Find the Host with the Most

Part Three of a three part Small Business series

E ven if you have the Web equivalent of Frank Gehry designing your Web site, it's useless if it's not available on the Internet. To remedy this, you'll need to find a web hosting company who will make your business available, or "serve" your pages, to the online world.

Here, as in all things Internet, the staggering number of choices and options available can be paralyzing. Doing a simple Internet search for "web hosting" can return hundreds of thousands of matches - how's that for Web efficiency?

To start, ask your designer for help if you're flummoxed by all of the techno-jargon. Most designers will have a good idea of what you'll need for your site, and a couple of companies to look at. At the very least, they can usually point you in the direction of someone who does.

To make your search a bit less painful, there's five things you really need to know before tackling the host situation:

1. To dedicate, or not to dedicate?
If your believe that your business is going to be doing huge online business, with millions of people viewing the site and traffic galore, you almost have to get a dedicated server. A dedicated server is exactly that - a computer whose sole duty in life is to serve your site to the Web, and nothing else. The advantages in this are plentiful - no sharing of system resources, no bandwidth issues (see below), and the hosting company's tech support will probably treat you like a god. But, you guessed it - this freedom comes with a hefty price tag.

On the other hand, if all your Web site will be is a marketing/promo tool, or if you don't expect huge amounts of traffic, your best bet is to have your site hosted "virtually" - that is, on a server sharing resources with other Web sites. Most smaller companies go with this option - it's vastly cheaper than a dedicated server, and because there's so many virtual hosting companies out there, you've got lots of options.

The other thing to think about is space: how much will you need? If your site is going to include a large database of products, or any kind of video or audio, you'll need a lot of it. It's important to account for future growth by making a generous initial estimate, and to also find out what extra charges will be incurred if you need more.

2. Bandwidth on the run
Every time you visit a Web site, data is transferred from the Web site's server to your computer. Your browser then interprets the data, and you see the results as a Web page. This data transfer is measured as bandwidth, and all virtual web hosts have some kind of limit as to how much bandwidth you can use in a given period.

It's highly recommended you check into how much bandwidth you are alloted, and the extra costs involved if you go over. Many hosts advertise "unlimited bandwidth", but you should take this with a grain of salt. There's always some kind of limit, so read the fine print or ask a sales rep for the skinny. The key word here is growth. Make sure that if your web business grows, or if the traffic on your site increases, your hosting company is up to the task.

3. Get Supported
Possibly one of the most important aspects of host hunting is determining the available customer support. Make sure the company you're interested in has good customer support options - preferably email and telephone support around the clock, plus FAQ's and other resources available on their company Web site. If something goes wrong, this is usually your only contact with the company, so the customer service had better be good.

At the same time, find out if the company has an uptime guarantee. If your host's server is always down, no one can view your site, which can cost you business. It doesn't bode too well for you if you send a client to look at your site and it's down, does it? Many companies guarantee at least a certain percentage of uptime per year.

4. The Check's in the Email
Email is quickly becoming the predominant business communication tool, so it's imperative that your host's email services are reliable and extensive. At the very least, you should have access to POP3 email, which allows you to retrieve your email directly to your computer. Many hosts also provide email forwarding services, which allow you to set up email addresses which forward anything sent to them, or a web-based email interface, which allows users to view their mail from any computer with an Internet connection.

5. Toys! More Toys!
Knowing what services you need for your Web site can be an exercise in options insanity. Do you want your catalogue online? Then you'll probably need some kind of database system like Microsoft Access, MySQL, Cold Fusion or Oracle (to name a few). Want to accept orders online? Say hello to server-scripting languages like Perl, PHP, ASP, Java and countless others. Want to have streaming video or audio on your site? Then you'll need a server capable of delivering Real or QuickTime content. Often this means more money, so it's a good idea to talk to you designer to find out exactly what services you'll need for your site.
The silly word of the day: Scalability
Whether you're sick of those Internet catchwords (convergence, anyone?) or not, the magic word to remember is scalability. Think about the future. What happens if your business is massively successful - can your host keep up with the bandwidth demands, and will they charge you a small fortune for it? Or, if you hire a whole whack of new employees, can you get more email addresses easily and cheaply, or are you limited to a certain number? By planning for this kind of growth when you chose a host, you'll save yourself the agonizing possibility of having to switch hosts later on.

L'addition, s'il vous plait
Once you've chosen a host, it's time to pay the bill. Before you do that, make sure you go through the company's TOS (Terms Of Service) with a fine-toothed comb. Ensure there's nothing nasty hidden in the small print that could be a problem later. Also, just as with any business deal, make sure to get a full disclosure on the terms of any contract you enter in with the company. Many companies like to tie clients into yearly contracts, and while this may save you a bit of money up front, it's best to ensure that all is well before signing on the dotted line.

The Real World
Don't forget about the real world when making your decision, too. Ask fellow entrepeneurs who they host their Web site with. Pick your designer/developer's brain for tips and leads. Be informed, and bask in the glory of your online Web site! Good luck!

Some Interesting Hosting Links
There's a staggering number of hosting review sites out there, and the difference in content quality varies wildly from site to site. It's recommended that you check multiple sites for information on a host you're interested in, to get a clearer, more accurate picture. Here's just a sampling:



Web Host Directory

[ In particular, check out HostCompare's incredible list of hosting articles and Web sites. ]
Other hosting resources
A very well written, straight talking article on hosting can be found at

Also, check out online bulletin boards like WebHostingTalk, the SitePoint Community forums, and Usenet newsgroups like alt.www.webmaster for more help. Do searches on these and the resources above for Hosts you're interested in. If you find a lot of negative reviews and comments, the host could be trouble and you should proceed with caution.

Free Web Space
What? Free Web hosting? They say, "You get what you pay for", but if you're on a welterweight budget, you might want to try searching at this extensive freebie resource.

Anything you wanted to know about web hosting (but were afraid to ask), and more!

What Is?
What the heck is ASP? What's a packet? Find out what all of those mystifying words mean and more here, and appease your inner nerd.

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