What is web hosting?

In this article we’ll go right through from the basics to the more complex aspects of web hosting and finally look at how to pick the best provider for you.

If you want the rest of the world to see your website you’ll need to make sure it’s connected to the internet. Unless you want to leave your computer on all the time this means you need someone else to ‘host’ your website. In very simple terms this is what a server is, a computer that is always on and connected to the internet. Hosting is just companies that rent out servers.

When someone puts in the web address for your website it points towards that server and hey presto, your website is served. But not all hosting services are equal and certainly not all servers are.

A server can range from, at the lower end of the spectrum, a repurposed desktop machine which is converted to a server (this is more common than you might think and is a viable solution for less critical infrastructure) to dedicated high-end servers and cloud services. To put it into perspective, with one provider you can rent some basic hosting for under a dollar a month, up to a dedicated high-end box for over $300. So how exactly do you pick what you need?

Shared VS Dedicated VS Cloud VS Specialist

These are the four main environments in which your website may be hosted and each has it’s own pros and cons. Let’s address these individually, as each is suited to different applications.

Shared hosting

Most sites don’t need a whole server to themselves, and because of economies of scale it’s a lot more cost effective for hosting companies to have fewer large servers than more smaller ones.

Virtual servers are the solution. You rent a space on a physical server and a virtual server is created within that space. So you still have your own dedicated environment, but it exists alongside lots of others within a single physical server.

By creating a virtual environment it means that you get a set share of the resources on the server and someone else doing something stupid with theirs shouldn’t affect yours. It’s a good option for small business or where you don’t require tons of resources.

Dedicated hosting

This is where instead of having a dedicated environment on a shared physical box, you rent an entire server. If you’re dealing with critical infrastructure or high volumes of traffic, this may well be the best solution for you. You can either rent a whole server with an environment already set up for you or you can opt to rent just the box and deploy what you want on there (this is the ‘bare metal’).

In reality unless you’re a developer or sysadmin specialist, renting just the box is not going to be the right solution. Even having an entire physical server is overkill for most sites, unless you have very high bandwidth, security and infrastructure requirements. Cloud based solutions have increasingly becoming a better fit for these requirements as well.

If you’re going down the dedicated hosting route you should be aware of the maintenance responsibilities. Unlike shared hosting where it’s down the the hosting company to keep the physical machine up and running, on a dedicated box monitoring is often left to you. Meaning you’ll need to identify if there is a problem and chase the hosting company to get things sorted out.

Cloud services

Cloud hosting is closer to shared than dedicated hosting in that you're renting a virtual environment. However instead of having a set share of resources you have a ‘pay as you go’ model. You pay for the resources you use, scaling instantly.

This is the best fit for those businesses with dynamic requirements that require very flexible solutions. You can use a small amount of resources and then scale up massively for peak periods. Here at Wordtracker we use cloud services for helping to service our keyword product. We have huge amounts of data which need processing periodically, but the rest of the time, if we used a traditional solution, those servers would lie dormant.

Because of the sheer scale needed cloud services are generally only offered by larger or specialist hosting companies. Amazon Web Services is one of the most well known.  As the cost of storage comes down more and more solutions are appearing, but this is still one of the most expensive forms of hosting as that kind of flexibility doesn't come cheap.

Specialist hosting

There are also a few specialist solutions out there with hosting services tailored to more niche markets. A good example is Wordpress hosting, where it’s a hosting company that just services Wordpress sites.

Generally specialist hosting isn’t the cheapest in the market, however it is usually still very cost effective and you should find a good plan for ~$30 a month. If you’re using a platform with specialist hosting available I’d advise looking at this route.

Because the environment will be engineered for exactly what you are doing it should be more secure and reliable. Wordpress is a great example where it can either be a single click to get set up on new hosting or a complete nightmare (I’ve experienced both!) just depending on how the environment is set up. The other key issue is support. It makes a big difference when the person on the other end of the line knows exactly what you're talking about.

So how much bandwidth / storage and everything else do I need?

Good question :) This can be a hard one to estimate. Bandwidth is a bit of a misused term within hosting as well. Instead of meaning the amount or volume of traffic that can be handled (as in how much traffic can it handle at once) hosting services tend to mean the amount of data transfer allowed. A bit like the download / upload limit on your home internet connection.

The speed of your hosting is important as well, however this is a bit harder to work out in advance. Because so many different factors will affect the connection speed of both you and your audience to the website. This can be vary massively from person to person depending on everything from connection speed to time of day or how many people are trying to connect at once.

The storage is just that - how much hard drive space you’ll be allocated. If you have a giant database and tons of media files you’ll need more storage. You may well need to search around for something to fit if you’ve got high storage and low bandwidth requirements as the two usually scale directly together.

A note on unlimited hosting

You’ll find that lots of services offer ‘unlimited’ hosting, meaning it’s all you can eat storage and data. Of course it’s not really unlimited - otherwise Google would be hosting their data centres for a few dollars a month ;) All of these unlimited solutions will have some actual limits and fair usage policies.

Most will start throttling your connection after you reach a certain point, you may have to do some digging with different providers to find out where that point is. Like any unlimited service they rely on the majority of people underusing the resource available and capping those who overuse.

Unlimited hosting can definitely be handy though as there is no hard limit, so it means if you do go over what they see as acceptable it is usually handled reasonably and without incurring additional fees (at least without due warning).

So what’s best for me?

Really this depends on what you’re looking to host. There is no one size fits all solution. Here at Wordtracker we run everything from shared, to dedicated to cloud based solutions within our infrastructure. We also have more than one provider, you might want to do the same to provide redundancy. Then again, that may well be complete overkill for your needs.

If you’re just starting out look for a provider who offers great support with live chat as well. Go for a small package - you shouldn’t be looking to pay more than $30 a month for whatever you choose. You’ll find you can always upgrade and generally providers on shared hosting are good at monitoring and letting you know if you’d be better off on a bigger plan (this is how they make their money after all, they won’t have any problem with upgrading you to something more expensive).

If you're running Wordpress we do recommend using a specialist solution such as WPEngine. They provide awesome support and know Wordpress inside out and backwards. If you’re looking for a cheap reliable plan for standard hosting try namecheap who right now are offering ‘unlimited’ hosting from under a dollar a month. For cloud based solutions there is AWS who are very good but expensive, or providers such as Digital Ocean who we use and really like, and have found to be very cost effective.

So that’s it, our round up of hosting. I hope it’s given you a good idea of how to find the best hosting for you. The most important takeaway is that there's no one size fits all solution. Like most technical things you need to find the right solution to the right problem.

And finally, remember, hosting services will always be happy to scale up your solutions, so start with what you think might be just enough and upgrade as you need.