If you are starting a new web site it's easy to drown in the sea of alternatives offered by web hosting providers. Is it better to go for a dedicated or a shared web server? Should you choose Windows- or Linux-based hosting? Which price range is the right one for you and what are the features you can't live without?
Photo credit: TNNhost
For a beginner, such questions and concerns can be very discouraging. Web hosting is a crucial choice for your web site, so you want to pick the best solution right from the start.
Choosing a web hosting type that is too powerful for your needs can cost you unneeded money and resources, while a solution that can't keep pace with your traffic is a serious threat to the speed and reliability of your web site.
Let's briefly explore the different types of web hosting you can choose:
This is just a quick round-up of all the web hosting alternatives at your disposal, but to identify which type of web hosting is best for your needs, I have asked Drazen Dobrovodski, webmaster of the MasterNewMedia network, to compare in greater detail all the distinctive features of each type of hosting solution and all other options at stake to help you make this important choice.
Anyone thinking of starting their own web site runs into the question of which web hosting solution to choose.
Some may expect this to be a minor issue: you just google for hosting, if you are lucky you find one of those sites that compare a number of hosting services and their features.
Great! Now you can pick some reasonably-priced web hosting service that will suit your needs. And then the head-scratching begins.
What are your needs when it comes to web hosting?
Suddenly you are faced with choices like shared hosting, dedicated, managed and co-located. Why are they offering Windows- and Linux-based hosting? Why do some hosting services charge upwards of $15 per month while others cost $3 per month or even less?
Here is a little guide to help you find your way through the forest of options you have to face when choosing a web hosting type.
You will notice very early on that web hosting types can vary in price from $2 or $3 per month up to $15 or more.
As we all know, there is no Mercedes or BMW when it comes to computer processors, disks and cables so where does the difference in price go?
While there are some price differences in the equipment used by different web hosting providers, the reality is that most of the price difference you pay when choosing a more expensive hosting solution is not going into equipment.
A rough rule of thumb is that what drives the price of web hosting up is the level of customer support.
Although the price of hosting is not a reliable way to estimate a quality of any web hosting service, it is almost always reflective of the level of customer support.
Developers like using low-priced web hosting services because they don't need much customer support. They know what they are doing when building and running a site, hosting knows what they are doing when they keep the servers running and operational, and that's it.
Such pro-on-pro situation doesn't involve much support and so developers are the preferred niche market for low-priced hosting services.
However, if you are not a developer and if you want to do most - if not all - of your installations and setup on your own, then it might be prudent to spend a bit more than $2 or $3 per month on hosting.
This is not to say that all hosting services in the said price range will have bad customer support, but if you are not terribly experienced and might need support, using cheaper hosting might be a not-so-safe bet.
By far the most important issue about your web site is that it is available to the public.
Just like your home computer can crash and thus be unavailable for use in this downtime, the same can happen to web hosting services. That is why many web hosting services guarantee 99.9 % (or better) uptime.
The reality is: any web hosting service can make a pretty button flashing "99.9% uptime guaranteed". There is no hosting police to monitor and vouch for such claims.
There are services such as Netcraft.com or Alertra.com that monitor hosting services and thus provide third-party confirmation of the uptime, but the problem is: not all hosting services are listed there because they costs some serious money to be included into their monitoring lists. There might be many good hosting providers out there that simply aren't listed.
More practical are the forums. For example, Web Hosting Talk discusses nothing but hosting, so you can talk with people who already use the web hosting service you are evaluating.
Once you choose a web hosting service, the next choice you have is between a Windows- or Linux-based hosting.
Not all the services offer a choice here. Some hosting services offer only Linux while others may offer only Windows hosting, so this decision may also affect your choice of the hosting service.
The choice of the platform depends on what software and programming language(s) you plan to use on your web site.
Almost all major blog and content management systems (WordPress, Movable Type, Drupal, etc) use either CGI or PHP. Same goes for all major forum platforms. The natural environment for both of these programming languages is Linux platform running Apache server.
