What is Web Hosting?

Web hosting definition

When a hosting provider allocates space on a web server for a website to store its files, they are hosting a website. Web hosting makes the files that comprise a website (code, images, etc.) available for viewing online. Every website you’ve ever visited is hosted on a server.

The amount of space allocated on a server to a website depends on the type of hosting. The main types of hosting are shared, dedicated, VPS and reseller. They are differentiated by the kind of technology used for the server, the level of management provided and the additional services on offer.

In a nutshell, web hosting is the process of renting or buying space to house a website on the World Wide Web. Website content such as HTML, CSS, and images has to be housed on a server to be viewable online.

What exactly is a server? A server is a computer that connects other web users to your site from anywhere in the world. As the name implies, web hosting service providers have the servers, connectivity, and associated services to host websites. By offering a variety of hosting plans, they cover the spectrum of hosting needs, from small blogs and large organizations.

If you’re planning on creating an online presence, reliable web hosting is essential. There are literally hundreds of web hosts available today providing thousands of varieties of web hosting services. Plans range from free with limited options to expensive web hosting services specialized for business. The plan you choose will depend primarily on how you plan to use your website and how much you have budgeted for hosting.

Choosing the right hosting plan will mean having access to the right allocation of resources to keep your website loading quickly and reliably for your visitors. Think about how many businesses these days operate primarily online; their sales and business leads come from their website. If someone lands on a website and there's a problem — it takes too long to load or doesn't appear at all — potential customers won't wait around. They'll bounce off that site in search of a one that works correctly and can deliver what they are looking for, seamlessly.

If you’re new to operating a website, web hosting and related lingo can be a puzzling topic. Many a novice website owner has used the cheapest option or anything bundled with their domain name purchase under the mistaken belief that all hosting options are essentially the same.

This can be a costly mistake.

This article includes everything you need to know about web hosting and how choosing the right one is important to the success of your website, all in simplified manner you will understand.


How does web hosting work

Web hosting happens when the files that make up a website are uploaded from a local computer on to a web server. The server’s resources, (RAM, hard drive space, and bandwidth) are allocated to the websites using it.

The division of server resources varies depending on the type of hosting plan chosen. To choose the appropriate hosting plan, you first need to differentiate between the plans available. This doesn’t have to be complicated. For the non-technical readers, let’s use a simple analogy: Choosing web hosting is similar to searching for office space:

How do you decide which type of office space is right for your needs? Is a workstation in an open co-working space enough, or the next best thing; an office within a business center. Do you have intentions to expand quickly or expect a lot of people coming and going? Would you consider renting an entire building or would building your own space appeal?

Aside from the style of office you use there are other considerations. How easy the rooms are to access, which functions they offer (extras such as a whiteboard, high-speed internet, and other facilities), and where are they located and the overall cost. These considerations will determine your needs and help decide which type of office is right for you. Let’s compare this selection process to deciding which web hosting fits.

  • Shared hosting is similar to renting a workstation in a busy, noisy, open plan office or co-working space. You have all the modern conveniences: a desk, internet connection and some stationary and you share the space with other co-workers including the kitchen, printer, and restroom. You can’t do any makeovers to the space such as installing whiteboards etc. This is a popular option for launching small websites and not appropriate for large-scale commercial projects.

  • A virtual private server (VPS) is a nice step up from shared hosting. Medium sized business will benefit from renting an office within a business park. With a VPS, users are isolated from each other. You have neighbors, but you are less dependant on them, and you can carry out any makeovers (customizations) as you like and organize your workstation on your own.

  • ing an entire office building is comparable to hosting on a dedicated server. It’s a more expensive option and best for websites who value reliability and high performance. Since you control the entire space, you have more say over configurations and plenty of space, but it’s not worth investing in if you won’t use the space included.

We’ll discuss each type of hosting in greater detail later in the article.


Web hosting and domain hosting

Once you’ve purchased a domain name, the files that hold your website’s content (HTML, CSS, images, databases, etc.) need to be stored together in a location connected to the internet — a web server. Once the website’s files are uploaded to a hosting company’s web server, the host is then responsible for delivering the files to users.

We’ve mentioned that hosting makes websites available for people to visit through their web browser, but how does that work exactly? The domain name system (DNS) makes sure that website browser connects to the right computer (server) that stores your website files.

Recommended reading: What is DNS? →

In other words: when someone types in your web address into their browsers, their computer connects through the internet to the web server holding your website files. It locates your domain’s IP address (where it’s stored on the domain name system) and directs the users to the right website. Their browser will then show your website information (all the data that makes your pages) so that they can browse your web pages anytime.

