Web site hosting - 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.

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.

October 2014.