Web hosting is an absolute minefield for the small business owner, with services ranging from £10 a year to dedicated servers that cost £1000’s to run and maintain - how do you know what’s best for your business?
In this article we’re going to walk through the types of hosting, the terminology you will encounter and give you a method to work out what’s right for your business website.
Basic hosting terminology
Hosting can seem to have it’s own language, comprised of acronyms, proprietary names and terms. This is by no means a definitive list, it’s a selection of the main terms you will need to understand to make an informed decision on your selection of a web server and hosting provider.
The amount of data that can be transmitted at a given moment to a server. The higher your bandwidth the more traffic your website can handle at any moment.
Domain Name Server (DNS)
A server which translates your domain name into an IP address which can then be routed to your web server.
A piece of security software or hardware that protects your web server from hackers attacks and unauthorised access attempts.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP)
A method of allowing you to upload files to your web server, normally via an FTP client such as FileZilla.
Short for Internet Protocol, it’s like a telephone number for your server.
Is the ability to manage data across a network of servers to ensure that a single server does not get overloaded with work and become slow or unresponsive.
Operating System (O/S)
This is the software your web server runs on. Generally this will be Linux or Windows.
Short for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, a method of data protection and backup by storing data over a number of disks so that information will still be available if a single disk crashes or fails.
Is the collection of hardware and software put together to provide a network service. This is the workhorse of your website, powering it’s ability to be seen by the outside world.
Service Level Agreement (SLA)
Is an agreement between you and your web hosting company that details what level of support you are entitled to. This should cover technical support, response times, hardware replacement times, uptime and maintenance.
Short for Standard Query Language. An SQL Database holds information and data about your website, products, customers, etc. Think of it like a complex excel spreadsheet. Your website will usually require a SQL Database, even if its a basic WordPress website. Normally these are MySQL (Linux) or MsSQL (Windows).
Short for Secure Socket Layer, it’s a way to protect sensitive information required for e-commerce, customer data protections, etc. An SSL address will usual start with https.
To prove your SSL is secure, you should obtain an SSL Certificate from a trusted certification outlet like Thwate or VeriSign. This gives your customers trust that their data is safe.
The amount of time your website is “up” or available. The reverse is downtime, where your website is not available because of a web server or network fault.
The amount of disk space required to host your website. The more photos, documents and files you have for your website, the more web space you will require. Web space is the cheap element of hosting, but can also affect your speed. Make sure the hard disk has a high RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) to access your files faster, or if the budget stretched have a SSD (Solid State Drive) which can retrieve files even quicker.
What type of website do you have?
The simplest of websites, it has no database and only HTML, CSS and image files. It’s not business critical and doesn't require huge server power to process data. This type of site is suited to a shared hosting platform.
Content Managed (ie Silverstripe CMS or Wordpress CMS)
An upgrade from a static website, your content managed website will have a database and will require a little more power for the server to make the website perform well. Depending on how large your website is and how critical it is to your business operation will influence your decision on server. A good shared host will be sufficient in most cases, but for those wanting more performance, uptime guarantees and a decent support level agreement I would look towards a Virtual Private Server (VPS).
Running an ecommerce website will be a business critical operation. If you’re running proper ecommerce software like Magento you’re going to need a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or a Dedicated server to give Magento the power and resource it needs to operate well. For WordPress plugins like WooCommerce you can get away with a shared hosting platform, but ideally you would be going for a VPS.
Depending on what you application requires to run smoothly will influence your server decision and its too open ended to generalise. Talk with your developer about what your requirements are today and what they would be if the traffic and application usage went up 2x, 5x, 10x, 100x. This will help hosting companies quote accurately with a platform the suits you today and can grow with you tomorrow.
Type of web hosting and servers
Let’s have a look at the type of web servers commonly available.
Shared / Cloud hosting
Most shared hosting is now done in the cloud (meaning a cluster of multiple servers). You will be sharing these servers will 100s if not 1000s of other customers.
- Great for lower budgets
- Scalable as you grow
- Usually fully supported, managed and maintained
- Redundancy built in (For hardware failure)
- Often easy to use control panel
- There maybe script timeout and upload limits restricting what you can do with your website.
- No control over specific configuration options
- Can be much slower than other solutions
- Static websites
- Content managed websites
Price Guide: Pay between £2/month to £50/month
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
A VPS describes a server that is “virtualised” rather than physically separate, i.e. you may have many virtual servers running from one physical server.
- Improved performance over shared hosting
- Configuration and customise to exact requirements
- Scalable as your grow
- Self managed or Fully managed
- Control panel of your choice (Usually cPanel on Linux)
- No upload restrictions
- Host multiple websites, domains, databases and emails
- Increased cost compares to cloud hosting
- Risk - You will be sharing your IP with potentially many other websites, meaning you could have some bad tenants next to you.
- Control - Some VPS platforms have shared software components that you will not be able to configure.
- Medium sized content managed websites
- Ecommerce stores (Magento / WooCommerce)
- Bespoke applications
Price Guide: Pay between £50/month to £350/month
- All the advantages of a VPS server
- Uncompromised performance and configuration
- Tailored exactly to your requirements
- Higher cost over any other platform
- Increased maintenance and support requirements
- You will need to a backup and failover solution
- Large sized content managed websites
- Large ecommerce stores (Magento)
- Bespoke applications
Price Guide: Pay between £250/month to £750+/month
Choosing the right hosting provider
This is always a tough one. At newedge we have been through a lot of them over the years while searching for the best solution for us and our customers - all the big names like Fasthosts, 1&1 and UK Fast. We finally decided to buy our own kit from specialists - iomart. How did we come to that decision, well here are the questions we asked all the companies tendering for our business, along with answers we expected to hear.
1. Do you offer telephone support 24/7/365 and who answers?
If a busy ecommerce server goes down at 2am, we need to know there are engineers on site to sort the problem. We don’t want a receptionist answering the technical support number, it has to be a qualified server engineer that knows how to fix it.
2. What support level agreements do you have?
At a minimum we need 100% power availability and 99.985% network availability, with a 4 hour swap and fix on hardware failures. We want emergency tickets answered within 15 minutes
3. What backup solutions are available?
Our websites need to be backed up daily offsite, with hourly backups onsite. we need to know you can restore from these backups and would like proof of you doing so.
4. Can we scale our hosting solution as the business grows?
We need to be able to add more memory, disk space and improve CPU speed with a maximum of 7 days lead time. You will also be responsive for migrating the site onto the new platform.
5. Do you handle add-ons like SSL Certificates?
We want a one-stop solution provider who can handle all related hosting issues, so there is one number to call for any issue.
6. Do you use branded, reliable hardware?
We need top performance, from top kit and do not want to purchase sub standard items. We want to use Dell & HP.
7. Are you financially stable and here to stay?
It takes a lot of resource to set up servers and move websites, we don’t want to have to do this again in 6 months if your company is going into liquidation.
8. Do you have an environmental policy that minimises impact on the environment?
Leaving the environment as close to how we found it is very important to us. Your policy should aligned to that simple goal.
9. Is there a support portal that provides ticketing, service status, firewall rules and domain names?
This for us is a must have.
10. What are the standard contract length for your different server types?
We expect 30 days rolling on Cloud servers, 30 days to 1 year on Virtual Private Servers and 1 Year on Dedicated servers.
I am sure your brain aches right now. When we set up Newedge and had to learn the ins and outs of hosting - and believe you, we learnt the hard way. We certainly came away feeling confused. What we have learnt is that like most things in life you get what you pay for. If you think paying £20 a year to host your business website is good enough, well, be prepared for what you are likely to end up with.