Monday, November 13, 2006

Web Hosting

In the last post we looked at promoting your site but of course to reach that stage you first have to purchase web hosting (and of course a domain name) to place your site on the Internet. For many people the first time they purchase a domain or hosting can be very daunting, there's lots of technical jargon about the features and many automatically assume that you receive both a domain and hosting.

So first lets clear up the difference:

The hosting is where your website is physically stored, the domain name is an address that the browser uses to get there. Normally you would purchase a domain name for your site first (we’ll be looking at this at a later date) and then find somewhere to place your site, its probably a lot easier if you buy both from the same place, particularly if it’s the first time you have set up your own site.

But there is more to web hosting that just placing your site on the internet, there are many hidden costs, ambiguous prices and pitfalls.

If you’ve ever been in the market for web hosting you’ll have noticed the odd pricing structure that most of the big names seem to employ. Not only does it make comparing prices to ensure you get the best deal difficult but it also invariably means that you end up paying more for your web hosting that you had originally planned. What am I talking about?

Let me give you an example:

You’re looking for web hosting in the UK, you have a small site and want a simple package. You find just the package you are looking for with a reputable company and at only £1.99 per month. You naturally assume that as you’re paying monthly you’ll be able to cancel at any time if the package isn’t what you expected and you also assume that should you stick with the package over the year you’ll just pay £23.88.

Which of course is incorrect. If you read the small print you’ll see:

“All fees paid annually..”

Which means that you pay the full amount up front, no monthly fee and most of the time you’re in a 12 month contract. Even so, its not a bad deal at £23.88 for a full years hosting. But again that isn’t quite right, checking the small print again will reveal…

“All prices exclude VAT and a one off set-up fee of £9.99.”

Which then means some simple maths:-

1.99 x 12 = 23.88

23.88 + 17.5% = 28.06

28.06 + 9.99 = 38.05

Meaning the final price for our simple package is actually £38.05 for the year, an increase of almost 60% on the first glance price. This is the first pitfall than many first timers fall into, as typically you don’t see the final price until the latter stages of the checkout process. This is why at Horizon Web Development we employ a clear pricing policy, the price you see is all you pay, so you know where you stand at first glance and without a calculator!

Of course the prices could mean anything if you’re not sure what the features you are paying for are or even what features you need so here is a simple breakdown of the common features of web hosting, what they actually mean and when you’re likely to need them.

Webspace: This is usually first on the list and also known as storage space. This is how much space the web hosting company is going to give you on their server, typically this is about 100MB for a Starter Package. If you have a one page website or even a small site this would be ample, web pages are very small as they were (at least initially) intended to travel over old phone lines; you could fit 5,000 pages the size of the Horizon Web Development homepage (excluding pictures) into that 100MB.

The whole Horizon Web Development site is less than 40MB so 100MB (and especially the 750MB offered by Horizon Web Development in our Starter Package) would be more than enough for most sites, unless you have planning to store lots of pictures, music or video footage on the site. You will also need more space if you are planning on having a large database.

Data Transfer: Also known as bandwidth, is how much data your web host will allow you to transfer per month. This normally includes anything you upload or download yourself but is mainly made up of the amount of information visitors download when viewing the information on your site. A typical bandwidth value would be about 1.5GB per month, this seems a high figure but to follow on from the above example, if the whole Horizon Web Development site is 40MB in size, a visitor would therefore need to download 40MB in order to view the whole site. That would mean with 1.5GB bandwidth the site could only be viewed in its entirety around 38 times. Of course few visitors will view every single page and picture on your website, most just look at the first page and move on, but its worth considering just how many visitors you’ll get, how much of your site they are likely to view and so on.

Many web hosts charge extra if you exceed your allocated bandwidth so it can be expensive to under estimate this. The Starter Package at Horizon Web Development offers a generous 5GB of bandwidth a month to help avoid this happening.

Scripting: This usually includes the scripting languages CGI and Perl but may also include PHP, ASP and Frontpage extensions. Basically you should avoid any hosting account that doesn’t allow any kind of scripting as that would leave you with a very limited website, things such as Guest Books and Online forms wouldn’t be possible.

Ideally you’d like your hosting account to have as many of the above scripting features included free as possible, at the very least CGI and Perl, to give you more scope for improving your website in the future. However you should only purchase additional Server Side Scripting facilities, such as PHP, ASP and FrontPage Extensions if you are sure you’re going to use them.

Email: Another must have feature when you buying hosting are email accounts. These allow you to have email addresses at your domain and the more the better, a typical value is 20 POP3 email accounts (Horizon Web Development currently offers 200 POP3 email addresses in our Starter Package). POP3 means that the email can be accessed via Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird and similar email applications.

Another email feature to look out for is Webmail or Web based email. This allows you to check your email from any computer, anywhere in the world using a web browser similar to the way Hotmail and Yahoo work. Invaluable if you want to check your email whilst on holiday or on the move.

Web Stats: This is another handy feature for your hosting, this will allow you to track visitors to your site, showing who visits, from what country and how they found your site. very useful for a business website.

Platform: This is the operating system that the Web Server that stores your site uses. Basically there are two choices, Linux/Unix or Windows. I am probably sailing into a bit of a storm by saying this but I have to say that generally the best platform to go for is Linux/Unix. There are many people that will likely disagree but if you’ve used a Windows Operating System in the past you know that it is prone to two things, crashing and security holes. Linux/Unix is more stable, more reliable and faster.

This is evident in the fact that most of the big names in Web Hosting use only Linux, some offer Linux and Windows but very few offer only Windows.

Hopefully after reading this you’ll be at least more aware of what you need to look for in a web host and also better prepared for what’s involved.


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