The Basics of Hosting by Ric Shreves

At its most basic, getting an Internet project up and running requires two essentials: access to hardware and access to the Internet. Hardware and bandwidth are a major consideration in light of both the potential expense and the issue of quality of service. This is one of those areas where you can pay as much or as little as you like. There is a correlation between what you pay and the quality you get, but there are plenty of good deals to be found in the current market, so shop around.

Let’s take one step back and make sure everyone shares some common ground, in terms of terms.

“Servers” are the hardware that holds and distributes information to people via the Internet. A small site may reside on a server with a number of other sites, a large site may require hundreds of separate servers in a variety of physical locations, all connected together and running as one cohesive system.

Servers can handle a wide variety of functions, from housing websites, to running mailing systems. For a quick rundown of server terminology check out the Webopedia server listing.

While some firms are interested in owning and feeding their own equipment, most firms these days choose to outsource all, or at least part, of the task. Outside of firms with special needs, it is hard to make a case for purchasing hardware in the current market. Like a new car, a server depreciates massively the moment it is taken from the dealer. Add to the equation the maintenance of the hardware and the software, and you have a cost center that not only becomes more expensive over time, but less functional relative to the newest technology.

A web hosting company (sometimes called an “Internet Data Center” or “IDC”) will offer a variety of packages, including the rental of hardware. The low monthly costs associated with hosting these days tips the hardware scale firmly toward the decision to rent, rather than buy hardware. Let the web host’s staff worry about changing disk drives, updating the operating system with the newest security patch and keeping the electricity and Internet connection going 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Outsourcing lets you focus on your core competencies, and the fact is that most IT departments weaned on office networks are in no position to support a real time data center-type operation.

When we talk about outsourcing hosting, another term you are likely to hear frequently is “collocation”. Co-location facilities physically house hardware and equipment in a secure location. The facility generally offers some degree of security against physical intrusion, fire, and power or bandwidth interruption. The quality of the physical facility and staff is generally related directly to the price and a site visit is appropriate where high-reliability installations are required.

If you are in the e-commerce business, or providing support services through your website, down time can be very expensive. Larger hosts will provide redundancy for drives, power supplies and bandwidth. If your site produces revenues, don’t scrimp on the host.

Security of your data and your customers’ data is a sensitive issue. While your host is unlikely to guarantee security of any system, they should have in place adequate assurances that their environment does not contribute to the risk. They should also be willing to guarantee turn-around time on installation of patches and security fixes as they are released by vendors (like Microsoft!).

Selecting the right host for your company requires taking a hard look at your needs. Issues that must be resolved and prioritized include your need for ongoing maintenance and physical support services, network quality and speed, contract terms, and of course the value for money. Let’s not forget that the current market, with its slough of bankruptcies, has also taught us that the financial stability of the firm is a factor.

For most clients, the level of the host’s customer service is the key to satisfaction. Poor customer service is commonly cited as a reason for moving from one host to another, so make an effort to assess any firm’s abilities in this area. Several sites now focus on rating web hosts and these should serve as a good starting point for your investigations. Try Hostsearch.com, with its wizard interface, and Web Host Directory. Make a point to ask around – word of mouth is a strong persuader in the customer service game.

Other issues that will inform your decision include your preferred operating system – Windows, Linux or Unix — and your database needs. The additional services area is where a lot of firms distinguish themselves, offering incentives in the form of unlimited email addresses, or free domain name re-directs. Look carefully at the fine print and add up the cost of additional services. You may well find that the more expensive package bundles a lot of items marked as additional expense in the budget packages. But, also never forget that the company will be more than happy to let you upgrade to a bigger package if your needs change in the future.

Ric Shreves is an Internet consultant and author specializing in web technologies. He is a partner in Water & Stone, a web design agency focused on Mambo, osCommerce, and other open source tools. Read more of his work online at: http://www.waterandstone.com

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