Simple Web Hosting Guide

Your basic guide to hosting web sites on the internet

Introduction

I help you make web hosting decisions for your business. You do not have to know a lot about computers and web hosting. I explain the computer-speak (the technical terms) you might come across.

'Internet site' and 'web site' mean the same thing. By "web hosting" I mean hosting your web site. In other words you want your own Internet site and probably one or more email addresses to go with that. Someone else is going to provide that for you i.e. they "host" your web site and email addresses.

I have worked in IT (Information Technology = computers) for 20 years and run several web sites. I am also business-focused and have a lot of experience running businesses on the Internet and dealing with people who offer web hosting and other Internet services.

A picture of ethernet cables

I do not offer web hosting services myself - I am busy enough with my own Internet ventures. My web hosting advice is neutral. I tell you the business issues you need to consider when you look at web hosting. These issues are not complicated, but are often hidden in a lot of computer buzzwords.

The examples on the site assume a business called "Ace Plumbing".

Email Only Service

If you already have your own ISP (Internet Service Provider) connection and one email address that goes with it, you can probably skip this section.

The first step on the Internet for a lot of business and individual users is to get a single email address. Most people get this when they sign up for an Internet service (an 'Internet connection'). Your ISP gives you one email address when you subscribe to their Internet service. If you do not have this already and are reading this Web page online then you must right now be using an ISP connection provided by someone else - perhaps by a friend or by a public service. If you visited my site looking for help with getting a new ISP service including one email address, then I can't really help you with any good advice - sorry. That is not really "web hosting". Talk to friends about which ISP they recommend or look in your local business telephone directory under "Internet".

A picture of someone using an email application

Once you have any kind of Internet connection, you can get another email address if you like. For example AcePlumbing@yahoo.com, AcePlumbing@gmail.com, AcePlumbing@hotmail.com. These email-only offers can be very low cost or even free. You get these by visiting the site concerned (for example www.gmail.com) and signing up.

Technical note: AcePlumbing@yahoo.com, aceplumbing@yahoo.com and AcEPLuMBing@yahoo.com should all be the same email address because the Internet is (mostly) case-insensitive.

Email-only Internet connection services do not offer you your own Web site. For example, there is no Web site for www.AcePlumbing.gmail.com. So they are hosting your email, but not hosting your Web site.

Worried? Get advice

If you are worried about your current or future web hosting arrangements, then obviously my site is designed to help you. This help can only go so far - you may need to talk to someone else. In that case you really need someone who knows what they are talking about when it comes to web hosting. These people should be neutral. After all, it may be you that is wrong or being unreasonable for whatever reason !.

A picture of someone getting advice

My recommendations for someone to talk to would be:

  • A lawyer: Talk to a lawyer about web hosting contract issues only as a last step and if you really have to. Can be expensive without getting a problem fixed. As soon as you mention that a lawyer is involved, you may significantly raise the stakes with a web hosting provider. This can often be completely unnecessary. The problem may be quite trivial - in which case the last thing you want to do is indicate that the matter may end up with legal proceedings.
  • Another web hosting supplier: If supplier A is giving you a concern, you can always talk to another supplier B. This can be difficult. Supplier B is probably going to quite cautious about criticizing another company in the same line of business. Or they might overstate the case in the hope of winning your business away from supplier A. I personally do not recommend this route. If you want to pursue it, keep the discussion reasonable.
  • Business advice centers: You could try these, but you are unlikely to find someone who knows enough about the web hosting business. You may get generic advice that does not really help you sort out your specific problem.
  • Someone else in same position as you: That is, another business person who has experience - good or bad - with web hosting. This can be really useful. Use personal contacts to find a few suitable people to talk to. Web hosting is very common, so it should not be too difficult to find someone who has a similar position to you. They may not be expert on computers, but can at least give you something to compare your own position to.
  • An IT (Information Technology) consultant: The best option. Web hosting is quite a small issue compared to some of the other things IT people have to deal with, so they should not be too concerned about the amount of time they have to spend on it. IT consultants often give some up-front amount of time for free - just make it clear that they should agree with you before they start running up billable time. If they can't help you, they can often recommend someone else who can. Try to find someone local so that you can meet face-to-face if initial phone/email contact is not enough. Professional organizations may recommend one of their members in your area. To find a suitable organization you could try a search in Google for something like "America IT computer professional organization membership".
  • Chambers of commerce: Can be very helpful, particularly in terms of finding some local IT person to talk to. The same thing goes for community service clubs like Rotary.
  • Somewhere on the Internet: For example you try searching in Google for "computer expert" or try to post a "Please help me" message in some online forum. Actually I don't recommend this. It can be time-consuming to find someone who really knows what they are talking about and you can get poor continuity. First try the other routes above.

