Web hosting allows your website to be seen across the Internet. If you view the Internet as a network of computers (known as servers), then a web host provides you with disk space where you can keep you website, and the connection to the Internet that allows your website to be seen. There are a vast array of web hosting types and choosing options can become something of a blur for the uninitiated. What follows is a very broad beginner’s guide to the different types of web hosting, and how you can choose the right one for your needs.
Free Web Hosting
Everyone likes something for nothing, but people often do not realise, you usually get what you pay for. If you are a blogger with limited funds, or you have a simple website that is not going to be used for business or anything particularly important, then free web hosting might be for you. These days there is a wide range of free hosting options.
Type “free web hosting” into Google and a multitude of such options appear. Some allow you to design a website and upload it to a server using an account which is not dissimilar to that of a paid web hosting option. Others though provide a website builder you must use to create your website - Weebly is a good example of this. Others are built around Open Source (OS) solutions that can be used to create websites on any server. Joomla.com and WordPress.com are examples of this.
In the early days of the Internet some free web hosting sites got a terrible name as being a source of malware and viruses. These days things are considerably better. But you need to understand that free web hosting generally offers your website very limited resources, meaning your website might be slower than other websites. While many free hosting options are now advertising free, some still use advertising as a source of revenue. This means that your website might be showing adverts that are wholly inappropriate for you target group. Very few free hosting options allow you to use your own domain name, meaning you might end up using a domain name like this:
Not instantly recognisable, nor memorable. In addition, free web hosting options often have very limited levels of customer or technical support, meaning that with some options you might be almost entirely on your own if issues occur.
Shared hosting is the mainstay of the web hosting industry and in fact most websites utilise shared hosting options. As we said before, web hosting provides the storage and connection a website needs to be visible on the Internet. Each server is an individual machine – a real computer. As with a PC, a server has a finite amount of storage space that can be used to host websites.
In shared hosting, this storage space is literally shared among a large number (sometimes many thousands) of websites. This means that shared hosting can be offered at a very reasonable cost, with many shared hosting options available for only a few pounds a month.
Generally, for a small website with few bells and whistles, shared hosting can be extremely effective. However, with a large number of websites vying for a server’s available resources (processing power, available bandwidth, etc.), those resources can quickly become scarce, especially if there are some particularly successful websites on a server that have plenty of visitors, or websites that have been coded incorrectly and as a result run inefficiently. This can mean that your website can become slow and ineffective because of other sites on the same server as your site is located.
These days shared hosting comes in many shapes and sizes. Websites can be hosted in physical machines or in the cloud (see below). In addition, a number of advances have been made that make shared hosting more effective - the advent of Solid State Drive (SSD) means servers can now utilise hard disks that do not have any moving parts. This makes them faster and more reliable, meaning SSD shared hosting options are also faster and more reliable.
For the average website that does not have any ‘mission critical’ features (for example, your customers pay for services using credit cards through your site), then shared hosting might well be enough for your needs. In addition, you can use your own domain name, and shared hosting generally comes with email options that allow you to communicate with visitors. But for genuinely mission critical websites, shared hosting might not offer the level of reliability or security that you need.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
Virtual Private Server, or VPS, is another very popular type of hosting. Basically, VPS is a sophisticated and restricted form of shared hosting. As mentioned above, shared hosting has a number of websites sitting alongside each other vying for the same resources. But in VPS hosting, only a fixed number of users are allowed to add websites to a server. The server’s resources are shared equally amongst the users. For a very simplistic example, if server has 100 GB of storage space (and it is usually much more than this) and 10 customers have VPS accounts using that server, they each receive 10 GB of the available storage space. Other resources (processing power, bandwidth, etc.) are also strictly allocated to users.
Unlike in shared hosting, if one website is not using all of its resources, these resources remain unused – in shared hosting other websites will gobble up any available resources. This means that your resources are ‘dedicated’ to your purpose, and VPS can be a cost-effective approach for people that need to keep an eye on their budgets but need more than a standard web hosting account. It can also be a good option for “mission critical” business websites that need more resources than the average website, but not enough for more expensive hosting options.
There are though limitations to VPS. It is difficult to add resources to a VPS account if your website grows in size and requirements. In addition, it is very unlikely that you can change the software a server uses or customise an account in many ways. However, the cloud (see below) has changed this to some extent. Whereas traditionally VPS split up resources on a physical machine, Cloud VPS hosting means that additional resources can easily be added to an account and some level of customisation is possible.
Whereas VPS splits up resources on a server between users, in dedicated hosting a user rents an entire server and all its resources. Dedicated hosting is an expensive form of hosting, but if you rely on your website for your business, it might be the option you need. A dedicated server can be exactly the same type of server that is used in shared hosting, but all the storage, processing power and bandwidth available to a server is ‘dedicated’ to a single user. This makes dedicated hosting ideal for websites that have lots of visitors and by their nature need lots of server resources. In addition, with no other users accessing the machine, dedicated hosting is the most secure. You can add any software to a dedicated server, and you can host as many or as few websites as you want, allocating resources to specific websites as you see fit.
