Selecting a Web Host

 

Web Hosting and Domain Names

Most ISPs include a personal (/~squiggle) Web site with each dialup account. This is fine for personal pages for family and friends. But if you intend to establish a permanent site for some ongoing purpose, it probably shouldn't be at a squiggle site at the ISP that you use to surf the Web. You might have to change your dialup provider unexpectedly as ISPs have technical or financial problems or are bought up.

Domain names are cheap these days, from OpenSRS registrars and other competing domain name registrars. Some registrars provide good service, and offer comparatively reasonable legal language in their terms of service. Think twice about registering your domain with Network Solutions, the former monopoly (recently bought by Verisign), whose terms of service and quality of service aren't as good as those of some newer competitors. Avoid ad-supported no-cost registrars, whose terms of service may be particularly poor.

Many ISPs and Web hosting providers can host your virtual domain. A specialized Web hosting service might do a better job of it. Or then again it might not, and your own ISP might do just as well, especially for a small site. Have a look at the domains that the ISP hosts, if they publish a list of them. If enough thriving businesses are hosted there, it's probably a good sign. Look for high volume sites and successful e-commerce sites that have used the ISP for a while.

The alt.www.webmaster Usenet newsgroup includes current discussions about Web hosting.

Here are some frequently updated sites about Web hosting.

These sites also offer information and advice.

Customer Service

Things can go wrong with servers, and often will. It takes time and expertise to fix technical snafus. You'll likely notice this more often at a lightly staffed host. It takes even more time and expertise to prevent them from happening in the first place. Good customer service is expensive enough that the lowest priced hosting companies aren't as likely to have enough of it to go around when too many things go wrong at once. The quality, responsiveness and speed of customer service can be the biggest difference between otherwise competent hosting companies.

  1. What hours of the day is help available by phone? Sometimes a Web-based live chat facility can be almost as useful, but nothing compares to the effectiveness of the telephone when things really go wrong.

  2. Does someone answer the phone, or do you usually get an answering machine?

  3. Can you talk directly to the systems experts if necessary, or only to a less-skilled help desk person?

  4. What's the current backlog, in hours or days, for answering e-mail help requests?

  5. Is anyone there at night and on weekends?

  6. Do they usually solve the problems you ask about? This isn't always necessarily true of some Web hosting companies' technical support.

Freedom of Expression

Does the company attempt to place contractual restrictions on what you can say, or the content of your Web pages, other than the applicable U.S., state and local laws? Some do have such restrictions. If so, you may want to choose another provider, unless you're sure you'll always agree with the company's managers.

Server Performance

How fast does the Web host transfer data to you at peak times? At those times, typically in the evening hours, can you download files at only half the speed of your modem? Slow data transfer can result from the vagaries of the Net at any given time. But are too many hosted sites sharing the host's high-speed connection to the Net? Overbooking a high-speed connection to the Internet backbone is not unknown at Web hosting companies. The reason is to keep costs down. There are differences among Web hosts in how they view this (and how they view your opinion about it).

There are other ways to economize too, and inexpensive hosts must cut costs somewhere. If sites hosted on Host A consistently load at two thirds of the speed of those on Host B, then Host A might be hosting too many sites on each overloaded machine.

A Web server might be able to serve simple text and images without noticeable delay, even at high server loads. But many CGI programs can become seriously bogged down at load levels at which the server can still serve static HTML pages quickly enough. If you need to serve CGI applications or run databases, be careful where you host your site. Talk to the hosting company and try to estimate what resources your site will need. Some ISPs have limitations on CGI usage, or the use of other server resources such as CPU time, that may not be explained in their published information.

These uptime monitoring tools can help you find out the actual performance of the Web server running your site at a hosting company, over a period of time. If you use NetMechanic to test a server before hosting your site there, try to check it more than once over a period of days or weeks. Make sure that you check a server used for customers' Web sites, not the hosting company's own Web site.

Data Transfer Charges

Data transfer is a sizable cost for large business sites. All of the larger, more reputable business-oriented Web space providers charge separately for data transfer beyond some stated monthly amount.

Essentially, no good Web hosting company advertises unlimited bandwidth. Reputable Web hosting companies who routinely host successful business sites will simply list a rate schedule for data transfer.