Domain names - the basics.

If you have got this far then you probably already have a basic ISP service and an email address that goes with that. If you already have your own domain name for your business, you can skip this section.

A picture of some name badges

Your domain name is the name of your web site. Briefly a domain name is the last bit of a web site address before any slash "/" character. For example if a web site is www.aceplumbing.com then aceplumbing.com is the domain name. You can always ignore the 'www.' bit in web site addresses. Other examples:

  • aceplumbing.co.uk is the domain name for the web site www.aceplumbing.co.uk
  • aceplumbing.ca is the domain name for the email address joe@aceplumbing.ca
  • aceplumbing.cn is the domain name for the web page www.new.business.aceplumbing.cn
  • aceplumbing.com is the domain name for the web page aceplumbing.com/newbusiness

There are various organizations around the world that control the assignment of domain names. They ensure each domain name is only assigned once (you can not have two Web sites both claiming to be running the domain name aceplumbing.com). You can check if someone already has a domain name by just typing it into the location box in your web browser. In this case try both with and without the leading 'www.'. If either one produces a Web site - or even a blank page - it means the domain name is already taken. If you get some message display with 'Address not found' then it may indicate the domain name is free for you to take. You can then confirm this by visiting a 'whois' service - just type whois into Google then visit a few sites that appear up top in the search results.

A lot of domain names are already taken, so you may struggle to get the ones you first think of. You may be able to buy one that is already taken. You can contact the current owner - using details in the whois entry - and see if you can agree on a price. You then have to organize the transfer of the domain name to yourself. This is best done through a 3rd party. I personally use escrow.com, but there are plenty of sites out there on the Internet that can do this for you. This transfer of ownership is called "change of registrant" i.e. you - or your company - become the new registrant. There are sites that offer to do all this for you i.e. they will contact the current owner, help both parties settle on a price and then organize the change of registrant. They charge for this service.

If you get a domain name (either from someone else or one that has never been used before) you can not register this domain name all by yourself. Only a 'registrar' can do this. A registrar is an official agent for the organizations that control the assignment of domain names. Most ISPs are registrars i.e. your current ISP - if you have one - can act as registrar for you. Or a new web hosting supplier you choose to deal with can act as registrar.

One final topic on domain name basics - the Domain Name Service or DNS. The Internet does not run on names. It actually runs on numbers. For example this domain name simplewebhostingguide.com is represented by the number 217.147.180.114. That number is an IP address (short for Internet Protocol Address) on a computer somewhere. The DNS is really just a giant lookup table that maps domain names (e.g. simplewebhostingguide.com) to IP addresses (e.g. 217.147.180.114) for every domain name on the planet.

As a business user, you don't really care what IP address number is assigned. But you do care about control if you ever need to change the number to point to a different computer. This means you want direct control over DNS name server entries.

The next section explains the things you really must check about your domain name along the way - particularly if there is a change of registrant or registrar. It also explains what you need to do in terms of managing the DNS entries yourself.

Domain names - Things you must do

This section applies if you are in the process of getting a domain name or already have one and want to verify it is OK.

Rule 1 - know how to look up your domain name details

This is something you absolutely must do yourself - direct on the Internet. I do not think you should rely on someone sending you details e.g. as an email attachment. This means using a ‘whois’ service. Type whois into Google and visit a few of the sites that appear up top in the search results. You need to end up with a page that includes details like below. Click either/both and then print off from your Web browser so you can follow the detailed discussion below.

Whois records for yahoo.com (as a text file)
Whois records for yahoo.com (as a PDF)

These are for the big site Yahoo.com. You obviously need to use whois for your own domain name.

