You have your business plan. You’re working on your web site. You have all the pieces and it’s now time to select a web host. You go to Google.com, and after a bit of searching, you find a myriad of hosts all promising the same thing. How in the world can you make sense of all of the choices, select a host that is dependable enough to keep you running and not kill your business before it even gets started? To help you in your quest for a dependable host, here are the 10 best tips we can give you.
1. Determine Your Needs. Does your web site have particular software requirements that only certain servers or hosting companies can provide? For instance, if you’re doing live streaming then you need to make sure that the hosting company can support live streaming. Your business model may be such that you require 100 email addresses and auto responders, but the host you’re looking at may only allow 50 emails. You may require 10 GB of disk space but the plan that you’ve selected only allows for 5 GB. Itemize your needs on paper before starting your research into web hosting companies and narrow your search based on your particular needs.
2. Shared, Managed Dedicated or Unmanaged Dedicated Now that you have determined your requirements, you need to decide if you need a shared account, managed dedicated or unmanaged dedicated server. Start by going to your list in tip 1. The amount of traffic you expect as well as the disk space required will help you decide. In the beginning, a shared account may be perfect for your needs and can be obtained for as little as $2-3 per month. However, a shared account may come with limitations – you may not be allowed to have databases or certain software programs. Also, when you share a server with other customers, there is always the possibility that other customer web sites could affect the performance or security of your site. Should you decide on shared hosting, make sure the company also offers dedicated servers. Planning for growth can determine which hosting company to chose, so that you’re adequately prepared to move into a dedicated hosting plan when the time is right, and still remain with the same hosting provider. If you require strong security or want the peace of mind in knowing that other customers cannot affect you, then a dedicated server is the way to go. Of course, a dedicated server comes at a much higher price. Bargain dedicated servers can be found for as little $49/month, but beware, because the old adage that “you get what you pay for” is certainly true here. If you decide on a dedicated server, then you have another decision to make – managed or unmanaged. With an unmanaged server you are given full control of the server and will be required to set up any software needed for your site as well as ensuring the server is secure. You may decide that you need a control panel to make server management easier or may determine that your skill set is such that you can do all of your work from the command line. If you decide that a fully-managed server is the way to go, you have an entirely different set of concerns. Many hosts tout their servers as “fully-managed” yet they give you a control panel so that you can do most functions yourself. Their idea of fully-managed is to manage the hardware and operating system updates and maybe provide cursory assistance with minor problems as they arise. Other hosts, NationalNet included, take care of everything for you except your web site and become virtual employees of yours, but of course, this comes at a higher price. To avoid surprises later, be sure to ask questions about what level of support comes with their fully-managed servers.
3. Windows or Linux? The large majority of web hosting plans are built around some version of Linux (CentOS, Redhat, Debian, etc). This is usually not a concern but you should make sure that the hosting plan you have selected comes with an operating system that will support your web site. If you have created your web site in .asp or .NET then you’re going to need a Windows server. Make sure that your “needs” list from tip number 1 includes the operating system and that you select the correct hosting package based on that.
4. Investigate Their Support No matter what type of plan you select, be it shared or dedicated, managed or unmanaged, at some point you’re going to require support. Support is an area you never think about until you need it, and when you do need it, you want it to be fast and effective. As mentioned above, take the time in the pre-sales process to ask questions. What is included with the support? What is the average turn-around time for resolution of issues? What is the process for obtaining support? How many tech support people do they employ? If the host says they have 24/7 support, then call it at 2 AM one morning and confirm. Many hosts that claim 24/7 support in fact use an answering service that cannot do anything for you other than take down your information and then call someone and wake him or her up, thus delaying your support request.
5. Beware of Hosting Review Sites There are literally dozens of hosting review sites on the internet and unfortunately, it’s very difficult to take any of them seriously, mainly because they are all supported by advertising from hosting companies. Just because a web hosting site is listed on a review site and has good reviews from the site does not guarantee that the host is any good. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and there may be some legitimate review sites, but by and large you should take them with a grain of salt.
6. Location, Location, Location There is another type of webhosting other than shared, unmanaged and managed – colocation. Colocation is where you own your equipment and you rent space from a hosting company. The company provides you with a place to rack your equipment as well as power for the equipment. Optionally, they may also supply you with bandwidth or you may purchase this separately if the data center is carrier neutral. If you’re doing colocation, then location of the data center may be important to you, especially if you wish to personally deal with your equipment. Pick a data center too far away and you’ll be regretting it when you have to do that 2 AM drive to resolve an issue. Most colocation/data centers offer “remote hands” where you instruct them on what you wish to have done. Should you require remote hands, and it’s a guarantee that you may at some point, make sure that the techs are capable. Some data centers use the security guards or other non-tech savvy personnel for remote hands which will certainly delay the resolving of any issues you have. If the remote hands are provided by very qualified technicians then proximity may not be an issue for you.
7. Investigate the Performance and Reliability of Their Network Web site owners at the very least want two things – a site that is fast and a site that is always up. When selecting a host, you should take the time to look at their network. Find out if they have redundancy in their network equipment. If they only have one router and it fails, your site is going to be down until they get it repaired. A good host will have multiple upstream bandwidth providers to protect against the failure of a provider, as well as having the ability to use multiple providers to route around Internet trouble spots. Ask the hosting company to provide you with a test file and a few sites that they host so you can check the speed of their network. Be sure to check all the sites they give you because there is always the possibility that a site is slow through no fault of the host. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about their network including number of providers, type of network equipment and the configuration of it. A properly set up host will be proud to discuss this with you.
8. Ask About Their Other Offerings While most hosts will provide basic hosting services as well as email accounts and maybe backups, there are other services and offerings that may help you make your decision. While you may not require these services in the beginning, you might find yourself wanting them in the future. Some services to consider are backups, business class email, web statistics, support for mobile devices, shopping cart software, content delivery networks (CDN) and cloud storage.
9. Phone A Friend You wouldn’t hesitate to ask a friend about a restaurant or where you can find a good mechanic, so use that same approach here. However, while everyone eats and most people have a car, it may be a bit more difficult to find a friend that actually hosts a web site. The good news is that you’re in luck – there are many forums on the Internet so with a bit of searching you should be able to find one that is frequented by webmasters. Ask around but be aware that many posters are also paid by hosting companies to shill for them. There are also many industry-specific forums so it’s quite likely that you can find a forum full of webmasters running sites similar to yours. Not only will you find good hosts, but you’ll also learn who your competition is.
10. Don’t Make Assumptions/Buyer Beware It’s been said a couple of times before but it bears repeating; ASK QUESTIONS. Don’t assume that because all the other hosts you are looking at provide backups that the one you’re thinking of selecting does. Beware of claims like unlimited bandwidth or unlimited disk space as these always come with some sort of disclaimer, so be sure to read the fine print. Ask them about their Service Level Agreement (SLA) as well as their terms of service. Ask to see a copy of the contract or Master Service Agreement (MSA) as well as any other document you may be asked to sign. Don’t be afraid to have a lawyer read all of the documentation to prevent any “gotchas” later.
Hopefully this list, while not all-inclusive, has enough information to help you make the right decisions when selecting a web host for your brand new web site.