There is a great deal to consider when choosing the website hosting company. I explain in this post some of the factors you need to be aware of before signing up.
Twenty or so years ago if you wanted a website then you would have to purchase a server and then have all the appropriate software installed and then have a purpose built website constructed for you by a developer. Apart from the capital cost you would soon realize you needed someone to manage the server for you and keep it updated.
All that has changed with the arrival of cloud computing. Now you rent a computer that is somewhere in the cloud. You never get to see the physical computer and it is managed and updated by the organization providing it. But it’s important to understand what cloud computing is providing and what it isn’t.
The Lights Are On
This expression is short hand for checking that the computer is running correctly. Not only that is has power but also a back up power supply in the event of a power cut. Other aspects of the hardware are included like adequate space on hard disks and essential upgrades to the operating system. Included too, is fast broadband speeds usually with redundancy. All this means you really don’t have to worry about the server. The big cloud computing companies are hugely experienced in managing the cloud servers and they can move your website from one server to another if it is deemed necessary because of hardware faults. You pay on a monthly / annual basis for use of the server but there are no capital costs.
Hosting and Cloud Computing
Website hosting became a thing long before the advent of cloud computing. These hosting companies bought servers and rented them out either as shared or dedicated. The problem though is the rapid change in technology with ever more powerful and faster chips meaning the hardware need to be replaced every few years. When cloud computing arrived most hosting companies abandoned their own servers and that was an excellent choice. I would not want to use any hosting company who bragged about having their own dedicated servers because that probably means old, slow servers.
Web servers have the ability to support multiple websites. So if the traffic volume to your site is low a shared web server is a good solution for you. This feature is what hosting companies exploit and on the whole it provides a good service for the price. If your website becomes hugely popular you can always upgrade to having a dedicated server. You don’t need to make any changes to the website, the hosting company will happily take care of this for you.
Hosting companies offer a great deal for small business websites so what do they offer over cloud computing? In other words, if cloud computing is so great why wouldn’t I just rent a computer in the cloud and host my website on it? Here is why.
A website is built on layers of software that are its foundations. This software is continually being improved and updated so the web server needs to be kept up to date with these new releases. That is where a hosting company comes in. They manage the next layer up from the operating system ensuring the platform on which your website is built is kept up to date and stable.
Hackers target hosting companies because they present lots of targets! They will try to hack your website every day. They are trying to guess your password so they can take over your website. Password security is your responsibility – make sure it is a strong password that you have never used anywhere else. Hackers also use a technique called Denial of Service where they try and bombard your website with so many requests it grinds to a halt. This is what your hosting company should detect and fix for you. It needs to be done at what is called the firewall which they have control over and you, as a user, do not. This is primarily what you are paying them for so make sure that they do before selecting your host.
So many times on support forums I read that a website is broken and the advice is always “revert to your backup”. You want your hosting company to provide automatic daily backups as part of the service. I would add two more conditions: (1) I want to do a manual backup whenever I choose and (2) I want to be able to see the list of backups and restore anyone I want. I don’t want to have to call a hosting company and ask them to restore a backup because I probably need it right away and I may not want the last backup but the one before. So have control over the backups but let the hosting company automate it.
Equally as important as backups is staging. I will come back to this when discussing platforms but what you need to know is even if your website doesn’t change the software that supports it most definitely will. If you use WordPress then likely or not you will have a dozen plugins each delivering some key functionality. Each of those will be created by different software companies all trying to improve their product and releasing new versions. One of the problems is that the more plugins you have the more likelihood there will be conflicts that will affect your site. Before you update any plugin you want to test it first in a staging environment which has a copy of your live site. Once you are certain that all is well you can update them on your live site. Expect to have to do this at least twice a month. If you don’t have a staging environment then its like climbing a cliff without any ropes.
I expect 24×7 support from a hosting company. Problems don’t happen during working hours; they happen at 11:00pm on a Saturday night and I don’t want to wait until Monday morning 9:00am to ask support for some help to fix it. I like live chat too. I don’t want to raise a ticket and wait for a response; I’ve got an urgent problem and I need help in resolving it now. Try out the support at the pre-sales stage. I once asked a company where their data centres were – that should be an easy answer but it took 2 days to get a reply by email.
Cloud computing means you don’t know where your server is located and for the most part you don’t care. But there is no point in having your server located in the USA if you are a business in the UK and expecting visitors to your website to be UK based. It will just add extra time to the request and the response, in other words your website pages will be slower to load. You would want a data centre located in the UK or Europe and you want to be able to choose that when you sign up.
Hosting companies will typically provide email addresses that are based on your domain e.g. email@example.com. It will look professional if you use a business address like this rather than an outlook or gmail account. But you really need more than one. If you have forms on your site for people to contact you then it would be normal to send an email acknowledgement as soon as the form is submitted. I am sure you have received these yourself and they are often from a dummy account like “firstname.lastname@example.org”. This protects your real email account from spam so check that you can have more than one email.
There are tools that your website developer will need to use when they configure and customise your site. For a Linux server there is a tool called cPanel which some hosting companies offer. Frankly I hate it – it has the most appalling out-dated interface. But worst of all it provides the means for developers to inadvertently break the site. This is why some of the top hosting companies have invested in their own tools which make developer tasks easier to perform and much less likely to break the site. While you may never use them, you want to be sure that developers have decent tools.
This is a topic all to itself in the next post. Your selection of hosting company will be limited to them offering your chosen platform.