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How to Choose Best Web Hosting
Reliability and speed of access
Not only should the web host be reliable and fast, it should
guarantee its uptime (the time when it is functional). Look for a
minimum uptime of 99%. In fact, even 99% is actually too low - it really
should be 99.5% or higher. The host should provide some sort of refund (eg
prorated refund or discount) if it falls below that figure. Note though
that guarantees are often hard to enforce from your end - the host
usually requires all sorts of documentation. However, without that
guarantee, the web host will have little incentive to ensure that its
servers are running all the time.
Data Transfer (Traffic/Bandwidth)
Data transfer (sometimes loosely referred to as "traffic" or
"bandwidth") is the amount of bytes transferred from your site to
visitors when they browse your site.
Don't believe any commercial web host that advertises "unlimited
bandwidth". The host has to pay for the bandwidth, and if you consume a
lot of it, they will not silently bear your costs. Many high bandwidth
websites have found this out the hard way when they suddenly receive an
exhorbitant bill for having "exceeded" the "unlimited bandwidth". Always
look for details on how much traffic the package allows. I personally
always stay clear of any host that advertises "unlimited transfer", even
if the exact amount is specified somewhere else (sometimes buried in
their policy statements). Usually you will find that they redefine
"unlimited" to be limited in some way.
To give you a rough idea of the typical traffic requirements of a
website, most new sites that are not software archives or the like use
less than 3GB of bandwidth per month. Your traffic requirements will
grow over time, as your site becomes more well-known (and well-linked),
so you will need to also check their policy for overages: is there a
published charge per GB over the allowed bandwidth? Is the charge made
according to actual usage or are you expected to pre-pay for a potential
overage? It is better not to go for hosts that expect you to prepay for
overages, since it is very hard to forsee when your site will exceed its
bandwidth and by how much.
For the same reason as bandwidth, watch out also for those "unlimited
disk space" schemes. Most sites need less than 5MB of web space, so even
if you are provided with a host that tempts you with 200MB or 500MB (or
"unlimited space"), be aware that you are unlikely to use that space, so
don't let the 500MB space be too big a factor in your consideration when
comparing with other web hosts. The hosting company is also aware of
that, which is why they feel free to offer you that as a means of
enticing you to host there. As a rough gauge, thefreecountry.com, which
had about 150 pages when this article was first written, used less than
5MB for its pages and associated files.
Does its technical support function 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
(often abbreviated 24/7), all year around? Note that I will not accept a
host which does not have staff working on weekends or public holidays.
You will be surprised at how often things go wrong at the most
inconvenient of times. Incidentally, just because a host advertises that
it has 24/7 support does not necessarily mean that it really has that
kind of support. Test them out by emailing at midnight and on Saturday
nights, Sunday mornings, etc. Check out how long they take to respond.
Besides speed of responses, check to see if they are technically
competent. You wouldn't want to sign up for a host that is run by a
bunch of salesmen who only how to sell and not fix problems.
FTP, PHP, Perl CGI-BIN access, SSI, .htaccess, telnet, SSH crontabs
If you are paying for a site, you really should make sure you have
all of these. Note that some commercial hosts do not allow you to
install PHP or CGI scripts without their approval. This is not desirable
since it means that you have to wait for them before you can implement a
feature on your site. ".htaccess" is needed if you are to customise your
error pages (pages that display when, say, a user requests for a
non-existent page on your site) or to protect your site in various ways
(such as to prevent bandwidth theft and hotlinking, etc). Telnet or SSH
access is useful for certain things, including testing CGI scripts,
maintaining databases, etc. Cron jobs may be needed for programs that
you need to be run periodically (eg once a day). Check to see if these
facilities are provided.
SSL (secure server), MySQL, Shopping Cart
If you are planning on doing any sort of business through your
website, you might want to look out to see if the host provides these
facilities. These facilities normally involve a higher priced package or
additional charges. The main thing is to check to see if they are
available at all before you commit to the host. You will definitely need
SSL if you plan to collect credit card information on your site.
