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Web Design Reference Guide

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Finding A Host

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

A person can get a big headache from the overwhelming number of Web hosting choices. Let's cut the bull and get to business finding a place to house your Web site. To clarify things, a Web host is also known as a hosting service provider (HSP). An HSP is different from an Internet service provider (ISP), which provides services that give you access to the Internet, although some offer Web hosting as part of the plan.

A Web host holds the files that make up your Web site and supporting content. When someone enters your Web site address (URL) in the Web browser, it takes her to the Web host's server where she receives the files that you put there.

This section assumes you want to set up a personal Web site or one for a small business. In this case, you most likely want to look for shared hosting. If you would like to know about other types of hosting, see this guide's Server Space / Hosting section.

Shared hosting—the cheapest and easiest way to host a Web site—typically serves small business, small-scale e-commerce, personal, and entry-level hosting needs. The host is responsible for uptime rates (Web site availability), tech support, and monitoring. One downside, however, is that server performance can be affected by traffic to other Web sites sharing the same server.

Some hosts offer a complete package, which includes obtaining a domain name (URL), a Web site template for designing your site, and hosting. How much? Plans range from $5 to $20 per month, depending on how much storage and bandwidth you need.

Features Of a Good Host

What features do you need in a good host? Some of you might be thinking, "Heck, I don't know what's available." That's OK. The following list includes the major features to consider:

  • Data transfer rates (bandwidth) — Bandwidth includes data transferred into or out of a Web site, such as content, images, and media files. Anything that you or your visitors receive or send is data. When a visitor comes to a Web site, data is transferred from the host server to the client (visitor's) computer. The more visitors you expect at your site, the higher the data transfer rate you need.
  • Storage — Amount of space the host provides for your files. If you don't know how much space you'll need, start small. Most host providers allow you to seamlessly upgrade if you need more storage.
  • Uptime rate (availability) — How often does the server go down? The higher the uptime rate, the better. In other words, you want to avoid hearing, "Your Web site is down," as much as possible by having a high uptime rate.
  • Server application — If you want to use IIS (Microsoft's Internet server), review the vendors' offerings to see whether or not it's offered. Or if you prefer UNIX running Apache software, then look for that. How do you choose? Research and ask questions to determine which one would best suit your needs.
  • Subdomain — Do you want to have subdomains, such as blog.meryl.net, about.meryl.net, and products.meryl.net? If so, look for this feature.
  • FrontPage Support — I discourage using FrontPage for creating a Web site, but if you insist on using it anyway, you'll need a host that offers FrontPage support.
  • FTP — This is how you get your files from your computer to the host computer. Some hosts provide multiple FTP accounts so you can give access to others. Software like Filezilla makes it possible to upload and download files between your computer and the host. See what FTP tools are available.
  • Email — Many hosts offer multiple email accounts. If you want to give an email address to every member of your family or small business, you can. Other options include POP mail and Web-based email. POP mail allows you to get your emails through an email application such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, or Thunderbird. Web-based email lets you read and respond to emails through the Internet using accounts set up through Yahoo and Hotmail, for example. Some hosts provide both options, which is useful so you can access email from anywhere using Web-based email and use POP to download it to your email client.
  • Logs — Learn about your visitors and the amount of traffic that comes to your Web site by reviewing logs. Logs also provide information about Web site and page errors, so you can address them.
  • Shopping — Will you sell a product or service through your Web site? If so, shopping cart capabilities are needed. There are, however, outside vendors you can use rather than the one that comes with your host.
  • Chat — Another feature you can integrate or use with an outside application.
  • Message Board — In building a community, you might want to have a message board, but you can use third-party applications instead of the ones supplied by your host.
  • PHP, SSI, CGI, databases — Technical stuff here. Here's the section that covers server programming basics. These are technologies and languages that serve dynamic Web pages.
  • Backups — It's a good idea to have a copy of all the Web site files on a local computer. A host with backup capabilities typically backs up all of its servers on a daily basis to use for recovery should a disaster (hope not!) happens.

Where to Begin?

The choices are endless. Fortunately, there are comparison sites available that review the hosts' capabilities and help you determine which one offers all the features you need. The following Web sites offer host provider information and ratings to help you find the perfect host for your Web site.

Also, it can't hurt to ask friends or post a message on a trusted bulletin board or mailing list discussion group asking for recommendations. If a host doesn't work out, you can always move to another. That's where having a local backup of your Web site comes in handy.