Rule 2 - know who your registrar is

Registrar Name....: Markmonitor.com
Registrar Whois...: whois.markmonitor.com
Registrar Homepage: http://www.markmonitor.com

See previous section if you do not know what a 'registrar' is. The registrar for yahoo.com is Markmonitor.com. The name appearing here should be accurate enough (a full company name) for you to do a company search to find out details like their registered office and who the directors of the company are. You can do this type of search on the Internet.

A registrar can go out of business. Or you may simply be unhappy with the service your current registrar provides. In either case, you want to change registrar. There is a set procedure for doing this, and fees tend to be standard and quite reasonable - around US$50-US$100. The new registrar you pick can help you with this i.e. they will help you with the "change of registrar" process. After this has been done, re-check the entries on whois.

Rule 3 - Keep your web hosting provider and registrar different

This is a debatable rule but one I still stand by. Your domain name is your own long-term asset. It is actually your brand. You should avoid any risk that sees you lose your asset. If your web hosting provider is also your registrar and you enter into a dispute with them, they may intentionally or unintentionally block your ability to update your whois details. For example, they may disable your online logon to their site to maintain the whois details.

On balance I think you should not allow one business to be both your registrar and your web hosting provider. This is a "be safe, don't be sorry" rule.

Rule 4 - Find a registrar where you can maintain whois details yourself

If you want to change registrar, you have to follow the "change of registrar" process - see Rule 2 above. Apart from that, you want to find a registrar where you can maintain all other whois details online yourself. The registrar may have some controls around this e.g. they may make your change pending until such time as you reply to an email confirming the change. You should expect that any change you make is finalized within 2-3 working days - assuming you respond quickly to any control requirements. This is quite normal if your registrar has efficient IT (Information Technology) systems and people. If a change takes more than 5 working days to be finalized, I personally would view that as a cause for concern.

Rule 5 - verify registrant details

Registrant:
Domain Administrator
Yahoo! Inc.
701 First Avenue
Sunnyvale CA 94089
US

The "registrant" is the person who owns the domain name i.e. your business or you personally. In the case above, this is the corporation Yahoo!, Inc. You could also use an organisation (your company, charity, business etc.). The registrant name must be exactly correct all of the time. If it is not, then you may find yourself in a really terrible position. It is like owning a piece of real estate. If the name is slightly wrong on the deeds records for that property, your title to that asset is not 100% secure and you may end up losing it altogether.

You could choose to give a generic name like 'Managing Director' or 'Domain Administrator' as the contact person. You can give a real person name if you want to. This is not a big deal. If you give a generic name there are some benefits. Firstly if someone looks up the whois and writes/emails you, you recognize the source of the information about you. Secondly, you don't have to worry about updating the name if you personally are no longer involved in the organisation.

If you change any of the registrant details, you should expect your registrar to want to confirm it in some way. For example a change of address may trigger an email or phone call from them asking you to confirm the new address in some way. A change in the actual registrant name - Yahoo! Inc. in the case above - is particularly important because that could indicate a change of legal title to the domain name. If that changes, you should expect your registrar to react. For example they might ask if this is just a change of company name (same company, different name) or indeed a change of title (you have sold the domain name to someone else).

Rule 6 - pay for your domain name

Created on..............: 1995-01-18
Expires on..............: 2013-01-18

The expiry date for this domain name is January 18th, 2013. When a domain name expires, it becomes available for someone else to register and use. They then own it and you have no right to it. In domain circles, an expiry of an existing domain name is called a 'drop'.

Domain names expire simply because they are not renewed. They are not renewed if you do not pay for them to be renewed. So if you want to keep the domain name, you must pay for renewal. The cost of this is about $20-$40 per year. You may be able to get it quite a bit lower than that e.g. $5-$10 per year, but I really don't think price should be a big factor here. You can pay several years in advance if you want to. This typically gets you a multi-year discount.

You pay the renewal fee to your registrar - typically online using a credit card. Do this at least one month before the current expiry date. Then after your payment has been processed, check that the expiry date has been increased in line with what you paid. Your registrar should send you advance notification that your domain name is close to its expiry date. But it is highly likely your contract with them says they carry no responsibility if they fail to remind you. I suggest monitor the expiry date yourself. Put a note in your diary, ask someone close to you to remind you etc. Paying for several years in advance is no bad thing, but check with your registrar what happens if you change registrar. For example if you pay for 5 years in advance with your old registrar, ask them how much of what you pay is carried foward to your new registrar if you change registrars.

