How to Choose a Website Hosting Company

April 16, 2010

Your website is an asset. For the foreseeable future, all indications are that this asset will become an increasingly important part of your business. It therefore stands to reason that you should be incentivised to protect that asset, and part of protecting that asset is choosing a reputable website hosting company.

Firstly, back to basics: what is website hosting? Wikipedia defines it thus:

A web hosting service is a type of Internet hosting service that allows individuals and organizations to make their own website accessible via the World Wide Web. Web hosts are companies that provide space on a server they own or lease for use by their clients as well as providing Internet connectivity, typically in a data center.”

If that makes no sense to you, then think of website hosting as the equivalent of leasing office space. If your website is the online representation of your business, then just as your business requires some physical space to operate (home, office, warehouse, etc.) so too does your website. Therefore the company providing website hosting services is a bit like a landlord.

But you may be thinking that you’re not an IT specialist, so what chance have you got of making a smart decision about where to host your website?! Well this article is here to help – in plain English.

  1. Most importantly: take advice from your website developer(actual or prospective). We have to admit that we cringe and cross our fingers and toes when we’re approached by a company to design and develop their new website and they advise that they’ve already got the website hosting organised. Why? Two main reasons:
    1. Every web developer tends to prefer a certain set or suite of web development technologies (i.e. tools of the trade) to build websites with. And some website hosting services are more suited to one set of web development technologies over another. So there’s a potential incompatibility issue here. A worst case is that, quite simply, your preferred website development company cannot work with the hosting service you’ve pre-ordered. Which leaves you looking for a new hosting provider – or a new website developer.
    2. The truth of the matter is that many website developers I know prefer to have a high degree (ok, total!) control over the website hosting environment, and they get this when they are ALSO the providers (directly, or as resellers) of the hosting service. This is because the performance of your website can be moderately to significantly affected by how ‘optimised’ the website hosting service is for that site. Only when your website developer is in full control of all the levers can they be fully able (and accountable) to deliver the very best results for you. My favourite analogy is this one: where does a chef do his best work? In his own kitchen, or someone else’s?
  2. Ensure the hosting service is located in a REAL data centre. Regular office space (or someone’s bedroom or garage!) is not a real data centre. Wikipedia again:
    A data center … is a facility used to house computer systems and associated components, such as telecommunications and storage systems. It generally includes redundant or backup power supplies, redundant data communications connections, environmental controls (e.g., air conditioning, fire suppression) and security devices”.
    A real data centre is a building that is purpose-built for the task – i.e. one that makes unauthorised entry (physical or virtual), by stealth or by brute, extremely difficult. I’ve visited a few real data centres in my time, and believe me when I tell you that they do (and should) look like a scene from a James Bond movie, with bullet-proof glass, strengthened walls, and multiple layers of biometric security (although not necessarily the layer that involved a toilet seat that was shown in the movie Monsters vs Aliens!).
  3. Prefer data centres that are staffed 24/7. The smaller ones might not yet have the volumes or economies of scale to offer this yet, but on occasions a simple press of an on/off button on a hosting server is all that’s required to ‘fix’ the server and get your website back up and running. It shouldn’t be necessary to have to call out data centre staff from their homes in the early hours of the morning, or to have to wait until normal business hours, before a technician can do this.
  4. Backups, backups, backups. Yes, I do actually mean that at least 3 backups of your website is a good base number to aim for. We recommend that at least one recent backup should be stored inside that data centre where your website is hosted (for easy, local retrieval), and at least one recent backup should be stored outside of the data centre. Ideal would be a backup inside your own business, and another to another data centre (physically remote from the first one). Actually, the subject of website backups deserves its own article. Watch this space!
  5. Don’t demand (or expect) 99.99% ‘uptime’ for your site. Yup, you read that correctly. This is largely a marketing ploy, and is actually not a smart way to spend your money in attempting to achieve this. Focus more on learning about contingency plans and response times in the event that your website goes down. For an excellent article on this subject look no further than:
    http://37signals.com/svn/archives2/dont_scale_99999_uptime_is_for_walmart.php. The most honest answer I ever read on the FAQ section of a website hosting provider to the question “do you guarantee 99.xx% uptime?” was along the lines of “No. What we do guarantee is that, on the rare occasions your website is down, we’ll work as quickly and diligently as we can to get it back up and running as soon as possible using all available resources”.
  6. Consider the cloud. What’s the weather got to do with website hosting, you might ask? Well, in computing terms, “the cloud” generally refers to a whole load of computers networked together that deliver website/online services ‘as one’, as opposed to a single physical computer doing it all in isolation. The beauty of this is that, by no longer relying on a single computer to deliver services, there are less points of potential failure, which is a movement towards higher uptime at lower cost. Slightly morbid metaphor time: compare a cloud of computers to an army of soldiers. Just because you lose some soldiers through death or injury it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean that the campaign can no longer be prosecuted, i.e. the overall fighting capacity of the army isn’t necessarily seriously compromised. Likewise if your website is hosted thanks to lots of computers instead of just one, then they’re configured in such a way that if a few of those computers go down, your website hosting is largely unaffected. Note that, at time of writing, cloud hosting is a relatively new innovation that is gaining rapid uptake. The traditional method of hosting one or many websites on a single dedicated computer (‘server’) still dominates, but we don’t think for much longer.
  7. Years in business. It’s common knowledge that most businesses don’t last beyond the 3-5 year mark, and hosting businesses are no different. The less years in business (esp. less than 3-5 years), the higher the risk of disruption to your website hosting service when the hosting business changes hands or, worst case, goes bust.
  8. You get what you pay for. The more you pay for your website hosting service, generally the more/better you’ll get in relation to all the above issues. Honestly, if you think free or $5 per year hosting for your business represents excellent value, then knock yourself out, and don’t say we didn’t warn you! Expect to pay in the range of $20 – $100 per month for a good base level of service and support for a small-medium business website hosting service.

We hope that this article has given some insight into the world of website hosting, such that you can be a little better informed next time the question comes up. We think we’ve covered the major bases here, but acknowledge that hosting for a 4 page ‘brochure’ style website is more than a little different from hosting a site like eBay, but many of the basic principles described above are still pertinent.

For your interest, Itomic has been offering enterprise-grade website hosting services since 2000. In brief, our answers to the above questions are these:

  1. We much prefer to be responsible for the hosting of your website. Our strong preference is towards a LAMP hosting environment: Linux Apache MySQL PHP.
  2. At time of writing we have hosting services in 4 REAL data centers in 4 locations around the world: Perth, Sydney, Dallas (USA) and Houston (USA).
  3. At time of writing 3 out of 4 of the data centres we use are staffed 24/7. We’re working on/with the one that isn’t… 🙂
  4. As standard, we backup all the websites we host daily, weekly, and monthly (i.e. 3 copies) to a local backup hard drive. At least one of the data centres takes it upon themselves to make additional backups. In addition (and still as standard) we make a weekly backup of all the websites we host to a separate data centre. All our clients have access to a control panel where they can, on demand, choose to download a copy of their hosting account.
  5. We guarantee that, on the rare occasions your website is down, we’ll work as quickly and diligently as we can to get it back up and running as soon as possible.
  6. We expect to be moving all our hosting services into the cloud, over time.
  7. 2010 is our 10th year in business.
  8. Our website hosting package prices range from $260 to $1340 per year, but we can and do tailor packages to the needs of individual companies, including the provision and management of dedicated servers.
Ross Ross Gerring
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