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Today, we're going to answer your basic queries, like “what is hosting a website?” We'll also be covering a few in-depth concepts, and cover a bit of how-to knowledge so you can get started. Shall we begin?
What Is Website Hosting?
Web hosting is what allows websites to become viewable on the internet. The files that make up your website can exist independently. They're only accessible to the masses if you put them on a server that is properly connected.
To use an analogy, think of web hosting as a home. Your website and its files are the stuff that goes in the home. They're safe and accessible by virtue of being someplace that everyone can access
Web hosting makes use of servers, as we mentioned. These servers store the information about a website. Then they make it available to those who want to access it via a web browser. It might sound a bit complicated, but this video breaks it down further so that you can understand it:
Is Web Hosting The Same As A Data Center?
Sometimes people get these two confused. Generally speaking, web hosting is about the servers that house the website or the company that owns the servers. A Datacenter is a facility where these servers are usually stored.
The data center might be a single room. It could be a series of rooms. It might even be a large building specifically built to house a ton of hardware. No matter the size, though, data centers will usually have a few things in common.
Among these common features? Access to consistent power, a cooling method, and some kind of network infrastructure.
Is It The Same As A Domain?
Web hosting is not exactly the same as a domain. You need a domain to have a website, but a domain is something different. Let's use our analogy again. The site files make up your website, and the host/server gives them a home. You can look at the domain as the address that lets others know where you are.
Every domain name corresponds to an IP address that is a string of numbers. When we enter a domain into our web browser, it finds the appropriate IP and lets us access the files that make up a website. We use domain names because they are easier than trying to remember long combinations of numbers.
We're talking, of course, about your “.com” suffixes and the like. We could write a whole separate article going on just about domains. We won't go too deep today, but if you want to know more, you can learn about domains by reading this FAQ.
What Kinds Of Web Hosting Are There?
Not all types of hosting are equal. They have different characteristics and can have different effects on the sites they host. Let's start from the bottom of the barrel and work our way up.
Free Web Hosting
This is the lowest of the low right here. The free host will carve you out a small bit of space on their server (that you're sharing with who knows what). Using a free hosting service, you should brace yourself for a sub-domain with the free hosts branding. There's also, in many cases, forced ads and other money-making schemes built-in.
The benefit, of course, is that free hosting doesn't cost you anything. The downsides of free hosting, though, far outweigh this minor advantage.
Free web hosts come with low bandwidth and data transfer capabilities. This means that sites hosted on free services can't support much traffic. They have slower uploads and downloads. In general, they run like a sloth in quicksand.
Free hosting is less reliable. It is also less secure, on average. Most free hosting services pack a bunch of sites onto one server with reckless abandon. If hackers manage to compromise one, all are at risk.
Then there's the fact that many free operations are the fly-by-night variety. If you have a problem that requires customer support, good luck. If you need technical guidance, it's not happening. There's even the small but real chance the free hosting company will disappear, leaving you with no website, no backup, and no plan.
It should go without saying that for any serious web operations, free hosting is no the way to go.
Next up we have shared hosting. Again, many sites share one server and its resources in this setup. It's a much better way to go than free hosting, though. There is a cost, which is low, but many advantages that come with the shared model.
The primary benefit is the low cost. Expenditures for running the server are spread among the many websites that reside on the server. Shared hosting can be as low as $4.00/month, depending on which service you decide to use.
Shared hosting alleviates you of the responsibility of having to run the server yourself. All you have to do is build and manage your site. The hosting service will handle the administration and technical issues.
Since many sites are sharing the server, the technical support you receive may actually come quicker than using a dedicated host. This is because a problem that can affect one site on the server can spread to others.
Your hosting service does not want to deal with a bunch of pissed off customers if they can avoid it. If something goes wrong, they're moving right into high gear to find a solution.
Of course, this also means that if something goes wrong with another site, it does have the potential to wreck yours too. This is just one of the downsides of shared hosting.
There's also the fact that shared resources can slow you down. Your website may run sluggish because some other site is getting swamped. On top of that, you have very little control over the grand scheme of things.