If your local ISP still offers "unlimited" data transfer, it undoubtedly has an unstated limit beyond which it will disable access to your site, throttle access to it, or require you to sign up for a more expensive type of account. Such a policy, and what the limit is, might not be mentioned anywhere in the ISP's published information. You should ask what the ISP considers a reasonable amount of data transfer, even if they advertise that it's unlimited. One ISP's "reasonable" limit can be much different from another's.

Normal Hosting vs. Sex-Related Hosting

Many Web hosting companies avoid hosting even "soft" sex-related sites on their shared servers. In their terms of service, some hosts also prohibit links to sites with sexual content, "soft" or otherwise. Hosting such sites considerably increases (sometimes wildly increases) traffic and upsets the average amount of traffic that the host can expect over a cross section of standard personal or business accounts.

Hosting for sex-related sites typically is more expensive because there aren't any of the smaller, quieter sites with little traffic who populate most of the standard hosting accounts. At a normal Web hosting company, even many of the sites with more expensive accounts are there because they need some of the special features of those accounts, not because they need to use the maximum allowable bandwidth.

Some hosting companies compromise by hosting "pr0n" sites on different servers from their usual customer sites, at higher pricing. Others may simply refer you to hosting companies who specialize in sex sites.

Access Logs

The Web server's access logs for your site are important if you're serious about understanding how people use your site. They show how many "hits" each of your pages receives, and the patterns of paths that visitors take when navigating through your site. The ISP should make the logs available in some form (and preferably also in raw form so that you can run your own log analysis software on them).

The referrer logs should also be available. These show which sites are directing traffic to your pages, and can help you understand what people are looking for and why. They are especially handy when trying to clear up incorrect links from other sites.

If your prospective ISP doesn't give you access to your log file data, it's not necessarily a sufficient reason to go elsewhere, if you have a small site. But if you have a busier site, the access log files contain a wealth of detail that you will need to analyze.

CGI, PHP and Databases

Almost every host will let you use at least a few canned CGI programs (a forms processor that sends data via e-mail, a page counter, a guestbook, and maybe more).

Most will let you run your own CGI scripts and Perl programs. This is fine, but it doesn't necessarily mean that a given Perl program that you want to run will run successfully on the host's system. If the program requires certain Perl modules, the host's versions of those modules might be too old to work with it, or they might not be installed at all. Make sure that the host will install and upgrade commonly needed supporting software whenever necessary. Sometimes you can install all of it yourself in your own directories, but you might have to fiddle with the scripts to make them work.

PHP allows running interactive programs, much as CGI does. Many times, PHP programs run faster and are otherwise less problematic than equivalent CGI programs. If your Web host limits CGI use, or even if it doesn't, find out whether you can use PHP. PHP 4 is the standard now. If a hosting company still offers only PHP 3, look elsewhere. Many newer PHP apps require PHP installed as a Web server module. If the host supports only PHP running as CGI, this will seriously limit what PHP apps you can run. The host might have compiled many useful features into its copy of PHP, or only a few. This is worth finding out before you try to run PHP apps on the host.

Many newer interactive Web services, particularly PHP apps, require database support. MySQL is the most common Web database program. Check that the host is running a new enough version of MySQL to support the PHP or Perl programs that you want to run. If possible, check that other users are already running large, heavily used databases on the host system without problems.

Some Web hosts offer convenient Web-based tools to make it easier to set up e-mail accounts and do other routine administrative tasks. Make sure that the control panel isn't the only way you can do those things.

Host Platform

What software platform does the ISP use? Unix (FreeBSD, Solaris, Linux...) and Windows NT are the most common operating systems for Web servers. Unix is generally considered to be more reliable than Windows and better for Web hosting. If you need Microsoft ASP features, you might have to use a Windows host, but before you do, check to see whether you can do the same thing with PHP, a universal cross-platform language.

Some Features to Ask About:

Mailing Lists

Large, busy mailing lists can cause significant mail server loads and administrative headaches for the host. Mailing lists usually are a separate extra-cost item. Your Web hosting company might not be too eager to host large or multiple mailing lists. If so, try to find a company that hosts many high volume lists. There's no reason that your mailing lists must be hosted on the same server as your Web site.

Content updated November 23, 2001 - Rod Clark

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Layout and links updated January 11th, 2004 - help@scn.org