How to pick a web host

Your selection of an appropriate and reliable web hosting service provider is an important step in coming online, especially if you are launching a business website. Hosts not only make your site available to others, but they also offer services related to managing these servers and its software, support, bandwidth, speed and so on.

Free web hosting comes with a cost


Bandwidth Allowance

Bandwidth allowance (sometimes loosely referred to as "traffic" or "data transfer") is the number of bytes required to transfer your site to all of your visitors when they browse your content. Does the hosting provide enough space for your needs? To give you a rough idea of the typical traffic requirements of a website, most new sites that don't provide video or music on their site use less than 3 gigabytes of bandwidth per month. If you anticipate quick future expansion or your needs include sound, video, etc., then consider the extra space offered by a paid hosting provider.

If you’re thinking about going for a free host, think first about the size of your site and how many visitors you expect on a daily basis. Many free web hosts impose daily or monthly limits on the amount of traffic your website can use. If your content includes lots of images or videos that attract over the “agreed” amount of visitors (traffic) per day/ week/ month, the host is within its rights to disable your website for breach of contract - or send you a bill.

Another consideration before using free hosting providers is that they frequently impose a maximum size on the files you upload. If you wish to distribute software or high-resolution imagery, a paid host offers you the ability to load the larger file sizes you’ll need.

Advertising

Many, but not all free hosts impose advertising on your website to cover the costs of providing your site with free web space. Most people are put off by commercial banners and pop-ups. Sites littered with adverts are generally considered low quality and even spammy, which is an immediate put-off. To be on the safe side, check the fine print to see if adverts are expected in exchange for free hosting before you sign-up.

Upgrade Options

Look out for is whether a host gives your site room to grow. Most new sites start on shared hosting which is pretty powerful these days. However, as you expect a website to grow over the years, you might need to consider a more powerful server (virtual private or dedicated for example). Check the host has suitable plans to upgrade to and that the process is as straightforward as possible.

Why pay for web hosting?


Uptime (reliability)

Reliability is extremely important for both free and paid services, but you should only expect any real reliability with a paid hosting plan. It’s likely that you’ll want your website to operate 24/7, and you’ll only get that from a web host with reliable servers and stable network connections. Before you decide on a host, check out its uptime history. You can read reviews and check their advertised uptime guarantees.

A site that is hard to reach or frequently down loses visitors, customers, and can hit revenue hard. If someone finds your site and tries to access it only to find that it’s unavailable, they won't hesitate to go to a competitor site. Slow access is also very frustrating for dedicated visitors (and for you also, when you upload new content).

Traffic/Bandwidth

Read and understand any limitations placed on the bandwidth you use and select an appropriate plan. If your site is going to incorporate video, audio, or other elements that require a higher level of bandwidth, you want a plan that matches your needs.

PHP, .htaccess, SSH, MySQL, FTP etc

  • If you need to install PHP or Perl - make sure you can do this without needing your host's approval. If not you will have to wait for their say so before you can implement a feature on your site.

  • Assuming you want to do things like customizing your error pages (the messages displayed when visitors land on an extinct page on your site), protect your site from bandwidth theft and hotlinking, etc. and to password-protect your folders, you'll need the ability to create or modify ".htaccess" files.

  • SSH access is useful for maintaining databases such as MySQL and when you want to run a blog or a content management system.

  • FTP is a popular method to transfer web pages and other files from a local computer onto a web hosts computer (servers) so that it can be viewed by anyone worldwide. Some hosts only don’t allow you to design and upload your own pages. Instead, they ask that your pages are designed and uploaded using their online site builder. Unless you are an absolute beginner and plan a pretty trivial site, make sure you have FTP access or the ability to upload your pages by email or browser at the very least.

Control Panel

The purpose of a control panel is to allow you to manage various aspects of your websites hosting account yourself. You should expect a control panel from a commercial host so you can perform everyday maintenance tasks without having to wait for technical support to make simple changes. A ‘cPanel’ provides a simple dashboard to manage email addresses, account passwords and basic server configurations. It can be time-consuming to go through a technical support operator or be obliged to pay an additional fee each time you want to perform simple admin tasks.

Multiple Domains Hosting

It’s common to own more than one domain, they’re cheap these days, and it’s hard to resist owning a few. In this case, you need to accommodate extra domains with extra hosting space. To simplify the hosting process, it’s possible to host more than one domain from a single account. Each separate website hosted on the same account is called an add-on domain. Most shared hosting providers allow addon domains. It’s advisable to check in advance how they charge for it.

Cost

With web hosting as with everything, you often get what you pay for. If you have a basic website not expecting a large amount of traffic, expect to pay between $10 to $150 per year for shared hosting. Higher capacity hosting plans can start at $150 and go up from there.

