Selecting the Right Web Hosting Provider

It may seem simple, yet it is often overlooked. When it comes to choosing the right Internet hosting provider, the majority of business owners know very little about making the best decisions. What makes a good Internet host for a business Web site? What makes a bad one? How can the wrong host harm your business? What are the different types of hosting services? Which ones are best for which industries? Here are some tips to help you find the right host.

For example, it is important to understand the distinctions between shared, collocated, unmanaged dedicated and managed dedicated hosting so you can choose the one that is right for your business. As the hosting industry has matured, hosting offers have split into a couple of distinct categories, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Shared hosting — sometimes called virtual hosting — means you are sharing a single server with a number of other clients of that company. The host manages the server almost completely, although you maintain your site and your account. These hosting providers can afford to charge you little because many clients are paying for use of the server.

However, companies other than yours are using the resources of that server, which means heavy traffic to one of the other sites on the server can really hammer your site’s performance. Also, you typically cannot install special software programs on these types of machines because the host needs to keep a stable environment for all of the clients using the server.

Types of Hosting

Collocated hosting means you purchase a server from a hardware vendor, such as Dell or HP, and you supply this server to the host. The host then plugs your server into its network and its redundant power systems. The host is responsible for making sure its network is available, and you are responsible for all support and maintenance of your server.

Good hosts will offer management contracts to their collocation clients, so you can outsource much of the support to them and reach an arrangement similar to managed dedicated hosting. Most collocation hosts do not offer this service, however.

Unmanaged dedicated hosting is similar to collocation, except that you lease a server from a host and do not actually own it yourself. Limited support — typically Web-based only — is included, but the level of support varies widely from host to host. This type of server can be had for about US$99 per month. Support levels are typically only provided in general terms. Ask the host to go into specifics about what support it will provide.

For example, will the host apply security patches to your server? This service is typically good for gaming servers — such as Doom or Counterstrike servers — or hobbyist servers, but not for serious businesses that need responsive, expert-level service.

Managed dedicated hosting means leasing a server from a host and having that company provide a robust level of support and maintenance on the server that is backed by quality guarantees. This maintenance typically includes such services as uptime monitoring, hardware warranties and security patch updates.

Make sure your managed dedicated host is specific about its included services so that you can be sure it is not disguising an unmanaged dedicated offering as a managed dedicated server. This has been known to happen, which is why it is important to do your homework and ask the right questions.

Networks and Blackholed IPs

Many hosts care little about who is actually hosting on their networks, so long as the clients pay their bills. That means many hosters will allow porn sites, spammers and servers that create security issues on their network. Even if you place ethical issues aside, this practice has a negative impact on customers in general, particularly when a network gets blackholed for spamming.

Getting blackholed means other networks will refuse e-mail originated from IPs that are blacklisted. Some hosts have a number of entire class C blocks — up to 256 IP addresses — blackholed, but they redistribute those tainted IPs to new clients.

That means if your business relies on legitimate closed-loop opt-in e-mail marketing to drive sales, being on such a network can severely cut response to your campaign because your e-mail may never reach its destination. Check with any hosts you are considering to see if their networks are blackholed. Also, here is a link to the Spamhaus page that tracks blackholed networks and lists them.

Size, Stability and Price

Just because a Web hosting company is big does not mean it is stable and secure. In fact, many of the biggest hosts filed for bankruptcy protection or were saved by being sold to another company, in some cases causing uncomfortable transitions in service for their clients. How do you protect yourself? Ask some key questions: How long has the host been in business? Is current ownership the same as always? Are they profitable and cash-flow positive from operation-generated revenue?

The old saying “you get what you pay for” applies to most things in life, and hosting is certainly one of those things. When you prioritize price, you run the risk of ending up with a host that will provide you with a connection to the Internet and little else in terms of support — and even that connection may be running at maximum capacity or have uptime issues.

When dealing with smaller vendors, make sure they have their own data centers and that those data centers are fully redundant in terms of power and connectivity. How many lines do they have coming into the facility? What is the average utilization of their connections? No matter how large the connection, it if is running at maximum capacity it will be slow.

Here are some other questions: Do they have redundant power to the servers? Do they have a generator on-site? How often do they test their generator? What sort of security measures do they have in place for the network?What physical security do they have? What type of fire suppression systems do they have in place?

Experience and Flexibility

When you call in for technical support, it can be a frustrating experience to be stuck talking with a nontechnical “customer service” representative when you really need to talk to a systems administrator who can resolve your issues. Find out the structure of their support department, how quickly you can get to an actual systems administrator when you need to, and which systems administrators can help you when you need assistance.

It is important that the hoster understands how important quality servers are to its clients’ businesses. Even most managed dedicated hosts will not go near supporting applications that are not part of their initial server setup. Find a host that has a vast amount of experience to support a wide variety of applications — and can bring that expertise to you through its services.

Also, can your prospective host provide you with success stories of clients with similar configurations to yours? Can it provide references to clients who can tell you about their experience using that company?

Make sure any host you consider provides you with a comprehensive list outlining the support it offers so that you can gain an understanding of what is supported for free, what is supported at a fee and what is not supported at all. Many hosts will try to hide a substandard level of free support behind nonspecific claims of high-quality support, so make them get specific to win your business.

Chris Kivlehan is the marketing manager for INetU Managed Hosting, an Allentown, Pennsylvania-based hosting provider that specializes in managed dedicated hosting.

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