Rule 7 - maintain DNS entries

Domain servers in listed order:
ns3.yahoo.com
ns2.yahoo.com
ns4.yahoo.com
ns5.yahoo.com
ns1.yahoo.com

Your web hosting provider will ask you to maintain ‘DNS entries’ or ‘DNS nameserver entries’. If you change your web hosting provider, then you will certainly need to change the DNS entries. Ask your provider (the new one if you are changing provider) what these entries are. They will gladly tell you what they are and when you need to make the change. If the entries are wrong, your web site and email can become invisible on the Internet so you need to get the details right.

Rule 8 - keep contact details uptodate

Administrative Contact:
Domain Administrator
Yahoo! Inc.
701 First Avenue
Sunnyvale CA 94089
US

The whois records allow an "Administrative Contact" and "Technical Contact" to be different from registrant details. In the case of Yahoo they are all the same. You might want to have them different. Your registrar should use the administrative contact for business issues like change of registrar and billing enquiries, and the technical contact for more technical things like DNS entries. If that contact fails, a careful registrar should then revert to using the contact details for the registrant. But it is still your responsibility to keep all contact details uptodate and useful.

Rule 9 - remember the importance of email addresses

Large registrars rely heavily on email to manage your domain names for you. That is, they will have automated systems that send emails first. They may then follow up with phone calls later only if they have to. If they send you an important email about your domain name and you never get that email, you are at risk. You must monitor your email carefully and make sure that any email from your registrar is not accidentally treated as spam.

Anyone trying to steal your domain name is likely to change the email address first. That way, any further emails go directly to them and you never see them. A competent registrar should know this. When a change of email address is processed, they should send an email to the old email address asking you to confirm that the email address change can go ahead. So if you change the email address yourself, you should do this while the old email address is still working - not later when the old email address no longer works or you have stopped reading emails sent to it.

Rule 10 - remember you are human

All the rules above assume that you want to actively manage your domain name yourself. Of course it doesn't have to be that way. Someone else - including your web hosting provider or ISP - can offer to 'do it all' for you at a price. For example they might charge you $80 to renew a domain name that you could renew yourself for $40. It remains your choice. Personally I think there is not much effort in managing a domain name directly and I prefer the certainty of being in complete control myself.

If you make this choice, the responsibility falls squarely on you. If you become indisposed then someone else has to act on your behalf. If you haven't even told anyone what you are doing, you can lose your domain name simply because no-one knows they should help you. Plan for that. At the very least tell someone 1) what domain name(s) you have, 2) which registrar you currently use, 3) when any critical action might be required e.g. next renewal on your domain names.

Rule 11 - find a registrar you are comfortable with

There are no cast-iron rules here. I recommend a larger registrar that has been trading at least 5 years and backs up highly automated systems with very good personal service should you need it. Cost should not be a major factor.

Web Site Development

Previous sections covered web hosting issues like simple email-only Internet services and management of domain names. Before getting further into web hosting, it is worth discussing how to develop a web site. If you already have web site content you are perfectly happy with, you can skip this section.

A picture of web based code

Rule 1 - pick someone to do your web site

You can try doing your own web site, and you can buy software that helps you do that. There are also thousands of people who will offer to do a web site for you. This can easily be done remotely, so someone anywhere on the planet is a possibility. You want someone who is experienced. Your 13-year old nephew whom you think is a "bit of a computer expert" might not be the ideal choice if this is his first site !. Rather find someone who has already done at least 5 sites and have a look at those sites yourself. Make sure the person gives you a business proposal you can understand e.g. clearly lays out the basis on which they will bill you and what sort of service level you should expect in return.

What makes a web site 'good' or 'interesting' can be very subjective. Your web site designer should be able to explain design decisions upfront or as he/she goes along. There are some design factors that are fairly universal e.g. a) how does the site look/work in a number of different popular web browsers, b) should you attempt to protect email addresses on the site from spam abuse. My web site is not the right place to discuss all the factors, but there are plenty of other sites that do. Your designer should be able to identify those sites for you.

