Previously on the CogitActive saga:
All it takes to create a self-hosted website are a domain name, a hosting provider and a platform.
In A CMS platform, I explained why I decided to use WordPress to build my website. In A web host, I described what kind of servers and their associated technologies you need for your website (built with WordPress). In Self-hosting: a hard egg to crack, I covered the Pros and Cons of keeping domain name registration and web hosting separate. Finally, here comes the last piece of the self-hosted website puzzle.
Except if you own a web server, you will need to use the technologies and services of a hosting provider. Because
the reliability of your web hosting provider is vital1 for your website, it is important to choose a good one. What makes a good hosting provider?
Making sure your website is accessible at all times is crucial. You need stability in terms of servers as well as network connections. Therefore, server reliability is an important factor to consider. Naturally, servers need to be maintained, and doing so might require going offline, namely downtime. Hence,
there is no such things as 100 percent uptime1. However, what you don’t want is unplanned downtime resulting from unexpected bursts of traffic or poor security.
Most companies claim to have a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee, therefore, according to Peter Pollock,
comparing uptime claims is a waste of time2. Yet, you should still keep an eye on uptime scores when reading reviews, because
anything below 99% is unacceptable3.
BEWARE OF UNLIMITED
Many hosting providers offer unlimited plans: unlimited storage, unlimited bandwidth and so on. However, every single unlimited plan will have limitations; either in terms of processing power (Central Processing Unit; CPU), memory (Random Access Memory; RAM), or inodes4 usage, among other things. Limiting unlimited plans is actually a common practice on shared servers, where several customers share the same resources.
On the one hand, it is not suitable for one account to use too many resources and leave no power for the other accounts. You don’t want other sites to affect your website performance. Thus, imposing limitations on server usage appears necessary.
On the other hand, if your website gets too popular and a high spike in traffic draws too many resources, the hosting provider may throttle your website. This will end up with your website loading slowly or going offline. What was previously deemed necessary becomes suddenly inacceptable.
Beyond the inconvenience (downtime), your hosting provider may also impose additional charges on you (before to ask you to upgrade to another plan or type of server, anyway). That is why it is important to read their rules on account limitations. In addition to protect you from costly overage fees, knowing your account limits help you understand
how generous (or stingy)3 and
how transparent your hosting company is3.
It is important for your website to load as fast as possible. Speed matters. A lot! A website that fails to load fast will cause your visitors to go away
before it even finishes loading3. What are the factors (at the level of the web host5) that affect speed?
You should look for the same factors that contribute to your own computer speed:
faster processors and more RAM mean faster machines2. In the same line, Solid State Drives (SSDs) are much faster than traditional hard drives. The software used to deliver your website will also have an impact (see A web host). The physical connection between the server and the Internet is something to consider as well; the higher the number of uplink port, the faster the connection.
As previously explained in the aforementioned post, the type of server (e.g. shared vs. dedicated) will determine the overall performance. In the case of shared hosting, the overall usage of the system will have a dramatic influence on speed: check how many sites the company put on one server.
Although data travels at incredible speeds, a server closer to your users allows your website to load faster for them. If your visitors will likely be in one area, your best option is to choose a server that is located near them. Quiet remarkably, some hosting providers have multiple data centers and offer the choice to their customers.
second approach to serving your website from a location that’s close to your visitors is to use a content delivery network (CDN)6. Technically, a CDN is a geographically distributed group of servers (network) which work together to provide fast delivery of internet content. Thus,
the web server that your visitor communicates with to receive your website depends on where they are6. As stressed in the cited article, nothing (but additional costs) prevents you from doing both: choosing a server closer to your users and using a CDN service.
I have previously addressed the essential features that you have to decide on when choosing a web host (storage space and bandwidth, type of servers, software, and control panel). What other important services should you consider?
If something goes wrong (e.g. a software update messing up your website) or, even worst, if your site is hacked, and you don’t have a backup,
then there is absolutely nothing that can be done to get your site back2. A good backup system is ESSENTIAL!
Anyway, make sure you also regularly back it up yourself (and keep this backup away from the main server).