Most commercial hosts offer the flexibility to choose how you want to pay with monthly and annual payment plans; the latter gives you a cheaper rate. Once you're reassured they offer a reliable service, you can switch to the cheaper annual payments, or switch hosts quickly if they don't meet your expectations.

Finally, let’s discuss renewals. If you’re satisfied with the price of a package, check the price for renewals. It’s a norm in the industry to offer low signup prices but charge much higher amounts on renewals. Unless you are ok with switching between hosts every few years, renewals prices are unavoidable.

Email

If you want to host email accounts alongside your website, check that your host allows you to set up the email addresses you want on your domain - before signup. It looks a bit shabby to have a random email address not associated with your domain: How much more professional does info@yourdomain.com sound over info.yourdomain@gmail.com?

In the case that emails are provided, it’s not a big deal. There are other ways to get your hands on an email account at your own domain name.

Technical support

Things can go wrong at the most inconvenient of times so best check your host has 24/7/ 365 professional support. You’ll want someone there to throw you a lifeline when you press the S.O.S button and to know the person picking on the other end is technically equipped with the knowledge to help you, there and then. To get a feel for this, read online reviews with accounts of real customer experiences.

There will be times when you have a non-urgent query. You might want to solve it in your own time while getting a better handle on your server settings. Does the host have a knowledge base or FAQs to browse to help advance your understanding? Whether you prefer to chat over the phone or rather have comprehensive documentation at hand to solve problems yourself - check they are available.


Types of web hosting

As technology has progressed, different types of web hosting have been introduced to meet the different needs of websites and customers best. These include:

  • Shared Web Hosting

  • Dedicated Hosting

  • VPS Hosting

  • Cloud

  • Reseller

Let's look into the most popular web hosting services in more detail.

Shared Web Hosting

Shared hosting is when a website is hosted on the same server as many other websites. Most web hosting companies provide shared hosting. It’s cheap and easy to set-up which makes it a good fit for new sites which don’t expect a lot of traffic in the short term. It’s best suited for personal websites as well as those belonging to small and medium-sized businesses.

Anyone serious about digital marketing or running an online business should carefully review their shared hosting options and make sure that your provider can offer services such as Namecheap’s Business SSD hosting, which is designed specifically for e-commerce websites. Shared hosting isn’t suitable for large sites with lots of traffic either. These sites need a dedicated server to accommodate a suitable amount of resources to guarantee decent website performance.

VPS Hosting

Virtual private servers (VPS) also known as virtual dedicated server (VDS), is when a virtual server appears to each client as a dedicated server even though it’s actually serving multiple websites. For this reason, VPS style hosting is considered to be the stepping stone between shared hosting and getting your own dedicated machine. The main difference between shared hosting and VPS is that clients have full access to configure the VPS which is much closer to dedicated style hosting.

VPS is often used by smaller websites and organizations that want the flexibility of having a dedicated server, without the high costs implied.

Dedicated Hosting

Dedicated hosting (sometimes referred to as managed hosting or a dedicated server) provides entire servers to rent. This type of hosting is comparatively expensive when placed side-by-side with shared hosting plans; for this reason, it's only really used when a website has a lot of traffic or when more server control is required.

There is more to dedicated hosting than providing a single website with entire server equipment housed in a data center. It allows greater self-service server administration facilities. This is considered a more flexible arrangement because it allows total control over the server, its software and security systems. At the same time, however, you need to have the technical expertise on-hand to manage the platform yourself.

Cloud Hosting

Cloud hosting is the latest hosting type to hit the market, and it’s become extremely popular in recent years. This type of hosting operates across many interconnected web servers that supply an affordable, scalable and reliable web infrastructure. Cloud hosting plans typically offer unmetered, reliable bandwidth and an infinite amount of disk space for unlimited domains which explains why so many large businesses are turning to the cloud. It’s an effective method of running a website with resource-intensive applications or a large number of content assets such as images, but it can have a much higher cost.

Reseller Hosting

Reseller hosting is a form of web hosting where the account owner can use his or her allotted hard drive space and bandwidth to host a website on behalf of third parties. The original hosting account owner is the ‘reseller’ in this instance. Reseller hosting is beneficial when the amount of space purchased isn’t required, and some of the allocated resources can be shared with another party. Sharing disk space, bandwidth, CPU, etc. while getting a recurring source of income.

Hosting providers offer specific reseller hosting plans to accommodate entrepreneurs interested in this business practice. Buying a reseller hosting plan is also helpful for anyone with multiple domains. You may design your own hosting packages for your websites or clients gives the resources allocated to the reseller hosting account.

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