The choice of software, applications, etc. is out of your hands. The hosting service is the big boss, and you've just got to ride the waves or find yourself a new host if you're dissatisfied.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
This why some sites opt for a VPS. It's like having your own server without actually having your own server. True, there are multiple sites on the server. They are, however, partitioned so that each one has its own operating system, disc space, and bandwidth.
This provides a greater degree of individual control, including root access, without the expense required for a dedicated host. There are advantages to using this type of hosting that go beyond cost, though.
You can set up a VPS faster than a dedicated host. You can “scale up” your resources if you need to accommodate the growth of your site. You also get the support and commitment from your host that you would with a shared server. It's like having a bit of both worlds.
The main drawback is that you still don't have the same amount of power that a dedicated server would provide. You can still experience limitations if another site on the server is drawing too much CPU power.
If the hosting service hasn't allocated resources to each site properly, you could be in for some weird service fluctuations that you wouldn't get with your dedicated host.
This is where you go “all-in.” You get the entire server to yourself, and it's yours to play with as you please. You get the maximum level of power. The maximum level of flexibility and control. You can shoulder large amounts of traffic and gain a higher level of stability.
You also have to shoulder all the costs. Dedicated servers will require more overhead and a greater investment of time and money. Having a dedicated server is more complicated, and if something goes wrong, it's all on you, so to speak.
Still, if you're going to go all out for your website, this is the way to do it. Many find the reliability, power, and incredible uptime well worth the expense.
There's also the option of using multiple machines to support a website. This pooling of resources is cloud hosting. An interesting solution, but what does it bring to the table?
The use of multiple machines grants improved reliability. If one goes offline, your website does not suddenly become unavailable. Your site will continue to pull resources from the remaining machines until you or your host can correct the error. This doubles as a security measure for your site since it can now withstand attacks that would disrupt a single server.
If your site experiences a spike in traffic, the multiple machines working together can provide the resources necessary to handle it. This scalability allows your site to use what it needs when it needs it, providing a seamless experience for users.
There are some legitimate concerns about not having full data control with a cloud hosting model, but these are offset by the power and flexibility that it provides.
What's The Difference Between Linux And Windows?
The Site Wizard has a pretty good breakdown on this topic. They make one thing abundantly clear:
“Just because you are using Windows or Mac OS X or something else, it does not mean that you need to get a web host that happens to be running the same platform as you are. The system that your web host runs has nothing to do with the system you're running now.”
So, you have some leeway. What determines which OS you should choose? That depends on what you're using on your site in terms of scripts. Website.com explains:
Linux — Allows for running scripts written in PHP, Perl, Python and other Unix-originated languages. It usually supports MySQL and PostgreSQL databases.
Windows — Allows for running ASP scripts and utilizing .NET and other Microsoft technologies. It supports Microsoft SQL Server and Access database.
“If your website does not require any scripting support, you should choose Linux hosting because they are more economical. However, if your website needs scripting and database support, you should choose the platform that supports the technologies you use. “
And there you have it. The scripts are what make the difference. You might be scratching your head because you don't know the first thing about scripts. That's OK. NHC Hosting gives us a simple definition:
“Each script represents a text document containing a list of instructions that need to be executed by a certain program or scripting manager so that the desired automated action could be achieved.”
There are thousands of scripts out there. A good place to start learning more is checking out the libraries over at HotScripts or HScripts. You can also check out CodeAcademy if you want to learn more about implementing scripts on your site.
What Is A Web Hosting Service?
If we were to carry on our analogy from earlier, the web hosting service is the landlord that rents out all the homes. They provide you with the servers that you can host your site on, giving your website a place all its own on the net.
What Should I Look For In A Web Host?
Before selecting a web host, you need to know what your own hosting needs are. You need to consider what kind of site you are building (or already have). You need to know what applications you'll need and what kind of scripts you'll be running. There are plenty of factors that go into choosing a great host.
Let's look at two top lists that cover what to bear in mind. Envato, a web designer resource, recommends you consider the following:
Storage Space — The amount of data you can store on their server.
Bandwidth — The amount of data that your host will let you and your visitors upload and download over a set period.
Number Of Domains — How many will a host let you support?
Email — Will a host offer you accounts for your various domains?
Database Support — Many sites have them. Will yours work with the host in question?