Usually, dedicated servers are rented from a company and kept on a user’s premises. Some people and companies own their own servers. The downside of dedicated hosting is that you need to know your stuff. You either have to have the skills necessary to operate and manage the machine (and this can extend to things like software maintenance - patches, upgrading, etc.) or you need to employ someone to do it for you. You also need an appropriate (usually air-conditioned) space to house your server. If you need the latter options, costs can really start to mount up. But for a business, these costs can be worth it for the peace of mind you have knowing your website(s) have the resources they need to keep your web presence fully operational.
If you do not have the space to house a server, but you need one, you can plumb for colocation. Colocation allows you to house your server in a data centre offered by a colocation provider. The machine is placed in a rack, and you control it remotely. The obvious advantage of colocation is that you do not need to maintain the physical space to maintain a server. Keeping such a space cool enough for a server to operate efficiently is in itself a costly affair. Other benefits are that your colocation provider is responsible for your server’s security and ensuring that it has the backup facilities to cope with power outages to ensure your machine remains online.
The downside of colocation is that you still need to have the skills to operate a server. In addition, alongside the expense (and it can be expensive) colocation means that you might have limited physical access to a machine that belongs to you. Colocation is probably only for websites that warrant the expense because they generate lots of income. Usually, only companies would consider colocation as an option.
If you do not have the space to house a server, nor do you have the skills required to run a server, you can plumb for managed hosting. As the name implies, your server is managed by a team who know how to operate it. If your server needs restarting, they do it for you. If your server needs new software, the provider installs it for you. As you might imagine, this is an expensive form of hosting and is essentially hiring an IT department. As such, it probably is only going to be utilised by companies with mission critical requirements. It can though be cheaper than setting up your own IT department.
Ecommerce is one of the reasons the Internet has become so useful. Through ecommerce people do business on the Internet, buying and selling products and services, in the same fashion they might be bought in the high street, with payments made via credit card. Setting up an ecommerce website can be extremely troublesome, as can be setting up appropriate payment gateways. As the name suggests, ecommerce hosting is dedicated to the people who want to sell their wares online. It offers solutions that make ecommerce easier to manage. Obviously, it has little value to anyone who does not want an online shop.
Reseller Hosting is a type of hosting where an individual or business sells the web hosting services of another web host as their own. Many successful web hosts are actually reselling other web hosts’ products and services - even some of the major web hosting names are resellers. This type of hosting suits the entrepreneur who wants to get into web hosting to turn a profit, but wants to avoid the enormous costs setting up a viable web hosting operation entails – data centre, staff, etc.
A reseller sits in the middle of his or her own customers and the company that he or she rents services from. When a reseller’s customer has problem, the reseller deals with it by contacting technical support at the source company. But reselling is not strictly only for people who want to operate in the web hosting industry. Reseller hosting is often utilised by companies and individuals that provide services such as website design – offering hosting to go along with a website is a natural extension of such a service.
You do not really need reseller hosting unless you have hundreds and websites to manage, you offer services that might require web hosting support, or you want to be a web hosting entrepreneur.
The cloud represents a major paradigm shift and disruption to the web hosting industry. Whereas traditionally web hosts have utilised physical machines servers, each with their own resources, the cloud links all servers together to produce a huge pool of resources. As a result, rather than, for example, renting a dedicated server with a fixed amount of resources that might not be used, users rent the actual resources they need for their websites.
The advantages of the cloud have fuelled the boom in cloud hosting that has been apparent over the last number of years. The key advantage is perceived as cost. As you only rent resources, you need only pay for the resources you use. This means if you do not get many visitors to your site, your costs should be light. In addition, with all resources pooled in this fashion, it is easier to add and take away resources as required. As a result, if for some reason your website receives a spike in traffic, then additional resources can be added to your account, meaning your site does not time out when your visitors access the site because server resources are depleted. In addition, your provider is responsible for software upgrades, maintaining a power source, patches – in fact a cloud hosting provider has to offer you everything an in house IT department might have to offer – all on an ‘as needed’ basis.
The downside of cloud hosting is, like with dedicated servers, you need to know your stuff. Cloud computing is not really going to be the realm of someone who is just launching into web hosting for the first time. In addition, there have been concerns about security (although these appear to be getting less). The cloud can be public, or private. Obviously, private clouds are inaccessible to the public, while the public cloud is considered more prone to hacking. As I said, these concerns are becoming less, but they are still valid concerns. In addition, as with VPS, public clouds offer limited levels of control and customisation – although private clouds that are dedicated to a single user offer more customisation scope.
Vendor lock-in is also a very pertinent consideration. If you use a cloud hosting provider’s services but you are not satisfied with the level of service you receive, it is very difficult to switch providers, and in some cases, impossible. That means you are stuck with a provider that you do not want to use. In addition, cost savings are not always apparent. People transition from traditional hosting to cloud hosting expecting cost savings that do not always materialise. You need to consider carefully the terms and conditions you acquire cloud hosting services under and ensure that cost savings do actually exist.
If you have a basic website and you are not expecting more than 2,000 visitors a day, shared hosting should suffice. All the other types of hosting depend on your needs in terms of resources for your website and the number of visitors you are expecting. As a rule of thumb, I would start with shared hosting, and transition to VPS hosting. As your site becomes more successful, you can consider a move to a dedicated server, but by then you need to have learned how to manage a server to be able to do this. If you really need dedicated hosting, but lack the skills, consider managed hosting, or even a private cloud.