Rule 2 - you own the content

Remember your web site belongs to you - not to anyone else. A web site designer has no right to the content at any stage (although some will seek to retain ownership until you have paid them). That should be absolutely clear in any agreement. Make sure that there is nothing on the Web site that contradicts this rule. For example you might allow them to have a small line 'This web site developed by Amazing Web Design Inc.' but not 'This web site copyright Amazing Web Design Inc.'.

It is a good idea to have copies of the content yourself. For example: a) your designer sends you the content compressed into a zip file, b) you keep the zip file on your own computer, c) you forward a copy of the zip file to your web hosting provider to load up onto the computer that hosts your site. The point is that you should always have a copy of the entire current content of your web site somewhere safe where you can get to it without asking anyone else.

Rule 3 - you develop the content

At the end of the day, it is you - not someone doing a web site for you - that must develop about 90% of your web site content. A web site designer at first knows nothing about you and your business. Sure you can wait for them to ask a lot of questions, but it is a lot more effective (and less expensive) if you do the initial work. You should draft a simple document that contains all the "words" you want to appear on the site - organized into suitable categories - "Who we are", "How to contact us", "Our range of products/services", "Our people" etc. Your web site designer then just has a fairly easy job of organizing the content you provide into appropriate web pages. If you can't figure out the categories, just surf the web looking to see how sites in a similar line of business to you are organized.

At its simplest, a web site can be a bit like a company brochure or presentation about your business. But it can be more than that e.g. have some dynamic features you can not find in a paper brochure. So if you reuse existing material for your web site, be prepared to "add more value". Your web site designer should be able to help you identify where the added value can be found.

Rule 4 - development never ends

Doing a web site is seldom a one-time thing. At the very least you should keep any contact details on the site uptodate. It can be really irritating, for example, to find on a web site old telephone numbers that no longer work. You would be amazed how often even very large corporations make this mistake.

Your site may change frequently as your own business evolves or changes. Make the time to keep your site relevant and accurate - even if you don't see immediate business benefit. Your web site is your showcase to the Internet world and you never know how important the next visitor to your Web site is going to be.

Rule 5 - test and verify

Test your web site after changes - particularly after big changes. Make sure what is now live on the Internet is what you expect and that no unwanted changes have crept in. An error may come from a completely unexpected source. For example, the person who uploads your site content may accidentally upload old content or even content destined for a completely different business.

Test your content before it goes live if you can. Proofread and spellcheck any new content your site designer gives you - before it all goes live.

Finally, get independent opinion on your web site. Ask friends to have a look at it and give you their overall impressions. Other people in your business are also important. They may have strong views on how the web site looks. Give them the chance to express their views - not least so they 'buy in' to the site and are proud of what it says about the total business.

Web site hosting - types of service

Previous sections covered domain name management and web site development. Now we can focus more on core issues regarding hosting of your web site and email.

A picture of some servers

All hosting companies offer two types of service:

  • Type 1: Your site and email live on a shared computer at the web hosting provider along with web sites and email for other businesses. You all share the cost of that computer. The hosting supplier should ensure that this sharing is transparent e.g. another business sharing the computer with you will not be able to read your emails. This type of service is called "co-hosting". It is the normal arrangement for small businesses e.g. those that just want a fairly simple web site (maybe a few pages) and the use of a few email addresses.
  • Type 2: You have your own dedicated computer at the web hosting provider. You do not share the computer with other businesses so it is almost impossible for their hosting to clash in any way with yours. This type of service is called "co-location". It is really only for bigger businesses.

The cost of co-hosting is very roughly $10-$20 per month. The cost of co-location is usually $100 per month or more. If you talk to a web hosting provider, they will quickly figure out if your business should even consider co-location. You will typically know if you need co-location because a) you started with co-hosting but outgrow it or b) your business already has quite a lot of computer equipment.

The rest of this site is focused on people who should consider co-hosting - although a lot of issues also apply to co-location.

Web site hosting - the basics

Previous sections covered web site (domain name) management, web site development and the difference between co-hosting and co-locating. Below I discuss some of the issues you encounter every time you talk to someone about hosting your site on a co-hosting basis. Following sections discuss more advanced issues.