Framework Support — If you've used a particular CMS for your site (like WordPress) will it be compatible with this host?
Mobile Apps — These allow you to manage your site on the go.
Tech Support — You want someone watching your back in case something goes wrong.
Shell Access — For you advanced types. You can use a remote command line to access the server.
.htaccess Files — Another advanced feature. This refers to adding configuration files to enable specific site abilities.
Cron Jobs — Think of these as commands and scripts that are set to run on timers. You can learn more here.
Language Support — We're not talking about spoken languages here. These are programming languages. There are a bunch out there. Which will your host support?
Free AdWords — Not a major deal, but it might be nice for those looking to monetize their site by selling ads.
Site Backup — If things go terribly wrong and you need to restore your website, a backup copy is essential.
OS Choices — We talked about how scripts will determine what OS works best for you. Make sure you can get the right one with your chosen host.
Extra Applications — Just as it sounds. These are little additional features that can enhance site functionality.
Updates — Does this host stay on the cutting edge in terms of software versions and the like? You wouldn't want to get stuck using outdated programs and such.
Up-Time — This is super important. You have to know that your site is going to be available for as much time as possible. Frequent service outages are not acceptable.
Free Domain — You probably already have your site built and domain selected. If you don't, however, getting a free domain is a nice cherry on top.
Inc.com's list covers some of these same considerations, but also adds a few interesting ones. Three that stand out are:
Blogability — The ability to add a blog if you haven't done so already. This is related to incorporating CMS like WordPress, as they have blogging built right into their platform.
Scalability — The ability to increase the number of resources you can use as your site grows.
An Exit Strategy — It might just turn out that you want to pack up shop and move your site somewhere else. Is your potential host restrictive about what you can and cannot do? Read the fine print and make sure you aren't getting stuck with a raw deal.
Which Hosts Should I Know About?
There are tons of web hosts out there. Which one you decide depends on your personal criteria. You might also want to look into reviews of different hosts so that you can figure out which have been doing right by their customers. You can find competent reviews from multiple sources. As for the hosts to look into, here's a list of a few popular ones:
OK, So How Do I Pull This Off?
Design and build your site. You can do this offline with a WYSIWYG editor for maximum flexibility. You can also make use of a CMS like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla if you feel like they have the functionality you need.
Create and register a domain. You'll have to brainstorm a domain name or use a domain name generator to find one that isn't taken. Once you have it, you'll have to purchase and register it. There are plenty of services for that, and some hosts even bundle that part into the platform.
Get your host. Go through the list of criteria, select your host, and sign up. Once you have your host, you'll have to upload your site to their server. Each host's process might have some differences, so be sure to read their guides on how to do it the right way.
Wait. Can't I Just Set Up My Own Server?
Why yes, yes you can. You won't be able to enjoy the same amount of power that you'd get from a dedicated third-party host, however, without a significant investment in equipment. You'll also have to invest some time in learning what to do.
Thankfully, some brave geeks have already blazed this trail. You need only follow in their footsteps. Instructables, LifeHacker, and Ars Technica all have bang-up guides on starting your own web server from home.
In short, you'll need to buy the hardware then install the operating system (along with some server software). From there, you'll have to do some configuring, load up your website(s) and get some security on there as well.
It's fairly involved, but it will provide you with an unparalleled amount of control. If you're the DIY or tuner type, this might be the best option worth exploring.
So, what is web hosting? Now you know the answer. Your only thing to do now is to get yourself set up with one. Remember, you have options on which route to take.
Avoid the free hosting route if you're planning on doing anything serious, as it will lead you to ruin. You can go with shared hosting or a VPN to reduce your costs. If you need more power or control, you should look at dedicated hosting or cloud hosting.
There are lots of third-party hosting services that will provide whichever option works best. Make sure to think carefully about what you need from a host, then choose accordingly. Not all services are the same, so put some stock into reading up on reviews and assessing the pros and cons of each.
If you're really feeling crazy, try to set up your own server and self-host. It will take you more time, but what better way is there to feel like the master of your own domain than doing it yourself?
No matter what you decide, remember that there plenty of resources to help you achieve your goals. Make sure to refer to this guide if you need any extra info on where to go.