Finding a cosy home for your new website can be quite a daunting prospect. (see ‘Internet 101’ in the Domains article There’s an almost bewildering array of options, and looking them up on Google will most probably leave you even more confused.
Web Servers Explained.
A web hosting company provides you with a access to a web-server that your site is ‘hosted on’. A webserver is effectively a big hard disk that’s specially configured to efficiently ‘serve’ files to the Internet whenever someone’s computer browser comes asking for them. There’s three main choices – shared, dedicated and virtual hosting. On top of that, there are ‘cloud’ and green/eco options as well.
This is the cheapest option. You can think of it as your website sharing a server with other sites – in the same way as you might share a flat with some flatmates. The rent is cheaper as you’re sharing, and someone else is responsible for all the maintenance. The downside is that you don’t get to choose your flatmates, and you don’t know even how many of them there are. If one of them has a party and gets loads of visitors then no-one else can get in the flat – including people who came to see you. This can leave access to your site running quite slow as the server is so busy, and can ultimately ‘crash’ it – perhaps because 10,000 people suddenly want to see their funny cat picture – or Stephen Fry just tweeted about their site. If that happens then you need to wait for them all to leave and for your host (landlord) to reset everything.
Dedicated hosting is more akin to having a house all to yourself. There’s only your site on your server so no-one else can crash the server and bring your sit down. In some cases, you’re totally responsible for the server and have to set it up and do all the security updates on it. This is quite a technically skilled area and not something you want to do. You’d want a ‘managed’ service whereby the hosting company does that on your behalf as they’re the experts on configuring their own servers. A bit like renting a house versus owning it and having to fix the boiler if it breaks, I guess.
Here’s where my rather tortured house/flat metaphor falls apart a bit, but virtual hosting is kind of a cross between a shared and dedicated server. It’s a bit like a shared flat where each of the rooms has its own front door. You share the same physical machine (server) a other sites, but it is partitioned into different ‘virtual’ servers that just host your site. The idea being that if someone else’s partition crashes or gets lots of traffic, yours should be unaffected.
How much does it cost?
Prices can vary wildly, and it’s not always a good idea with the cheapest provider. The quality of customer service is quite important, and many of the cheaper shared hosts cram thousands of sites onto the server – a bit like a slum landlord if you will – leaving them all to run very slowly and liable to regular downtime (due to crashes).
- Shared hosting – approx £100 a year.
- Dedicated hosting – approx £1,200 a year.
- Virtual hosting – approx £600 a year.
Which should you choose?
Unlike a CMS or a CRM system, it’s relatively easy to move your website from one host to another so my advice would be to start it off on a good quality shared host and then take it from there. Once you get to about 20,000 visitors a month (measured by your Google Analytics) then you should reassess your options.
I’d steer clear of hosting from the big domain-name providers like Go Daddy or 123-reg. Although lots of companies sell domain names and hosting, there’s no need to buy both from the same place. It’s also a good idea to get your site hosted in the UK if you’re based here. Google will take that into account (although only a little bit) when determining your place in the search rankings. More importantly, you want their customer services to work the same hours you do, and it’s good to be able to easily and cheaply call them on the phone.
You can get recommendations of good hosting companies from colleagues in the sector or from email forums. I’ve tried quite a few in the past and here’s a couple that I would recommend looking at. Tso Host do a decent and cheap shared hosting service and you also get a Control Panel that allows you to easily install programmes like WordPress or Drupal.
Positive Internet offer a shared hosting package for £100 or so a year. They don’t cram too many other sites on it and their customer service is pretty good. Their virtual servers are pretty decent too and they still do a charity discount I think. (P.S. I don’t earn any kind of referral commissions from them or anyone else.)
Monitoring Your Server.
Sign up for a free account with something like SiteUptime and put your website details in. Their ‘bots’ will visit your site every 30 minutes to see if your server is working OK. They’ll send you an automated email if the server is down and another one when it’s back up again. At the end of the month they’ll email you a summary of all their visits. If everything’s OK they’ll give you a 100% uptime score most months. You should expect this from a dedicated or virtual server. If your score is regularly below 97% on a shared server then you should think about moving it, especially if most of the outages happen during the day or early evening when most of your visitors occur.
Bear in mind though – won’t tell you for sure that your site is working properly, just that your server is. If there’s a problem with your WordPress or Drupal installation, the site may look broken to a human visitor but the site monitoring service will just see that the server itself is running OK.