In light of this fact, it is not surprising that recent statistics show Linux being used by 7 out of 10 most reliable hosting services and Apache server being the most used server for web hosting from 1996 to the present day.
Add to this the fact that not only Linux hosting packages are cheaper than hosting on Windows, but also that Google uses Linux and situation becomes clear.
Most users find Linux hosting better suited for their needs. Use Windows only if you have very specific reason (custom-made ASP / MYSQL software or some other reason).
Next choice would be whether to go with the shared, dedicated or some other hosting package.
Here is a quick explanation to clear up what are the main characteristics of each type of web hosting:
Your web site is placed on a server shared with a number of other web sites.
You typically get a control panel to manage your web site but you are sharing the server resources (processor, RAM...) with all the other sites on the same machine.
If your web site becomes successful, then sooner or later you will need to upgrade to one of the hosting services described further on.
Pros: All features needed for a web site, cheapest form of hosting.
Cons: Shared resources mean that if any of other web site on the same machine starts using more resources or getting heavier traffic, then your site will slow down.
Who is it for: All startups and all web sites not expecting high traffic at least in the beginning of the operation.
When some web hosting provider mentions an option of "virtual hosting" it is best to stay away from that option or ask a lot of questions first.
"Virtual" in the context of web hosting means a number of different things. I won't even bother you with all the technical details of what it can be, but for anyone wanting to know more here are some possible terms and definitions:
In short, those are very similar-sounding names but very different things. If you are not sure what those differences are, you don't need virtual hosting. Just go with the shared one.
Pros: Cheaper than other types of hosting, privacy is protected as you run your own file-system on the server for your web site.
Cons: Limited usable resources for CPU and RAM (shared with other web sites)
Who is it for: Web sites that don't have huge traffic or early startups.
As the name suggests, a dedicated a server is a server dedicated exclusively to your needs.
Your web hosting service assigns one real, physical server where all the processors and RAM resources are only yours to use.
You can put more then one domain or web site on your dedicated server or you can use it only for a single web site.
All web sites that start with a shared hosting and later become successful with lot of visits, eventually get an email from their hosting service explaining that the site is getting so much traffic (using too much resources is the term they prefer) that it is choking the resources of the shared server and thus you need to upgrade to a dedicated server.
It's a natural progression. If your web site becomes successful you will need a dedicated server.
Pros: Significantly faster serving of the web site, all resources of the server are yours to use.
Cons: Much more expensive than shared hosting.
Who is it for: Successful web sites with professional levels of traffic, companies having several web sites.
A managed server is the same as a dedicated one, except that you don't get something called "root access" to the server.
In simple words: you get your own server to use but direct access to the server system files (the stuff that can go seriously wrong if you push the wrong buttons) is reserved for the hosting company. They manage your dedicated server for you. Hence the name.
Pros: Same as dedicated, you don't need to know anything about server system.
Cons: If you see a solution on some forum that says something like "...and then you add this line into your php.ini file..." - you won't be able to do it. Only hosting people can access any system file (this is where the stuff we said about customer service comes into play again).
Who is it for: Successful web sites with professional levels of traffic, companies having several web sites that don't need or want to have access to system files.
Similar to a dedicated server, but here you own the server.
Owing your own server allows you to build your server with the best components, platform and software of your own choice and then have a server that is just co-located in the same place as other servers of the hosting company.
The rest depends on the arrangement between you and the hosting service. For example details about who administrates the server, perform necessary upgrades or whether you need to send your own administrator.
By default, if you go with the co-location option, then you get only the electricity, Internet connection and a physical space for the server in the facility of the hosting service.
Pros: You get to use the hand-picked components on the server and you don't have to worry about high speed access to Internet needed for hosting.
Cons: More expensive than dedicated, usually includes no support for the server unless otherwise arranged with the hosting company.
Who is it for: Very successful sites with needs for their own equipment. The only step above this type of hosting is when you move into your own company headquarters and have your own server facility with high-speed connection.