A picture of some servers

If the content below is too technical for you, no problem. Just consider the following before you move on to the next section:

  • If your requirements are very simple, then the lowest (and cheapest) level of offering from a web hosting provider will probably be way more than enough to meet your needs.
  • If you underestimate to start off with, your hosting provider should tell you later and offer to escalate you to another level of hosting. They monitor their users all the time and will quickly detect if you are over the initial limits they set. Your initial agreement may even cater for this e.g. have phrases like "$10 for first 5Gb, then $1 for every subsequent Gb". In other words if you reach an initial limit, your service should not stop altogether.
  • A good web hosting provider will explain any unusual patterns in your usage. For example if your web site is quite small but you then dramatically increase the size (e.g. by uploading a lot of big digital photographs), your hosting provider should be able to trace when your usage suddenly increased and why.
  • Any extra charges should be reasonable. For example if you unexpectedly double your initial use, your charges should at most double. It is highly unusual for any hosting supplier to hit you with a sudden large financial penalty. They want to keep your business.

Issue 1 - size matters

Content on a web site and flowing around the Internet (e.g. from your web site to the browser of someone reading a web page from your site) is measured in bytes. A byte is actually a very small thing e.g. one letter of the alphabet is about 1 byte big. So people measure things in multiples of bytes:

1 Kilobyte is around 1,000 bytes. Kilobyte is frequently abbreviated to 'Kb'
1 Megabyte is around 1,000,000 bytes. Megabyte is frequently abbreviated to 'Mb'.
1 Gigabyte is around 1,000,000,000 bytes. Gigabyte is frequently abbreviated to 'Gb'.

You don't really have to remember all this, but if someone technical starts using terms like "Megabytes" and "Gigabytes" you should know roughly what they are talking about.

Issue 2 - site size and traffic

Anyone proposing to host your web site is first going to ask "how big is your site". They have a computer where your site content will be put, so they need to know if that computer has enough storage to hold your content. For all but the biggest sites/businesses this is seldom a problem. But you still need to have some figure in mind. If you have a web site designer developing your site, you can ask them how big your site is. Or if you have the site content available on your own computer, you can get to a total size. Using Microsoft Windows Explorer, for example, if you right-click on a file and then select "Properties" you can see a figure for bytes. Usually web pages containing words are quite small, but some image files (pictures) can be quite big. For example this Web page you are reading now is around 15Kb (15,000 bytes) but a single photo from my digital camera can easily run to 2Mb (2,000,000 bytes).

The second question you will face is "how much traffic do you get". Your site content sitting on a computer somewhere is only half the issue. For someone to read that content, it has to be downloaded from the computer where it lives then across the Internet into the Web browser of the person trying to read your site. This is "traffic". The arithmetic here is not too difficult. Suppose your web site is 1Mb in size and 5 people per day read every page on your web site. Then the traffic is 5Mb (5 people multiplied by 1Mb per person) per day. If you had 100 people per day reading your 1Mb web site then the traffic would be 100Mb per day.

These two factors are often rolled up into a business proposition by web hosting providers e.g. you might see an offer for "1.5Gb Webspace, 30Gb data transfer - only $10 a month". That offer would be to host 1.5Gb of web site and other content, and allow for 30Gb of traffic for that content e.g. your entire site content is read on average about 20 times a month.

There are a number of extra factors here:

  • Your traffic is not just web site content. Email also counts towards "storage" and "traffic".
  • Traffic is not just one-way out. You also have traffic in. For example you must upload content to your site before other people can download it, you must receive email from someone else before you can read it yourself. For most sites this is quite a small issue - only about 10% of traffic is inbound, the rest is outbound.

However the basic two issues (site size and traffic) will always remain. Your web hosting supplier has no choice but to consider these two issues. It is the only way for them to confirm that the computer equipment they have will cope with what you need.

Issue 3 - site speed

This is not often an issue that you see in any contract with your web hosting provider. But it is worth understanding.

The Internet is really just a lot of cables connecting together a lot of computers. Not all these cables are the same capacity. Bigger cables can carry more traffic than smaller cables. Your web hosting provider has cables and other equipment. It also has computers that work at a certain speed. All this equipment can be upgraded by simply buying bigger/faster equipment. But the hosting business does not want to spend more than it needs to because all this equipment is expensive. However sometimes they may spend less than they need to. So the equipment all still works but can be quite slow.

