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Know What You Want

I love to shop. There is only one reason that I have not shopped myself into poverty. Before I head out on a spree, I determine my budget and create a mental inventory of what I have. Then I make a list of what new pieces will help me get the most of what I already have. Do the same thing when you shop for a web-hosting provider.

Rather than inventorying your closet, take a look at what you have—traffic reports, number of employees, size of your site—and then consider the following issues:

  1. What is your annual or monthly budget for hosting? Bear in mind that this includes labor costs in terms of the time you'll spend dealing with technical support.

  2. Will your site receive bags of traffic? If so, you will need considerable bandwidth and a high transfer limit. Check the statistical reports on your existing site. If you do not have these numbers, try to find out how many bytes similar sites transfer.

  3. Will you need to have a database-driven site? What kind of database and middleware software will you need? Many sites are driven by content that resides in databases such as MySQL, Oracle, or Microsoft SQL Server that is then delivered to the web page by a piece of middleware such as PHP, ColdFusion, or ASP. Open source options such as MySQL and PHP are less expensive than their commercial counterparts, including MS SQL Server and ColdFusion. But if you are already developing with a commercial product, the transition could cost too much in terms of production.

  4. If your site will be database-driven, check to see how well the potential host manages database applications on shared servers. Some hosts cram too many inept ColdFusion programmers onto one box; talk about a prescription for costly downtime. One site I worked on went down repeatedly as a third-party site owner on the same server taught himself ColdFusion programming. A good host monitors and corrects these kinds of problems.

  5. Will you need to have many mailboxes, as you might on a corporate or organizational site? Will the mailboxes require much disk space on the server? If you will a need oodles of email storage, make sure that your hosting plan accommodates that need. Otherwise, you could run into over-limit charges (or even lost and nondelivered messages). Remember, too, that a web-based email client keeps mail on the server unless you manually delete your messages. A mail client such as Eudora or Outlook Express can and should be set to delete messages from the server as they are downloaded. Setting that preference correctly can help you avoid over-limit charges and professionally embarrassing blocked in-boxes (where customers write to you and their messages bounce because your mailbox is full).

  6. Assume that your demands on support will be high, and make good technical and customer support a top priority. If you are on a budget, you can't afford to spend much time on hold. A smaller local hosting company might better serve you than an automated giant located who knows where. Even though the big company might charge slightly less per month, your time is worth money, and your site's uptime is priceless.

  7. Assume that monkeys staff your potential host's tech support, and be ready to test them. Think of a technical question that you know the answer to. See how they answer. If you turn to your host's systems people for advice and support, be sure to get a second opinion from someone not connected to the hosting company. The host's people might be ill informed. In some cases, they might even provide misleading answers simply to avoid doing work you've requested. Find a host whose technicians know what they're talking about, and then double-check what they tell you against your own research.

  8. Assume that you need to have things such as a web site statistics package so that you can keep an eye on traffic. You might need this information if the bandwidth dragon ever rears its ugly head. Also ask if the host provides access to raw logs—some people want more detailed information than the host's default statistics package provides. You might want to crunch this data on your own.

  9. Know what kind of management access you desire. If you like to get under the hood, make sure you have FTP and shell access. If you want just a graphical interface, see if you can administer your site with your web browser. You don't want to discover that you have the wrong interface after you have given your host your credit card number.

  10. Ask if you can get a money back guarantee. It is worth a shot.

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