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.

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.

October 2014.