Selecting a Good Webhost

As part of my job, and also as a freelance web developer, I am frequently using a variety of web hosts ranging from excellent, to barely adequate.  Unfortunately selecting a good web hosting isn’t a matter of paying the right amount of money, or even reading reviews.  So in this post I want to outline some of the more critical things to consider when choosing a web host, and how to spot the bad apples.

What are your requirements?

Before you can start looking for a webhost, you first need to know what you need.  There are a variety of different types of hosting, which range in both price and capabilities.  For the vast majority of websites, a simple shared hosting account is more then enough, however for higher traffic websites, a VPS, a dedicated or even cloud based solution may become necessary. So what are these and how do I know where I fall?

Shared hosting

Shared hosting is the most popular type of hosting, and is also one of the most restrictive, and also cost effective. With shared hosting, you have space on a server with other websites. The host generally gives you a control panel, email, and a database.  Users genrally have limited or no access to the configuration of the server. The trade of with shared hosting is there is minimal configuration requirements, and it’s relatively easy and quick to be up and running.  Further Shared hosting is usually the most inexpensive type of hosting.

Generally websites that are not critical, such as a small business website that uses the site mostly for information, or a small personal website are great for these types of hosts.

VPS Hosting

VPS hosting or a “Virtual Private Server” is simular to shared hosting in that you share a server with other people, however the big difference is that your website runs inside of a virtual server on that server which sandboxes it from the other websites running on the same server.

VPS servers tend to have higer performance then their shared hosting counterparts because fewer accounts are generally sharing the resources on the server, and VPS’s are granted greater use of system resources.

VPS servers generally give the user far more configuration control, and generally, administrator access.  The disadvantages to VPS are it can be a bit more work to get set up, and depending on your host, you may need to have slightly more technical capabilities.  VPS servers tend to cost a little more money also depending on the configuration you request.

Dedicated Server Hosting

Of the types of hosting, Dedicated Servers are by far the most flexible in terms of what you are able to configure and the resources available. Dedicated servers as the name suggests are a physical server leased from the hosting company.  These servers can be fully managed, partially managed, or not managed depending on requirements, skill level, host and budget.  It’s a good idea to shop around to find a dedicated server solution that meets your needs specifically.

Dedicated servers are usually substantially more than the VPS and shared hosting solutions, but have complete access to system resources and configuration.  They tend to be the slowest to get set up and also usually require the most technical experience to maintain.

One of the crucial benefits to a dedicated server is that you can handle far greater volumes of traffic then you can on a shared host or VPS, and usually you have unlimited bandwidth on these services.

So what do i need?

When you first start your website you’ll probably just want to go with a shared host.  This will give you a fast and easy to manage website for a low cost, and give you an opportunity to grow your website.  Many hosting providers infact allow you to migrate to a bigger hosting package as your website grows.

Another option is to use a cloud hosting provider.  For the most part, cloud hosting providers provide the least amount of support, and you generally set up the hosting service yourself.  An excellent example is Amazon’s EC2 service, which this website actually runs off.

Amazon EC2 allows you to spin up an instance of a server at any size and then grow it as your needs grow.  this can be helpful if you don’t know what kind of traffic to expect on your website, or if you know that your needs could change frequently.  For example if your an accountant, you will probably be much busier at the beginning of the year, where if you are a retailer you may be busy toward christmas. This kind of flexibility keeps your costs low, and also allows you to meet customer demand.

Making sure you have the services you need

The other piece of the puzzle to consider a webhost is what services do you require.  Many popular websites run on the popular and open source PHP programming language.  It’s popularity has meant many hosts run what’s known as a LAMP install (Linux, Apache, PHP, MySql).  This type of install runs the vast majority of websites and software with minimal tweaking and is well supported.

But you may need support for other software.  Another framework that is gaining popularity due to it’s simplicity and design is Ruby on Rails. This framework abstracts the complexity of more repetitive tasks such as file operations and database, and instead tries to make it easy to rapidly develop a bug free application. Unfortunately Ruby on Rails is not quiet as common although many hosts do support it.

There is also an entirely different suit of software that many developers turn to.  That is the .net framework and development platform made by Microsoft. .NET runs on Microsoft Windows Server, and therefore if you want to code your applications using it, you’ll need to make sure your hosting provider does windows hosting.

Something to consider with windows hosting, is that it tends to be a bit more expensive, and this generally is because of license requirements.  .net, and windows server software aren’t free and hosts generally pass the cost down to the customer. The trade off is that .net is generally faster, and many believe it’s more secure then it’s open source counterparts. Though this is hotly contested.

The requirements of hosting change from website to website and really from person to person.  When selecting a web host is be mindful of a few basic things.

  • Your software and what it requires to run
  • How much traffic you are expecting
  • your level of expertise
  • your budget

You need to be able to find a solution that fits all of your requirements as closely as possible, and if the host you’re looking at doesn’t seem to, it’s not a bad idea to check out another one.  There are hundreds of review sites that can help with these decisions that are only a google away.

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