Let me first explain that by “web host” I refer to the servers that host websites: the
dedicated machines that exist solely to serve websites to whomever wants to see them1. Usually, as you don’t have a server at home, you rent the technologies and services of a hosting provider. They provide fast, powerful machines – among other things – so that you can run a website. The quest for a hosting provider will come afterward; for now, let me focus on the actual machines (servers) and their associated technologies.
When it comes to choosing a web host, you must consider many factors. Even if
you don’t need top-of-the line hosting right from start1, the different options can be overwhelming. Therefore, it is important to understand the ins and outs of web hosting in order to make an informed choice. At least, it is essential to know what kind of web host you need for your website.
WordPress minimum requirements
Choosing the right platform to build your website is one of the first thing to take into account as
some platforms . . . only work on certain types of hosting1. As I intend to run WordPress as my content management system (CMS) platform2, I first looked for the required features to run this particular software. The list of minimum requirements (as of the writing of this post; available on WordPress.org website) is actually quite small:
- PHP version 7.2 or greater
- MySQL version 5.6 or greater
- HTTPS support
Don’t worry if you don’t understand any of these terms, they will make sense by the end of this post.
recommend Apache or Nginx as the most robust and featureful server for running WordPress. Keeping with their own saying
that’s really it! To be honest, that was not very helpful.
Space and bandwidth
Web hosts provide space for storing your website and internet connection for accessing it. Being the most prominent features, space and bandwidth must be two important things to consider when dealing with hosting, aren’t they?
Site files and text content don’t take up much space either.
As for disk space, the amount of storage you need depends on the software you use, but also the files you are planning to upload (audio, image, videos…). I will come back to the media files later; let me address the software first. WordPress
doesn’t take much disk space at all3 and, according to the same author,
a good starting point for disk space is 10 [gigabytes (GB)] to 20 GB.
Concerning bandwidth, which is the amount of transfer your site can do per month, you want to make sure that your hosting account offers you enough to meet your needs or
projected needs4. Still with WordPress in mind, a
provision of 50 GB to 100 GB is generally a respectable amount to run a website with a blog3. Great; but what about a website for a podcast?
Indeed, podcasts are made up of audio files. These files will take a lot of storage space and, more importantly, bandwidth. Given that many web hosts offer unlimited storage and bandwidth, should you still worry about this issue? Yes, you do! As previously explained (Where to start?), you should host your podcast on a reliable server that can handle huge bandwidth spikes, not on your own website. Let me stress this again; you should store your audio files on a separate media host.
Unlimited is not unlimited!
Last, but not least, it is important to understand that
there’s more to hosting than just space and bandwidth1. Ironically, the unlimited offers for these two features have almost made them irrelevant. What really matters is the server that will handle all the data processing requests to deliver your website to visitors. Without going into details, the Central Processing Unit (CPU) of the computer works in conjunction with the Random Access Memory (RAM) to handle all the instructions it receives. Servers, like any computers, have a limited amount of processing time and memory space. Thus, at the end of the day, it is processing power (CPU) and memory (RAM) that limits the usage of an unlimited hosting account.
Different type of servers
Logically, I started to wonder about the different server types and tried to comprehend the differences between Shared, Virtual Private Server (VPS), Dedicated, and Cloud Hosting. They obviously differ in processing power and memory capacity, but also in the amount of storage capacity, control, technical knowledge requirement, server speed, and reliability.
Literally, it means that several customers share the same server. You are not only sharing space, though, you are also sharing
resources like bandwidth, memory, and processing power5. Thus, other sites on the same server can affect your site performance. In the same line, other users might not follow the best security practices and provide an entry point for attacks that will affect your site as well. Nevertheless, being the entry-level hosting option, shared hosting is the most popular. They are the least expensive and they require minimum technical knowledge (you are not responsible for any type of web server management).
They are the least powerful, granted, but
shared servers are a good place to start1. Moreover,
you can certainly host your WordPress site on a standard shared hosting plan5.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
When your website gets too big (for shared hosting),
the natural next step is a [VPS]5. Technically, they are
created by partitioning off a physical server1 into virtual partitions. This type of hosting allows users to have their own virtual space and better-secured hosting environment. A VPS provides greater performance (more access to server resources) than shared servers do, and offers full control and flexibility over your server environment. However, it is more expensive, and
you’ll need to have some degree of comfort with server technology to manage a VPS5.
In a way, it is a mix solution in between shared and dedicated servers.
A dedicated server is exactly what it sounds like: you exclusively rent an entire server. As you are the only one consuming server resources, performances are greatly improved. Dedicated hosting also provides
the highest level of security and server customization possible5. This solution is, however, the most expensive and more complicated. Indeed, you are responsible for all the server management, such as keeping everything up to date, debugging issues…
Typically, they are used
to power complex applications and high-traffic websites5.
I didn’t contemplate such a possibility – even in my most ambitious dreams – but who knows…
Eventually, if the traffic to your site is too big, you will hit the physical limitations of the actual machine. The solution is to use the resources offered by multiple machines. This is what cloud hosting brings: a large number of server connected together. Due to this infrastructure (combined computing resources),
cloud hosting is extremely stable and scalable5. Cost is obviously high, even though you are usually charged only for what you actually use.
The strength of cloud hosting is its ability to handle high traffic levels and/or traffic spikes.
Managed WordPress hosting
If you want the speed and power benefits of a VPS or dedicated server, but you don’t have the technical skills to manage the technical, backend aspects of the hosting, you can get a managed hosting plan. Given the popularity of WordPress, some hosting providers have actually specialized in managed WordPress hosting.
