Hosting explained: What you need to know

Written on 01 May, 2008 by Jonathan Crossfield
Categories Web Hosting

Without web hosting, your website can never reach the outside world. Hosting is the essential link between your website and the internet, but can often become a baffling and confusing annoyance.

If you’re like me, being forced to read a list of technical specifications and jargon is a better cure for insomnia than a mallet to the skull. But sometimes, choosing the right hosting package can involve making important business decisions based on information it seems you need a year at night school to fully understand.

Wouldn’t it be nice to understand what it was you were paying for? Wouldn’t you feel more confident knowing how each figure and each impenetrable word benefited your business?

This guide may not answer all your questions, but should at least provide a window into the world of web hosting.

What is web hosting?

Here is a simple analogy for you. If your computer was a television, the domain name would be the channel button on your remote, the hosting provider would be the television station and the host server would be the video bank at the television station broadcasting the recorded programs you watch. Therefore, the server stores your website and ‘broadcasts’ it to any internet browser that enters the domain name.

But servers can be configured to provide a number of different website solutions.

To clearly understand how a particular hosting package can benefit you, an understanding of the goals and needs of the website is needed in advance.

How do I choose the best hosting company?

When choosing a hosting company, there are certain ingredients that can make the difference between online success and an internet disaster.

Do you want to be able to contact your hosting company at 10pm if your site and email go down? Do you want to deal with someone who speaks English instead of technical jargon? Do you need someone who can manage your business growth as your website develops into an ecommerce system?

There are a number of small hosting businesses set up in garages and basements or with limited staff resources. The smaller the company, the fewer resources they have available to provide adequate customer support or servicing when you need it. It is not unknown for websites to go down only to discover that the person responsible for fixing the server is on holiday or otherwise unavailable. Every time your website is down, your business loses money, so compromises on hosting prices can cost you in other ways.

In trusting a hosting company with your business, you should make sure they are large enough and sufficiently established to guarantee the reliability and constant up-time you need for your website.

The most reliable hosting companies provide dedicated customer support and technical services, capable of dealing with your issues 24x7. If your website goes offline, you don’t want to wait a couple of days before discovering the problem – you want to be sure your provider will identify and correct the issue before you even know about it.

Also, although it is possible to host your website anywhere in the world, choosing a local hosting company can have greater advantages. Dealing with a hosting company in the United States can be frustrating. Long distance calls are expensive and email support can often be slow and unhelpful outside of US business hours. If your website is suffering costly delays during Australian business hours, you don’t want to wait for New York to wake up before it can be fixed.

Netregistry houses servers in the largest data centre in the southern hemisphere, Global Switch in Pyrmont, providing reliable, secure, and above all, local hosting.

Are free hosting services worthwhile?

There are a number of free hosting services available. Some large hosting companies offer free hosting packages upon registration of a domain name as a way of keeping your business.

Free hosting accounts are supported by advertising, and usually display your webpage with a sponsored banner across the top or to the side. This can affect the placement of elements within your own design, as well as provide distraction to visitors and a possible way for them to leave your site.

Free hosting plans also advertise themselves through your webpages, meaning your customers are aware that you are using a free service. If a visitor sees you compromising your website with sponsored advertising, they may have a negative perception of your business. Free hosting is great for hobby websites, but does not look professional.

What do I need to consider when choosing a hosting package?

There are a number of factors to consider when deciding on the best value hosting solution for your website. It is important to not only understand your current goals, but have an idea for how the website is likely to evolve.

In choosing a hosting plan, there are a few key considerations. Data storage, data transfer, bandwidth, databases and scripting technology.

Most hosting accounts come equipped with features such as email. Even so, there are some that consider email an added extra for a fee. Check for the features you need beforehand so you have a clear idea of the total cost of the package.

How much data storage is necessary?

Most hosting plans contain more than enough data storage for the majority of websites. But certain files take up more space than others. Lots of image, video or audio files can chew up storage space quickly. It is possible to reduce the size of many large files, so it is worth working with someone with the technical ability to compress the amount of data without compromising quality.

If your website is likely to grow over time, this needs to be accounted for. An extreme example would be a site like YouTube, needing to find storage for thousands of large video files every day. You will probably never be faced with that kind of growth, but even a few large files added regularly over time can soon eat up your storage space.