This is a new web hosting solution that not too many providers currently offer.
A website is hosted on a server cluster and you pay for the amount of resources that your website uses. Thus your hosting bill is a utility bill. The amount paid depends on the number of resources (traffic) you have used in a given period.
Pros: Greater reliability than any of the above hosting options, utility-type billing (you pay only what you use).
Cons: Security. It is basically a shared hosting on clustered servers thus all site owners have access to it. This also leads to potential legal issues, etc.
Who is it for: Only big players at the moment.
When choosing a web hosting service you may also run into some issues that do not fit into any of the above categories.
Here are some of them:
Many web hosting services will lure you with the word "unlimited" liberally sprinkled on the page with the list of all the features they offer.
Unlimited emails are a very common feature. Unlimited disk space less so. But "unlimited bandwidth" can sound irresistible.
Then you check some other hosting service and you are shocked to see that they list a number as the bandwidth you get allowed with the hosting package. No "unlimited" here.
Common sense tells you that "unlimited" is better, but as you can guess by now, not necessarily so in this case.
The "small print" which you will not read because it is written on the user agreement which you will just click away, reads (and all hosting services have this, feel free to check) that your account can be terminated if it uses too much "resources". This can be worded in one way or another, but the essence it is the same.
These "resources" include bandwidth, but this vague term also includes processor time and RAM.
If you get 100 or 10,000 visitors it will not make just a difference in bandwidth. Processor also needs more time to process and show 10,000 pages and RAM usage will not be the same either.
So they do give you unlimited bandwidth just as promised but in reality you can never reach "unlimited" without getting caught on that "resources" clause (processor and RAM usage).
When your site gets too popular, they will send you an email saying that you are using too many processor / RAM resources (not bandwidth) and so they are asking you to upgrade to dedicated or terminate your account.
Same exact thing that the service that didn't offer "unlimited" bandwidth will eventually do when your web site reaches certain level of traffic.
The reality is: your shared hosting will always be terminated, and you will be pushed into a dedicated solution when your site gets to a certain level of popularity. There is no way around it.
When opting for a hosting service don't take "unlimited bandwidth" as the deciding factor, because in reality it is not such a great deal as it may sound.
Windows Running Apache
Sometimes you will have a situation that you find a service that runs Apache and offers PHP and CGI, but it is a Windows machine running Apache. Unless you have specific reasons for using this configuration, avoid it.
Some features of Apache and PHP can not fully work on Windows.
Typical situation would be .htaccess files. On Apache they control the access to given folders, regulate the file types etc. Thus, any PHP / CGI scripts you are planning to use for controlling access to members areas and similar are of no use on such system if they rely on .htaccess files.
Rendering PHP in HTM files is also not possible which means that PHP includes in HTM files will not work either. The list goes on.
If you want to use PHP / CGI software on your web site then Linux running Apache is the safest bet.
An obvious concern for any web site owner is how fast will the visitors navigate the site.
We already discussed this facet of hosting inside a two-parted guide previously published on MasterNewMedia:
- How To Make Your Website Faster
- How To Make Your Website Faster - Part 2: How To Optimize Your Website Code For Speed
Over there you can find all the details related to the speed of your future web site, including how to test the speed of the servers of a given web hosting service.
The world of web hosting can be somewhat overwhelming with all the options it offers.
When you sign up for a hosting and you start a web site, you have inadvertently also agreed to some limitations that are not always obvious from the start and are not easy to rectify later.
This article should help you not only to pick the hosting service that is right for you, but also to give you some overview of why some choice is better than the other and what to expect in the future course of running your web site.
Drazen Dobrovodski and Daniele Bazzano -
Originally prepared by Drazen Dobrovodski and Daniele Bazzano for MasterNewMedia, and first published on April 5th, 2010 as "Web Hosting Type: Shared, Virtual, Dedicated, Co-Located - How To Choose The Right Hosting Solution".