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Finding A Web Host

The Web hosting company you choose should not only be able to address your initial needs, but have a full range of services you can add to your Web site as needed. Here's what to look for.

Welcome to Accidental IT, a series of technical how-tos for people whose job descriptions don't necessarily include tech support but who often find themselves doing just that for their co-workers.

Your company has turned to you to find a suitable hosting service for its expanded Web presence. Where do you start?

Moving from one hosting service to another is disruptive at best, and avoiding it should be one of your main goals in choosing a service. The hosting company you choose should not only be able to address your initial needs, but have a full range of services you can add to your Web site as needed without having to move from one server to another. The most common additions you'll need to make are adding applications and upgrading storage capacity, but if you expect (or at least hope for) a large volume of visitor traffic, you should also consider plans that allow you to add data transfer capacity at reasonable costs.

The first task is to determine the set of services your company needs.

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  • Provider capabilities

    The two most basic considerations are your choice of operating system and whether to share a server or have one dedicated to only your company's use.

    The majority of the world's Web sites are hosted on some version of Linux. It's stable and fast, and because some versions are available at little or no charge, shared Linux based hosting is generally less expensive than Windows-based servers. Microsoft Windows-based hosting services allow some additional Microsoft-only services to be run on them, but unless you have specific applications that require a Windows operating system, you can easily use either Windows or Linux. Both operating systems can deliver reliable service and support a tremendous variety of Web-based functionality.

    The choice of sharing one computer with many Web sites or hosting your site on its own machine may be your most important decision. Shared systems are great for their low cost and usually include a full list of built-in applications. However, you're at the mercy of your hosting provider and, more importantly, the other Web sites sharing your computer, when it comes to overall performance. Responsible hosting providers monitor the performance of shared servers and limit the number of Web sites and traffic on each server. However if one of your co-resident Web sites decides to run a high-traffic or CPU-intensive program your site's performance can take a nosedive without warning or explanation. Having a dedicated computer with only your Web site running on it means that you won't be affected by other Web sites taking over your CPU.

    Also, dedicated computers typically provide significantly more disk storage space simply because you have access to the computer's entire disk drive. So even a small drive will deliver 40 Gigabytes of storage, whereas a shared server is likely to allow less than 1 Gigabyte.

    You'll pay a premium for selecting a dedicated host. One obvious factor is that you bear the entire cost for the computer rather than sharing it with several other Web sites. The other factor that will increase your overall cost is managing the server. Someone needs to maintain operating system patches, check disk space, delete log files, maintain virus and firewall updates, and other typical server administration tasks. You can pay the hosting company to do this for you if you opt for a "managed server," or you can do it yourself if you have the time and skills.

    Where to look

    The first place to look, of course, is online. Google turns up nearly 50 million hits for "Web hosting service" so more specific criteria is needed to narrow the field.

    Generic Web searches for hosting services will provide you with weeks worth of research material, but there are more specific services that can help you find an appropriate hosting service, especially if you've taken the time to define your needs.

    Here are three sites that can help with your selection process:

    -Webhost.thelist.com has a checklist page that lets you select the features you need, then matches your requirements with those hosting companies that offer what you need. It's a great way to narrow your scope and save some time.

    -www.Thewhir.com. The Web Host Industry Review offers a search function that can search for hosting companies, and which can limit host providers to those that have what you need. But you have to look for the Advanced Search function and get past the site's paid advertising to get the most out of this service.

    -www.Hostsearch.com. Hostsearch has similar search functions to pinpoint providers that meet your needs. Be sure to select the right type (shared, or dedicated) then click the Advanced Search link to start your search. And don't hesitate to look at the opinions of your peers either. Hostsearch.com lists reviews of many of the host providers on its site.

    The short list

    Another approach is to use one of the larger host providers. These companies are usually large because they have built a robust infrastructure, employ knowledgeable support and technical staff, and retain their customers. This list is admittedly short and only includes a very few of the companies that fall within these criteria, but these have good reputations and offer a wide range hosting plans.

    www.1and1.com

    www.interland.com

    www.valueweb.com

    Before you do it

    Signing up for a plan is the easy part, and shared hosting can be available within minutes after you submit your credit card information. The more difficult task, and the one you should start out with, is defining what services and features you need from your host provider. There is no shortage of competition for your business, so do your work up front and know what you're looking for.

    Then develop a short list of providers that meet your criteria. As a final step, make a phone call to each support department and evaluate their response time and attitude. Your list will undoubtedly shrink after those calls.

    Basic Hosting Plan Features to Consider

  • Windows OS or Linux OS. As we discussed above, you'll need to decide between these two operating systems when choosing a hosting vendor.

  • Shared server or dedicated server. This is one of the most important decisions you'll need to make. The pros and cons are listed above.

  • Active Server Pages. Support for this Microsoft scripting language is required by some Web applications.

  • Cold Fusion. A programming language that requires the Cold Fusion engine be installed on the server.

  • Phone support. Most providers advertise "24/7 support" but don't specify if it's email, chat, discussion group or live phone support.

  • Daily Backup. Even if the server never hiccups, you may accidentally delete important files.

  • Microsoft SQL Server. This is usually an extra cost item because it requires an extra license from Microsoft.

  • Microsoft Access. Many applications that run on SQL Server will also run on Access as long as the database is relatively small. Access is usually available at no charge.

  • MySQL. Your application either requires this open source SQL database or it doesn't.)

  • Control Panel. You need to be able to manage some aspects of your server without having to contact tech support. Advanced control panels even let you reboot your dedicated server.

  • Telnet. This is a command-line interface for Linux servers.

  • Remote Desktop. This is typically only available on dedicated Windows servers, and is necessary if you expect full control of the machine.

  • PHP. This web programming language is popular for open-source applications. Check the application you expect to run on your server for requirements.

  • CGI capable. This allows you to run a variety of convenience programs without having to install them as part of the operating system. Check the applications you intend to run to see if they require CGI.

  • Mailing list functions. Some providers give you the tools to send out periodic newsletters to customers.

  • eCommerce/Shopping Carts. If you intend to run your own online store, see if the host provider has the functionality ready to use.

  • Managed services. Shared hosts are managed. Look for a managed host if you don't intend to devote the time, or don't have server administration expertise.

  • Application hosting. Check the list of applications ready to use, or optionally available.

  • Uptime guarantee. Most providers advertise a guaranteed uptime. Check to see what the guarantee provides as a remedy.



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