If you’ve done any research lately you know that choosing a web host can be quite an adventure. There are hundreds of web hosting services, each offering a myriad of options. Many of those options only make sense to techno-geeks. Many options are completely irrelevant for your situation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and start considering only criteria that you understand, price often being one of the few.
Since I have recently been through this exercise, I thought it might be helpful to cut through the techno-speak and narrow down the options to the most important ones for most people. For that reason, I’ll provide a brief overview of the main hosting options and then focus on the one option that makes the most sense for the majority of people.
What Kind of Hosting Do I Need?
When you visit a web host’s website, you will see terms like the following:
- Web Hosting (aka Shared Hosting) – your account is one of many on a single computer (server). This is the least expensive option since the cost of running the server is distributed among many accounts.
- Virtual Private Server (VPS) – your very own server…sort of. In essence, you’re still sharing server hardware, but you get more of it hence you get better performance with a corresponding increase in cost.
- Dedicated Server – your own private server. This can be a server leased from the web hosting company or one that you purchase that they attach to their network for your exclusive use. Not only are you paying for the server hardware, but also to attach it to the web host’s network.
- Cloud Hosting – “the cloud” is a buzzword that is widely misunderstood by many people, both technical and non-technical. Traditional hosting is done on servers contained in a single location referred to as a “server farm.” Cloud hosting is different in that there are a number of such server farms in various locations around the country or the world. The advantage to cloud hosting is that your site is accessed via the server farm closest to the location of the visitor. This reduces the time it takes for data to travel from the server to the visitor and back thereby increasing performance. Needless to say, this comes at a higher price than typical hosting.
Those are just the major categories. When you click on any one of them, you’ll be presented with even more options and packages of options at varying price points.
For purposes of this article, I will focus on Shared Hosting. Relatively few people need anything more than a shared hosting account and those that do either have the technical expertise to manage them or will hire someone (often the hosting company) to manage them. The rest of the world uses shared hosting.
“Unlimited” Shared Hosting
The typical shared hosting account offers “unlimited” disk space, bandwidth, domain names, email accounts, etc., for somewhere around $10/month which puts it in a price range easily affordable by most. Some hosts offer cheaper plans that are limited to one domain name, a specified number of email accounts, and other limitations. Make sure that you can live with the limitations before opting for one of these minimal plans. For the small difference in price, it generally pays to get the “unlimited” package. Domains are like potato chips. It’s very hard to have only one!
Read The Fine Print
By the way, I put “unlimited” in quotes because many web hosts actually have limits that aren’t obvious. For example, my previous host was unable to backup my account because I had exceeded the maximum number of inodes allowed. Inodes are units of disk storage that are defined by the server’s operating system.
Each file (document, photo, script, etc.) stored on the server’s drive consumes a minimum of one inode. Having many small files uses more inodes than several large files. I had a whole lot of files on my account because of multiple instances of WordPress and other software packages I was running on the account. I used up my quota of inodes while having used a fairly small amount of disk space.
So, I had unlimited disk space to use, but the host’s automatic backup had stopped backing up my account. In my case, this wasn’t a big deal since I had my own backups in place for my individual sites, but there are many website owners who find out about this limitation only when their server crashes and the host informs them that the backup is incomplete or non-existent.
Some hosts, including my ex, have recently begun offering “cloud backup” (there’s that buzzword again!) as an extra cost option to address this issue. In my opinion, no one should rely on the host’s backups except perhaps as an absolute last resort. Ultimately, your data is your responsibility and you should be backing it up yourself.
The vast majority of web hosts advertise 99.9% uptime guarantees. This means that they guarantee their servers (and by inference, your website) will be up and running 99.9% of the time in any given month. That extra 1/10th of a percent gives them a little slack for the inevitable hardware and network problems that servers are prone to.
If you do the math, 1/10 of one percent of 30 days is just over 43 minutes. That means your site could be unavailable up to 43 minutes total during any given month and the host has met their uptime commitment. Some web hosts actually post their server uptime.
You can monitor your site’s uptime yourself using a monitoring service and if your site is critical to your business you should be doing so. Keep in mind that the uptime guarantee applies to the server on which your site is hosted. Obviously, if the server is offline, your site will be offline, too. If your site becomes unavailable and the server is online, however, that’s likely out of the scope of the uptime guarantee.
It should be obvious that the more shared hosting accounts are assigned to a given server, the poorer the performance is going to be for those shared accounts. All it takes is one or two of those shared accounts to hog most of the server’s resources to drag down the rest of the hundreds of accounts on the same server.
If you’ve ever had too many programs running at the same time on your personal computer, you know what server overload is like. The computer can’t fit all the programs and data into memory at once so starts juggling them trying to keep up with the demand. At best, the programs run maddeningly slower. At worst, you start to experience system freezes and/or crashes. Servers have a lot more horsepower than your personal computer, but there is a limit to what they can handle, too.
Web hosts do try to limit this kind of problem and sometimes get a bit overzealous in that regard. If you’re running a singe website on your account and you’re not getting huge volumes of traffic to the site, you’re not likely to run into resource limits unless something unusual happens, such as a brute force login attack (bad) or your latest blog post hits the front page of Digg (good!).
Barring such a scenario, however, a single site should not run into problems with shared hosting. If you are running multiple sites from your account, the odds go up proportionate to the number of sites you’re hosting.
One option that is becoming more prevalent is Solid State Disk (SSD) storage. SSD can result in a very significant improvement in performance because the disk is so much faster than a standard disk drive. You may not see much difference if your site doesn’t access the disk heavily, but there should be a noticeable improvement in most cases. If your web host offers SSD, they will make sure you know about it. If you don’t mind paying a few bucks more per month, it’s a highly recommended option.
So Which Host Should I Choose?
Perhaps a better question is which hosts should I avoid? Generally speaking, the better known to the public a web host is, the less likely I am to use them, much less recommend them. Good marketing campaigns can put the name on every tongue, but can’t overcome shortcomings in the product.
In my experience, the marketing is often compensating for those shortcomings. Two examples are HostGator and GoDaddy. I recently left HostGator after a number of years with them because they were bought out and their service deteriorated at an astonishing rate. I will be publishing a post on my blog shortly with those details. Suffice to say that I will not use nor recommend any host owned by EIG, the new owners of HostGator.
As for GoDaddy, I have several clients hosted on GoDaddy (their decision, not mine). GoDaddy’s administration interface is such a pain to deal with that I’ve talked to their support staff more than all other hosts I’ve dealt with combined. If I’ve needed to contact their support to get what should be simple things accomplished, I can only imagine what a non-technical person goes through.
In short, don’t shop strictly on price or name recognition. Most shared hosting providers will be around the same price range and the better ones will likely be toward the top end of the price range. I expect to pay around $10/month for shared hosting without any upgrades.
Buying a longer term contract will get you a break on price, but there’s something to be said for going month-to-month in the event that something like the HostGator buyout happens.
John Sawyer is The Small Business Website Guy, an IT professional with over 30 years’ experience in software and web development. John specializes in developing and maintaining websites built on the WordPress platform. His mission is to provide technical services to businesses and individuals who would rather run their business than mess with their website.