Alternatively, simple text pages with only a few small images take relatively little storage space. You may be able to add hundreds of these pages before filling the space taken by a handful of audio or video files.

What is bandwidth?

Bandwidth is the ‘pipe’ that connects your website to the internet. It is a measure of the amount of digital information that can be accessed within a given time period. For example, if your main webpage is 300 kilobytes in size, then every time a web browser accesses it, 300kb of data travels down the ‘pipe’. How fast this data is transferred depends on how many people are accessing data down the pipe at the same time and how large your pipe is.

Larger files, such as audio and video, eat up bandwidth just as they eat up data storage. Putting a lot of large files in your website can clog the flow of data through the ‘pipe’ and make your website much slower to load in a visitor’s browser.

Even with small files, your bandwidth can still become bottle-necked. If your pipe can cope with a certain amount of data transfer per second, but the number of people trying to access your website exceeds this data limit, it can also cause a traffic jam. With the data not getting through fast enough, website visitors can receive ‘timed out’ error messages instead of your wonderful webpage.

If too much traffic tries to access data through this pipe at the same time, it is possible to crash the server, putting your website offline until the problem can be fixed. This can make some websites a victim of their own success, with their website becoming inaccessible when they are at their most popular.

If you are expecting a large spike in traffic or an increase in large files, it is worth talking to your web host about bandwidth solutions. This could mean a transfer to a different plan or short term strategies such as website mirrors (a duplicate of the website on a separate hosting server).

Should I worry about data transfer limits?

Each hosting account has a data transfer limit. This is the amount of data the hosting package can provide to the internet within the given time period (usually a month). For example, Netregistry’s Economy Hosting package has a data transfer limit of 5GB - more than enough for most small websites. With many simple webpages only being a few kilobytes in size, it would take a lot of traffic accessing the website to download over 5GB worth of information. Exceeding this limit can mean additional fees for every additional megabyte of data, and it is worth knowing what these fees are before choosing a plan.

Again, large traffic spikes and large data files can push you over your limit. It is worth being prepared for these instances as additional fees can be discounted if bought in advance.

What is database technology?

More and more websites now allow visitors to interact and manipulate information on the webpage. This may be by entering and registering their information, performing searches to be presented with a page of specific results, or entering comments into a blog or forum, to mention just three examples.

These websites are called ‘dynamic’, and use database technology to store information in sections that can be reassembled into fresh webpages in answer to the visitor request. Classic examples of dynamic websites are blogs, eBay or any site that allows a user to sign in and create a profile. Also, any website that uses a content management system or shopping cart works in the same way.

If you plan to include any of these features on your website, you will need to check for database technology on your hosting server. An example is Netregistry’s Business Hosting, providing the most commonly used database features for small business.

The database is also bounded by storage limits, and it is worth knowing what these are before planning a complex website.

If you don’t plan to use any dynamic features, you may only need basic ‘static’ hosting, such as Netregistry’s Economy Hosting package, saving you money. Of course, if at any time you decide to develop the features on your website, it is possible to upgrade your hosting plan to the correct configuration.

What is Scripting?

The most common language used to code web pages is called HyperText Markup Language (HTML). This code tells a web browser how to display the webpage. But when creating dynamic webpages, some additional scripting languages are needed to tell the web browser where to access the information needed to construct the web page.

Because your hosting server will need to interpret these scripts to provide the correct responses from the database, you need to be sure it has been configured with the relevant languages.

Common scripting languages are PHP, Perl, ASP, etc. Unless you are building the website yourself, it is unlikely you will need to know anything about these languages.

Your web designer will be able to tell you which particular scripts to look for when choosing a hosting package, but most hosting servers with database technology support the majority of commonly used scripts.

Where can I get more advice?

You may now understand some of the basics, but relating them to your specific situation can sometimes require experience and further knowledge. If you are still unsure how to choose the best hosting plan for your website, the Netregistry sales team is trained in determining your specific needs.

The best hosting plan is one that doesn’t require regular attention or additional monthly fees, but can cope with the daily demands of your website without complaint. By addressing the key principles, you can ask the right questions of your hosting provider and give your website the best platform to reach your audience.

Netregistry has ten years experience in providing award winning hosting solutions to Australian businesses. With static, dynamic and e-commerce hosting plans available, Netregistry can provide the reliability and features you need to form the foundations for your new online empire.