How To Choose A Web Host

All Web hosts ultimately provide the same service. An individual or a business places a page on the host's server and people all over the world can access that page from their Web browser. But that, unfortunately, isn't all there is to it.

A Web site's performance depends on the bandwidth, server resources and infrastructure of the hosting provider. Hosting comes in many forms--shared hosting, dedicated hosting and co-location, plus hundreds of variations of each.


When choosing a Web host, you should look for size, speed, and diversity of dedicated Internet connections, as well as what hardware and software the host uses. Reliability is very important. Is there more uptime than downtime? Also important are a host's response times. The quality and standard of back-up power is also important, as is security. But one of the most important issues you'll face when choosing a host is the quality and level of customer service.


Twenty-four-hour customer service means next to nothing unless the persons fielding calls are qualified computer professionals. What about the skill level of the technical representative at 4 a.m.? How accessible is an engineer during "non-business" hours? Can the engineer on call be notified via pager that there's a problem? This isn't a problem if your site is simple but can be if it's more complex.


Response time is important. When sending a message out into the great unknown, it's nice to get a response back within an hour or two. This is something you can test before signing on with a service. After sending the host's support department a question, how long does it take for them to respond? Also, how helpful is the response? If a host has extensive online FAQs, then its customer support team should respond faster to queries and respond in more detail than if they were bogged down all day telling 500 people how to upload a page.


Size and speed indicate the Web host's total bandwidth to the Internet and, therefore, directly relate to the speed of a site's delivery and the traffic it can support. One of the most overlooked issues is diversity of a host's Internet connections. To ensure maximum uptime, it should have connections to several national backbones. This ensures that it will have at least one active connection even if one of the national backbones goes down.

Many hosts claim they have "unlimited bandwidth." This simply can't be true, as no one has unlimited bandwidth, and someone eventually has to pay for it. If you set up a site which chokes a host's Internet connection, the host will either make you pay more or simply shut off your site.


What hardware is being used, what operating systems and Web servers are being run, and what is its internal networking structure like? After obtaining this information from several different hosts, you'll be able to sift out those with weaker setups.

What about the physical platforms that are used to host sites and connect to the Internet? What about router platforms? Are they redundant and diverse? At what capacity do they implement upgrades? Are the platforms made up of industry standard vendors such as Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, etc., or does the host use lesser-known vendors or possibly other proprietary methods? Also, is the host Y2K compliant? All of these capabilities ensure interoperability, especially between client and vendor in private business applications where employees have access to databases through the company Web site.

Every time a visitor goes to a Web site, he or she downloads the images off of its host's server and onto a PC. This transfer causes data to be sent over the host's internet connection, which is only of a finite size. Too much data can cause the connection to become clogged. But figuring out your site's requirements is easy. If your homepage has two 5K images on it and receives 100 visitors, that means that each visitor would download 10K of information over the host's Internet connection or 10K x 100 or 1000K, which equals 1MB. One to two gigabytes of traffic is ample for 99 percent of the sites on the Internet.


Reliability can be a tough issue. Servers crash.that's simply a fact of life. Everyone has seen the dreaded "Server not responding..." message. For a host to admit to downtime is an admission of failure. However, a responsible host should understand that crashes are a part of running a server and be open about any major interruptions of service. Your site should be reachable 98 percent of the time.


Is the host's equipment backed up by battery or generator? If the host relies on battery backup, how and when is power routed to the batteries in case of an outage? If backup power kicks in only after primary power goes down, a site may be down for the period of time while power is restored and the servers are rebooted.


You probably won't ask what floor the hosting facility is located on until there's a flood. Business people and Web developers often don't look at the Internet as something physical. But the virtual world exists on physical facilities, and competitive pricing is only one of the critical elements to consider.


Even more important is the security of the network. What is the host's security policy and configuration? Do they have a firewall? Is there a security expert on staff? Hosts with weak network security are vulnerable to hackers.

After checking off the above items, you should contact some of the host's current customers to see how satisfied they are with its service.

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