In essence, using managed services means that the hosting company takes over many of the technical aspect (with different levels of services, though). In addition, they have configured the entire server environment specifically for the WordPress platform in order to provide the best experience possible. Finally yet importantly, this usually comes with premium support.
In the end,
using managed services can give you peace of mind1. As for everything, however, it just comes at a price.
Scalability will be an important criterion when looking for a hosting provider; you don’t want to choose a company that has only shared hosting plans.
As your web hosting can grow with your website, I have opted for shared hosting. Keep in mind, however, that the more visitors you get the higher up the server scale you need to go.
A suite of software
Just like your computer at home, a server needs an operating system and additional software to be able to deliver websites.
The two most common systems are Windows and Linux. I don’t need to introduced you to the former; you may, however, not be familiar with the latter. It is time to acquaint yourself with it, as Linux is the most common operating system for servers. Linux is open-source, which means that the code to create it is free and available to the public (to view and contribute to). Linux has evolved into one of the most reliable computer ecosystem, but I am not here to praise it to the skies.
The choice between Windows and Linux is relatively straightforward as dictated by the software you are using. WordPress is based on PHP: Hypertext Prepocessor (PHP), which is a server scripting language. Apparently, if your software runs on PHP,
you’re better off on a Linux operating system4. That is that easy: go for Linux. The only reason to use Windows is if you plan to run some proprietary software like Microsoft Access or
if you want to use the ASP.Net framework1. I don’t even know what the latter is; here is a sound advice for this very situation:
if you don’t know whether you need it, you probably don’t need it.
The LAMP stack
LAMP is the acronym for Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.
As Linux is the preferred operating system (when using WordPress), there are also recommendations for the web server (as a software; not the machine), the relational database management system, and the programming language. The most common choice for these four technologies is referred to as the LAMP stack. Without going into details, let me introduce you to its three remaining components.
WordPress recommends Apache or Nginx.
A web server – again, the software, not the machine – provides the necessary framework for Linux servers to deliver websites to the Internet. To simplify, it acts as a mediator between the incoming request over HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP; yes, the four letters at the beginning of a web address6) and the files on the server (in order to serve the requested web page). The open source software Apache has traditionally supplied the role of LAMP’s web server. There are few alternatives, though. The most common is Nginx, which
is becoming more popular as a slightly faster alternative to Apache1.
WordPress requires MySQL version 5.6 or greater.
WordPress, as a CMS, uses a structured storage system for its content, namely a database. The database is what makes a website dynamic. Indeed, the pages don’t exist as individual files; instead, they are created dynamically when the user wants to view them. As with all things, there are many database technologies to choose from, but you don’t have to worry about this as you have no choice. WordPress is based on MySQL, an open source, powerful relational database management system.
WordPress requires PHP version 7.2 or greater.
Keeping with the concept of dynamic website, you need a dynamic web application that fetches content from the database and sends it to the web server. This is what WordPress is all about as a CMS. The pieces of the puzzle start to get together, don’t they? Anyway, like any other computer software, WordPress is written in a programming language, which happens to be PHP. Now, you may not need to know PHP to use WordPress, but it is better if your server does!
A hosting control panel is a graphical user interface that provides tools for managing your server and its associated features. A user-friendly control panel with extensive functionality is very important,
it will save you a lot of time, money, and frustration4. You want to have control over as many aspects of your hosting account as possible.
Both cPanel and Plesk are proprietary control panels (they must be licensed and paid for); there are open source options, though. If you want more information, check Wikipedia for some comparison tables.
Almost every hosting company has one; some even offer a choice. The variety of control panels is quite significant: each has a different interface, a different design, a different way of doing things, and some particular tools. Some hosting providers have developed their own control panels, but most will use control panels created by independent companies like cPanel and Parallels. As a result, there are many options. Nevertheless, cPanel is
the most widely used1, with Plesk (made by Parallels) coming in second. cPanel is also the
most customizable1; some hosting provider actually completely redesigns its appearance and functionalities to integrate it with their own system. In contrast to Plesk, however, cPanel does not run on Windows servers.
At the end of the day, regardless of the control panel you choose, you will be able to accomplish practically the same tasks, but you may find it easier to use one over the other.
I tried to address the essential features you have to decide on when choosing for a web host (for your website built with WordPress). While some choices are dictated by WordPress requirements (e.g. LAMP stack), others depend on the type of website you are setting up and how busy it is likely to become. It is important to be realistic; as already mentioned,
you don’t need top-of-the line hosting right from start1. Following this advice, and keeping scalability in mind, I have decided to go for shared hosting.
However, it is noteworthy that
not all shared hosting is created equal5. Server technology can differ, as do the amount of resources available and the security measures implemented. This kind of consideration will help separating good hosting providers from the poor ones.
Of course, there are many other important features that I didn’t cover. As you will have to decide on those as well, it is important to know beforehand what you will benefit from and what you don’t need; you don’t want to base your choice on lists written by marketers.
To be continued…
1 Peter Pollock (2013) Web Hosting For Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ^
2 See A CMS platform ^
3 Lisa Sabin-Wilson (2017) WordPress All-in-One For Dummies – Third Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ^
4 George Plumley (2011) Website Design & Development: 100 Questions to Ask before Building a Website. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wiley Publishing. ^
5 Frank Moraes (2018) What Kind of Hosting Do You Need?. Who Is Hosting This? ^
6 You may have notice that some addresses start with https:// instead of http://. This is because when a connection is secured, it uses a slightly different connection protocol known as HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS). To have HTTPS, you need to have a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) Certificate installed on the server. As WordPress requirements include HTTPS support, checking whether this feature is available with a given hosting provider is a good idea. ^