Email, Autoresponders, POP3, Mail Forwarding
If you have your own site, you would probably want to have email
addresses at your own domain, like firstname.lastname@example.org, etc. Does the
host provide this with the package? Does it allow you to have a
catch-all email account that allows email@example.com to wind up
being routed to you? Can you set an email address to automatically reply
to the sender with a preset message (called an autoresponder)? Can you
retrieve your mail with your email software? Can it be automatically
forwarded to your current email address?
This is called various names by different hosts, but essentially,
they all allow you to manage different aspects of your web account
yourself. Typically, and at the very minimum, it should allow you to do
things like add, delete, and manage your email addresses, and change
passwords for your account. I would not go for a host where I have to go
through their technical support each time I want to change a password or
add/delete an email account. Such chores are common maintenance chores
that every webmaster performs time and time again, and it would be a
great hassle if you had to wait for their technical support to make the
changes for you.
Subdomains, virtual hosting
For those who are thinking of selling web space or having multiple
domains or subdomains hosted in your account, you should look to see if
they provide this, and the amount extra that they charge for this
(whether it is a one-time or monthly charge, etc).
Is the type of operating system and server important? Whether you
think so or not on the theoretical level, there are a few practical
reasons for looking out for the type of server.
In general, if you want to use things like ASP, you have no choice
but to look for a Windows NT/2000/XP machine for your server.
Otherwise my preference is to sign up for accounts using the often
cheaper, more stable and feature-laden Unix systems running the Apache
server. In fact, if dynamically generated pages that can access
databases (etc) is what you want, you can always use the more portable
(and popular) PHP instead of tying yourself down to ASP. Another reason
to prefer Unix-based web hosts (which include web hosts using systems
like Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, etc) using the Apache web server
is that these servers allow you to configure a lot of facilities that
you typically need on your site (error pages, protecting your images,
blocking email harvesters, blocking IP addresses, etc) without having to
ask your web host to implement them. Knowledge about configuring Apache
servers is also widely available, and can be found on
thesitewizard.com's Configuring Apache and .htaccess pages as well.
I was actually hesitant to list this, but I guess it's futile not to.
However, I would caution that while price is always a factor, you should
realise that you often get what you pay for, although it's not
necessarily true that the most expensive hosts are the best.
Monthly/Quarterly/Annual Payment Plans
Most web hosts allow you to select an annual payment plan that gives
you a cheaper rate than if you were to pay monthly. My current personal
preference is to pay monthly with all new web hosts until I'm assured of
their reliability and honesty. Paying monthly allows me to switch web
hosts quickly when I find that the current host does not meet my
requirements: this way, I'm not tied down to a bad web host because I
have prepaid for an entire year. I do this even if the new web host
guarantees that they will refund the balance if I'm dissatisfied, since
at the point I sign up, I have no assurance that they will honour their
guarantee. Later (usually after many months or even more than a year),
when I'm satisfied with the host, I often change payment plans to the
discounted annual plans.
Not all hosting companies own or lease their own web servers. Some of
them are actually resellers for some other hosting company. The
disadvantage of using a reseller is the possibility that you are dealing
with people who don't know much about the system they are selling and
who take longer to help you (they have to transmit your technical
support request to the actual hosting company for it to be acted upon).
However, this also depends on both the reseller and the underlying
hosting company. It is thus wise not to rule out all resellers; there
are a number of reliable and fast ones who are actually quite good and
cheap. In fact, a number of resellers sell the same packages cheaper
than their original hosting company. If you find out that a particular
company is a reseller, you will need to investigate both
the reseller and the real hosting company.
If you don't stay in the USA, you have the option of hosting your
site with some local provider. The advantage here is the ease of dealing
with them (they are after all easily accessible by phone call or a
visit), your familiarity with the local laws and easy recourse to those
laws should it be necessary. It should be your choice if your target
audience is local (eg a local fast food delivery service). On the other
hand, hosting it in USA has the advantage of faster access for what is
probably the largest number of your overseas visitors (particularly if
you have an English-speaking audience). You also have a large number of
hosting companies to choose from, and as a result, cheaper prices too.
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