Consider someone browsing your site with 1Mb of content. How fast they actually see the content in their web browser depends upon the speed of all the equipment between their own computer and the computer that hosts your web site. Often the bottleneck may be their own private ISP connection. Sometimes it may be the equipment at your web hosting provider. It can be *really* difficult to detect where a bottleneck is, because the Internet is constantly changing.

So you get your web site up and running with your hosting provider and everything seems fine. But then you start thinking that your site is "a bit slow". It is unlikely your contract with your ISP will say anything about 'speed'. This is not unreasonable - speed is difficult to measure anyway and may depend upon things the ISP has no control over. So what can you do about it ?. The plain answer is - not very much. To a degree you get what you pay for. If you get an unbelievably good price for web hosting, it is not uncommon for you to get slower speed. You can try talking to your web hosting provider about why they think your current web site is slow. They may give you an honest answer, but if they are deliberately underinvesting in equipment it is unlikely they will tell you that. Ultimately your only solution may be to switch to another web hosting supplier and try paying a bit more in the hope you get faster speed.

Web site hosting - business systems

A lot of web sites are what is called 'static'. They contain web pages that are downloaded as-is for users to read in their web browsers. This may be perfectly good enough for your business. For example a user sees your contact details on your web site then all subsequent business for that user is direct over the telephone or in meetings.

Computers however can do more than that. For example they can use databases to store business data that gets shown on web pages. In that respect the computer at your web hosting supplier is not really very different from any other computer e.g. one you already have in your own business.

Issue 1 - web forms

Web pages that accept input from users (e.g. the user can logon then enter an order for something you sell) do 'forms' processing. A web form on the Internet is directly comparable to its paper equivalent i.e. a paper form you write on to get something done. Some web hosting providers ban web forms altogether, although this is now quite rare. The underlying restriction is that they prohibit what is called the "POST HTTP method".

Issue 2 - databases

Web forms processing requires a database 99% of the time. The only real exception is where the form is used just to gather information to put immediately into an email. There are many suppliers of databases. Your web hosting supplier will tell you which database(s) they can support. Data in the database can come from two sources: a) uploaded by you e.g. a list of the products you have to sell and what they cost, b) from web forms input e.g. someone using a form on your web site to place an order for some of your products. The database is designed by someone to support whatever business you want it to support.

Issue 3 - programming and development

Someone has to provide computer programs that do the actual work e.g. process the input from a web form then store a new record in the database that captures whatever the user keyed into the form. In reality all three things (forms, databases, programs) are designed and developed at the same time - because they all have to work together. This results in a complete computer "application" system where the software application (what the system actually does) is something like "price inquiry", "order processing", "product search" etc.

A picture of some code

There are many companies that can develop a brand-new computer system for you, or sell you one they already developed. Your web hosting provider may offer to do this. Application development is a large topic in it's own right and beyond the scope of my web site. So I can only provide some rough guidelines here:

  • A bad application can be really bad e.g. you can lose customer orders and their confidence in your business. Conversely a really good application can be more than "must-have, boring". It can transform the way you do business.
  • Developing a new application system is around 20 to 50 times more expensive than buying one "off-the-shelf". So there has to be a really good reason to get a special application developed just for you.
  • If an application system goes live and fails to be useful, this is 90% of the time because your business fails to get involved enough before the system goes live. You can never really have too much planning, evaluation, testing, documentation, consensus and thinking. Fixing a computer application after it goes live is much more expensive than getting it right in the first place.
  • Contracts in application software development are critical. If you are asked to sign a contract and you don't fully understand what you are signing, get professional advice. Contractual disputes in software development can get really ugly and be very expensive to resolve.

Web site hosting - backup

Disasters like floods and fires can happen. These can hit your web hosting provider in the same way as any other business. Suppose for example their building with all the computers burns down. It may take them weeks or months to get back to normal. Or it may be such a disaster they go out of business altogether. So your Internet presence is zero - email stops working and you have no web site. The same issue may occur on a smaller scale e.g. one computer may suddenly fail completely.