Your host should at least provide daily full backups of your site. Also, check whether you
can restore your backup files by yourself easily3. It is very important to know the hosting company’s backup and restore policies.
Security standards are vital to the well-being of your website. Many security measures contribute to the overall security. Among them, the most commons are firewalls, Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDoS) protection, virus and malware protection, and network monitoring. It is critical that you vet the security protocols of the hosting provider. Moreover, keep in mind that the type of server (e.g. shared vs. dedicated) will have a direct impact on your overall security.
The hosting provider should take care of many security measures, but the first line of security starts with your implementation of basic security practices (e.g. safe login information, up-to-date software, and so on).
Eventually, if the traffic to your site is too big or if you want more processing power, memory capacity, disk storage, and perhaps even enhanced security features, you will have to upgrade your hosting plan. Scalability is an important criterion when looking for a hosting provider; you don’t want to choose a company that has only shared hosting plans. Furthermore, you may ask whether the upgrade will occur without a break in service.
Whether your website is down, or you don’t understand something, how easily can you get support from the company? Some hosts offer phone support or an online chat option, whereas others might only offer support through an e-mail or ticket system. Yet, the questions are always the same. When are they available? How long will it take them to get back to you? Reading reviews may help you to get an accurate picture of their customer and technical support services.
Support can also be in the form of video tutorials, contextual help screens, and knowledge base. A comprehensive documentation will help you to solve (or prevent) the problem(s) yourself.
Prices vary wildly from one company to another. On the other hand, there is no point to pay more than what you should. However, you want to avoid discount hosting. First, they will not match the above criteria for a good hosting provider. Furthermore, if you go that way, you will realize the meaning of the idiom
you get what you pay for. On the other hand, companies that charge more don’t necessarily provide a better service.
Price is not a good indicator of quality, granted, but quality costs money:
top-of-the-line equipment and infrastructure does not come cheap3. So, how much should you be paying? It depends. You can’t compare apples and oranges, so the best approach is perhaps to figure out first what type of hosting you need, and not to put much emphasize on the price.
Nonetheless, there are few things you should pay attention to; in particular, signup deals vs. renewal prices. Indeed, it is quite the norm to offer signup deals, especially for shared hosting, but the
hosting companies that slash their price at signup are the ones that jack up renewal price the most3. Similarly, some providers will have better offers when you sign up for an extended period (i.e. several years). It is generally unwise to accept long-term contracts, even if the discounts are great.
Another thing that may be worth considering is whether the company offers a free trial period or a money back guarantee. Why jump right in? You don’t know if the company will be as good as it claims to be. Actually, it is a good idea to check what their refund policy is, just in case you choose to cancel your hosting plan (during or after trial periods).
A comprehensive listing is beyond the scope of this post, still, some are worth mentioning. Maybe you are looking for the kind of items that can make your life easier: one-click installer, site builder… Alternatively, you may prefer advanced features, such as staging (allows you to create a copy of your live website to work safely on changes), website statistics, or the possibility to manage multiple addon domains. These extra features may be bundled in a given plan, and
might end up tipping a certain plan in your favor6.
To conclude, it is worth mentioning that it is not only about finding the best hosting provider, but also picking the right one for your needs. Different websites have different needs and there is never a fixed solution to one’s web hosting needs. Yours may require Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificates, dedicated Internet Protocol (IP) address, or added security, for instance. You might need something even more specific. The purpose of your website, as well as the platform you will use to build it, will have a huge influence on your choosing. To sum up, do your homework!
Coming next: which hosting provider was best for me?
1 George Plumley (2011) Website Design & Development: 100 Questions to Ask before Building a Website. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wiley Publishing. ^
2 Peter Pollock (2013) Web Hosting For Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ^
3 Jerry Low (2018) How to Choose the Right Web Hosting. Web Hosting Secret Revealed. ^
4 In computing, an inode is a data structure that stores information about a file, a folder, or other objects. Simply put, the number of inodes equals the number of files and folders you have on your account. ^
5 Many additional factors, which do not depend on the web host, will have a big impact on your website speed as well (e.g. platform, plugins, media, ads…). ^
6 Frank Moraes (2018) What Kind of Hosting Do You Need?. Who Is Hosting This. ^