Fred Langa explores the pros and cons of outsourcing Web sites and spotlights reader recommendations for finding the perfect Web host.
I've long been a proponent of outsourced Web hosting: Instead of doing it all yourself, you contract with a reliable outside party to set up and maintain your Web site's physical infrastructure--a secure data center, the rack space, the power supplies, climate control, connectivity, the actual servers, and so on. A Web host often can provide this infrastructure to you for less cost than if you did it on your own because the host benefits from economies of scale in ganging many sites in one facility. In addition to saving you money, outsourcing also leaves you free to focus on the content and purpose of your sites, rather than on the bricks, mortar, hardware, and software.
Of course, very large companies can generate their own internal economies of scale; for them, the cost of building and maintaining a private data center may make sense. But: 98% of all U.S. businesses have fewer than 100 employees, and for those companies--and for hordes of private individuals--an outsourced Web host can be the very best and least expensive way to establish and maintain a Web presence.
The costs can be amazingly low: The least expensive options cost literally pocket change, less than a dollar a day, and get you Web space on a shared server. Or, for a few dollars a day, you can have your own separate, dedicated server.
Either way, you usually get remote access to a professionally set-up and maintained Web server in a fireproof, secure, climate-controlled data center with a private emergency power supply. Higher-end Web-hosting plans--still only a few dollars a day--can provide for automatic daily backups of your data, automatic electronic relocation to another facility in the event of a regional disaster, and more. Many plans include secure E-commerce options, and some even include basic tools to create a Web site from scratch, for those who are totally new to Web hosting.
And virtually all Web plans let you have your own domain, so your pages will appear on a site named something like www.[yourcompany name].com (e.g., www.informationweek.com) or www.[yourname].com (e.g., www.langa.com). Likewise, almost all Web-hosting plans include mail service for anywhere from a few to hundreds of users, and these accounts all will have E-mail addresses in a form like [yourname]@[yourdomain].com (e.g., Fred@langa.com). An E-mail address in that form seems far more professional and serious than an address from, say, AOL, Hotmail, or other ISPs.
Pick The Perfect Web Host
Several years ago, Windows Magazine produced a feature article called "Pick The Perfect Web Host". That article is a great place to start: The core information there is still valid and will walk you through the process of identifying your needs, and selecting the right Web host to fit those needs.
But some of the companies mentioned in that text have been acquired or have otherwise changed--not always for the better--and that's the genesis of this article.
You see, the main downside of outsourcing is that you have to keep an eye on your Web host's performance, and its business fortunes. Sometimes, a host may start out great, but then lose focus as it either acquires other companies or is acquired by them. Or, a host may stumble by bringing new, inexperienced staff on board as it grows. (In fact, this recently happened to me with one of my Web hosts when the tech staff made unannounced, unilateral software changes that broke several essential features of my sites. Meanwhile, the support staff was utterly clueless about not only the changes--apparently, they hadn't been told either--but also about the underlying technology affected by the change.)
There are myriad reasons why a Web host that once met your needs may no longer do so. In fact, over the years, I've found I usually end up changing Web hosts about every two years or so as a given host slowly drifts--or suddenly plummets--out of the "sweet spot" of service and pricing that I seek.
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