Any organisation using computer equipment has to consider what happens if equipment fails or is destroyed. The solutions come under the title of "backup". For example if a computer fails then your web hosting supplier may be able to switch to a backup computer, or if a whole building containing computers is lost then they may be able to switch to another backup building containing backup computers.

A picture of a disk

Providing backup is quite a technical problem. If you know little about IT (Information Technology) and ask your web hosting provider "what do you do about backup" then there is little chance you will understand if what they say is really good enough or not.

So how do you approach the problem ?. Here are some broad guidelines:

  • Keep your own copies of whatever content you have with your web hosting supplier. Then at least if they suffer a total loss of your data you have something to fall back on. Some content you may already have e.g. web site content from your web site designer. Other content you may have to ask your web hosting supplier for. For example you could ask them if they could send you a CD-ROM or memory stick once a week containing all data they have for you.
  • Larger web hosting suppliers tend to have more backup than smaller ones. This is not an cast-iron rule, but backup is expensive - particularly when it comes to whole buildings.
  • The first priority is going to be recovery of email. If you lose all your current email addresses, get some alternative ones fast.
  • Think about who you need to contact if you suddenly lose your Internet presence altogether. Phone them and explain what has happened. Generally they should be sympathetic. Make sure they have telephone numbers for you if they can't get hold of you via the Internet. Give them your temporary email addresses to use.
  • Plan to move your business fast to another web hosting supplier if it looks like your existing supplier is unable to get up and running again within a set period of time. Be firm on deadlines. Figure out what delay you can give your current supplier. Within that time-frame, start talking to alternative suppliers anyway.
  • As soon as you start running application systems with your web hosting supplier, revisit your backup plans. For example if a fire destroys the building occupied by your web hosting supplier, you can lose valuable real-time business data which may force you out of business unless you have proper backup arrangements.

Web site hosting and outsourcing

You may have some computer systems supporting your business that live on a computer at your web hosting provider. You may also have other computer systems elsewhere e.g. on your own premises. It is reasonable to ask questions such as "Would it be better if all these computer systems were in one place ?" and "Can my web hosting supplier also help me with my systems that are not on the Internet ?".

'Outsourcing' means you get someone outside your business to do a range of IT (Information Technology) things for your business. Your web hosting supplier may be in a position to help you with a wide range of IT problems - not just those related to your presence on the Internet. There are many recent IT developments trying to make this easier e.g. you can access a lot more systems using only a web browser and the computers you actually use can increasingly be anywhere on the Internet.

Outsourcing your computer systems may also make it a lot easier to work remotely in new ways. That is, the people in your business can work more easily from other locations - their homes, hotel rooms while away etc. Typically they just need a relatively low-specification laptop computer to be their "window" onto your real computer systems.

Summary

Previous sections in this web hosting guide covered the issues you encounter when you use a web hosting provider for your business presence on the Internet. Some technical computer jargon was inevitable - but it was explained clearly and kept to a minimum.

If you have problems with your web hosting supplier, you minimize your risk if you:

  • Manage your domain name 'whois' entries yourself.
  • Have backups of your current web site content and any business application data.
  • Know who to talk to for good impartial advice about your situation.

These topics were all covered in preceding sections of this web site.

Obviously you want to resolve any problems amicably with your web hosting supplier, rather than escalate to legal proceedings. Web hosting is big business - there are lots of companies offering this service. You can reasonably ask your provider questions such as 'Is this standard practice ?' or 'Is this reasonable in your line of business ?'. Get responses in writing (in email is OK) if you can.

Disputes around a simple web hosting service really should be rare. This is a very competitive 'commodity' business. Bad suppliers tend to get exposed very quickly.

Disputes in my view are more likely around complex issues - in particular development of application systems. This is not uniquely a 'web hosting' problem. If in doubt, get good advice up front - particularly if this is the first time you are tackling something quite large.

When you first start out with web hosting, it can appear a bit intimidating. But have faith. Once it is all up and running, you can generally focus on your own business secure in the knowledge that web hosting problems are rare. There are two good pieces of general advice if you are doing web hosting for the first time:

  • Do not buy on price alone. This stuff is generally not expensive. The cost of web hosting is nothing compared to the potential benefits.
  • Make it personal. Go and visit your prospective web hosting provider if you can. Phone them up rather than rely on email only. You will quickly get an idea of how helpful they are.