Guide to Hosting – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Part 1
Published: 1st September 2017
It’s a varied world when it comes to hosting. Some hosting plans cost a fortune, others, next to nothing. Some are managed, some shared, others offer dedicated servers and do ‘virtual’ servers even exist?
We think it’s about time we had a stab at straightening out this bag of snakes and give our opinion on the hosting options available. We’re going to make this a series of posts as there’s a fair bit to cover.
So, what is hosting?
Let’s say you’ve had your new website built, now you want to go live and watch the visitors come pouring in, however before that happens you need somewhere for your site to live. This is where hosting comes in and when you strip back all the bells and whistles, the many forms of hosting are essentially the same; a computer or part of a computer connected to the internet from which your website is served, hence why we call these computers servers.
Servers, just like any other computer come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, just as with choosing the right laptop or home computer, the same considerations need to be made when selecting the right server. Storage, memory and processor speeds are very important and you need a server which can handle the complexity and demand of your website. Your laptop might not struggle with just you using it, but imagine 10,000 people tried using the same machine… at the same time… This is the type of demand we place on web servers.
Now buying and running your own physical server isn’t really an option, firstly they’re very expensive and secondly their connection to the internet needs to be ‘backward’… your home internet is configured so that content is quick to download but slow to upload, servers need to be quick to upload whereas downloading isn’t so important. These specialist connections cost a fortune and aren’t the type of thing you can easily get installed into your home or office.
So, the solution is to rent what you need from a company with the right connection and an arsenal of servers; a hosting company.
Which is right for you?
So, we’ve now got a basic idea of what hosting is, let’s talk a bit about the different packages you might find available from the vast number of hosting providers out there. This is a bit of a tricky one, but as a rule of thumb there are 2 types of hosting:
Shared Hosting is normally the cheapest of the options available, often not costing much more than several pounds a month. Often shared packages promote unlimited resources but upon closer inspection of their terms you’ll find data warehousing clauses which prevent you from storing anything other than files specific to the running of your website on the server. (These clauses can also extend to your website itself in certain circumstances so if you are going to be storing a lot of data, this is already a no go hosting solution.)
However, the real issue with shared hosting solutions is that you’re ‘sharing’ (hence the name) an IP address with many other websites. This should be a major concern as any one of these other websites could get the shared IP blacklisted should their site become compromised. This could easily result in any emails from your website being blocked and possible virus warnings when people visit your site, bad times! Unfortunately, a vicious circle of sorts exists here too, with the cheaper price point, these packages attract smaller websites which may be poorly built or go without updates and as such are more vulnerable from attacks. You’re not just sharing an IP either, you’re sharing the resources of the server and to make their money these servers are crammed with websites so don’t expect blistering speeds and large amounts of traffic could see your site slow right down or not load at all.
Shared and simpler hosting platforms are also often restricted in the technology available on them, for example, certain key functions might not be available which some plugins or Content Management Systems rely on. It’s important to know if your website/system is using such functions, if so, shared hosting is probably not for you.
Ok so you can probably tell we’re not a fan of shared hosting, but it exists and therefore must have a place in the market, right? Well we’d never recommend it, but if you’re looking to host a basic informative website which won’t be taking payments or communicating back and forth with your visitors, then such a package will probably suffice. Just be aware of the pitfalls we’ve mentioned here and don’t expect much help (at least for free) should/when things go wrong, more on this later…
Right, now we’re talking, dedicated hosting packages will ensure you have your own IP address, which only you can use and as such you avoid all the risks we mentioned previously of other websites dragging yours through the dirt.
Dedicated hosting packages also normally come with guaranteed resources, this might be from a virtual server or a physical (annoyingly also often referred to as a dedicated) server.
Virtual or Cloud Servers
Virtual servers, sometimes referred to as cloud servers are getting better and better and we use them for some of our more demanding websites. If you take the resources of a physical server (or several physical servers) and divide these up using software to create lots of smaller servers you get virtual (or cloud) servers. This isn’t the same as shared hosting, as your resources are guaranteed and you can often scale them to suit your needs, for example you might need more processing power, so you can simply increase this using your control panel. Virtual servers are very flexible and don’t tend to suffer from aging hardware issues as with physical servers, however with more complicated software involved this can itself cause issues.
Physical (Dedicated) Servers
This is a physical server and it’s all yours, it will sit in a rack with other physical servers and you are free to use all its resources, which is normally a fair amount. Dedicated servers are very fast and can normally serve the most demanding of websites. They do however need replacing every few years and require quite a bit of technical know how to manage and keep running. They also can’t be scaled as easily as virtual servers, but we have to say this is our preferred type of hosting, nothing beats a physical machine dedicated to the cause of serving websites.
With both types of dedicated hosting you’ll get full control and access to the server, you’ll be free to make alterations and additions to the operating system and as such can configure the sever to your exact needs. This makes everything much easier, you’ll be able to update services yourself and deploy your own backup and security solutions. Running such a server certainly takes a little knowledge, but the rewards far outweigh the learning curve.
Support & Maintenance
Support is another key factor to consider when it comes to choosing the right hosting package. Shared and cheaper packages often don’t come with any real support and what support there might be will often be through a ticketing system or perhaps a live chat, you often won’t get a phone number you can call when things go wrong. There’s a good chance any resolution will take several days too, as the ratio of support staff to websites is much higher.
Support on the more expensive/complete dedicated packages is much more efficient, you’ll often have an account manager and a direct line for support. You’ll get resolutions within minutes or hours as opposed to days and the support team will be far more knowledgeable and can assist with many of the more advanced issues. They can also help maintain your server, ensuring updates are installed and the server remains secure as well as advising you on how best to scale up as and when demand grows.
So that’s an introduction of what hosting is and the different types available, click here to read our second article on this subject which talks about ensuring you have the right developer to compliment your hosting and our recommendations on moving forward.