have given you one or more e-mail accounts that use your site's domain name; for example, james@LogicalExpressions.com. You will need to configure your e-mail program to retrieve messages from the host's mail server.
Common Hosting Features
Most Web hosting companies offer different service packages or plans. These plans are designed to provide you with the services you need without making you pay for services you don't need. Every hosting company packages different combinations of features and charges different prices for those packages.
It is a good idea to select a Web designer or developer before you make any hosting decisions. For one thing, your developer may offer hosting as part of his or her services. This can be a good option from the standpoint that you have one number to call when there is any kind of problem. Also, your developer may use tools to create your Web site that work best (or only) on a particular operating system.
Another reason to select a Web designer first is that you should have a complete plan for your site before you shop for hosting. Hosting plans vary considerably in cost and features, so it is essential that you know exactly what you are looking for before you start to compare services.
Here are some of the features you should consider when selecting a plan:
- Storage Space: Most plans limit the amount of disk space your Web site can consume. Basic plans usually allow at least 100MB, which is plenty for most sites. You usually can add on additional space for an additional fee.
- Transfers: Every time someone visits your site, information is transferred back and forth between the server and that visitor's browser. If you have a busy site, the transfers can quickly add up. Because you are consuming precious connection bandwidth, hosts want you to pay extra if your site exceeds certain limitations. You usually start with at least 1GB of transfers and can pay for more bandwidth as you need it.
- Web Statistics: Most hosts will make your log files available to you. You can then acquire and use one of the popular Web statistics programs to analyze the logs. The best solution, however, is for the host to provide a browser-based interface to statistics software that runs on the server. That way you can just use your browser to review your statistics at your leisure over the Internet.
- E-Mail Accounts: Most basic plans give you 5 e-mail accounts to start with, and more if you pay for them. The host should provide you with a way to use your browser to process your email, in addition to letting your e-mail program access it. Other things you may be interested in are aliases, which let you create multiple names for a single account, and auto-responders, which automatically reply to received messages with a predefined response.
- E-Mail Lists: If you plan to create an E-Zine, discussion list, or e-mail newsletter, you will need an e-mail list service (such as SendMail or IMail). Again, the best solution is one you can manage yourself over the Internet. Some hosts offer e-mail lists as part of your e-mail service, while others require you to pay separately for it.
- Domain Registration and Hosting: Some hosts will register your domain name for free, others will charge a fee, typically $10 to $50 per year. Just make sure that the domain name is registered to your company and that you are the contact for it. Register the name yourself if the host balks at this.
- Chat Room: Most businesses don't have much use for a chat room because the telephone is a much more efficient way to provide customer service. However, you may want to provide your visitors with a chat room so they can chat amongst themselves. This service may be valuable for businesses that cater to hobbyists and collectors.
- Database Support: If your Web site will use a database, you will need to know whether or not the host supports your database of choice. On Windows servers, support for Access is frequently provided at no extra charge, but support for SQL Server or Oracle will almost certainly cost extra. Additionally, your host may charge extra for larger SQL Server databases.
- Shopping Cart: Some hosts make shopping cart software available to you. The features of that software can be critical if your site will involve a large Web storefront. Make sure the shopping cart software includes the features you need and supports the payment processor you choose (more on that later).
- Bulletin Board: Many hosts offer access to bulletin board software, so you can offer on-line support and special interest forums to your customers. A bulletin board is like a combination between a chat room and e-mail. Related messages are "threaded" into discussions so you can follow an entire conversation between two participants.
- Mail Automation: If you plan to create on-line forms that collect information and send it to your e-mail account, you will need some kind of e-mail utility. Hosts often provide a script that does this, or they give you access to a software program for which you can write custom scripts yourself.
- Backup: What happens if the host's power goes out? What happens if the server's drive crashes? Is your Web site backed up so it can be restored? Your host should back your site up on a regular basis, but you or your developer should also have a copy of all the files that make up your site. This issue is critical if you have a database or use a shopping cart. You don't want to lose orders.
- Contract Term: When possible, avoid signing a long-term contract. The hosting market changes rapidly, and you don't want to be locked-in to a service that you could quickly grow out of. Also, you don't want to pay in advance for service you may never get, should the host go out of business.
- Operating System: Your host may offer a choice of server operating systems, like Windows 2000, UNIX, or Linux. For most people, the operating system won't matter, but if you want to run specific software or scripts on your site, you'll need to make sure the software works on the host operating system.
Considering what you get, hosting is inexpensive. Particularly when you compare it to the cost of setting up and maintaining a Web server and high-speed Internet connection yourself. For small and medium-sized businesses, the decision to outsource Web services to a hosting company is a no-brainer.
You can usually get basic services for $25/mo or less. Even a fairly high-powered account with database support usually goes for $100 or less. Add-on services are usually available for nominal fees.
Selecting a Host
If you are setting up a personal site, you may already have all the hosting you need. There is a good chance that your Internet Service Provider gives you a certain amount of free space on their server that you can use to set up a personal site. Friends and family can get to your site if the know the proper URL; for example, www.LogicalExpressions.com/james.
There are literally thousands of hosting companies out there, and there is very little consistency in the services they offer or the prices they charge, partly because the underlying technology differs and it changes constantly. You have to shop smart here, and remember that you often get what you pay for.
Free hosting services are rarely truly free, and they rarely offer the services a business Web site requires. Providing hosting services costs money, so if it isn't obvious how they make that money back, you should be suspicious. Also, most of these so-called free sites severely limit your disk space utilization, bandwidth (which affects the performance of your site), transfers (which affects how many visitors you can have), or they require you to display their advertisements on your Web pages.
You may have seen articles on how to select a hosting service based on their statistics, but realistically, the best statistics possible won't make it any easier to deal with them when you need support. Your best bet is to rely on recommendations from other businesses that are happy with their hosting company. Ultimately, the way you are treated when you call to ask about their service will be a good indicator of how they will respond to you once you hand over your money. The hosting market is very competitive, so you don't have to settle for a company with whom you aren't comfortable.