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Nine Things To Know Before Selecting A Web Host

May 28, 2004
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It may seem simple yet it is oftentimes overlooked. When it comes to choosing the right Internet hosting provider for their Web sites, many business owners or companies know very little about making the best Internet/Web hosting decisions. For example:

  • What makes a good Internet/Web host for a business Web site? What makes a bad one?

  • How can the right Internet/Web host help your business? How can the wrong one harm it?

  • What are the different types of Internet/Web hosting services? Which ones are best for which industries?

    Here are some tips to help you make the right decisions:

    1. Understand the distinctions between shared, collocated, unmanaged dedicated, and managed dedicated hosting so that you choose the one that is right for your business.
    It is crucial to understand the difference between the types of hosting offered. As the hosting industry has matured, hosting offers have split into some distinct categories, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

    Shared hosting (sometimes called virtual hosting) means that you are sharing one server with a number of other clients of that company. The host manages the server almost completely (though you maintain your site and your account). They can afford to charge you little since many clients are paying for use of the server. However, companies other than yours are using the resources of that server. That means heavy traffic to one of the other sites on the server can really hammer the performance of your site. Also, you are typically not able to install special software programs on these types of machines, because the host will need to keep a stable environment for all of the clients using the server.

    Collocated hosting means that you purchase a server from a hardware vendor, like Dell or HP for example, and you supply this server to the host. The host will then plug 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 hosting services will offer management contracts to their collocation clients so that you can outsource much of the support to them and come to an arrangement similar to managed dedicated hosting. Most collocation hosts do not offer this service, however.

    Unmanaged dedicated hosting is very similar to collocation, except that you lease a server from a host and do not actually own it yourself. Some very limited support (typically Web-based only) is included, but the level of support varies widely from one unmanaged dedicated host to another. This type of server can be had for around $99/month. Support levels are typically only provided in general terms. Ask the host to go into specifics about what support they will provide - for instance, will they apply security patches to your server - before signing up. This service is typically good for gaming 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 services such as server uptime monitoring, a hardware warranty, security patch updates, and more. Make sure your managed dedicated host is specific about the managed services provided, so that you can be sure they are not disguising an unmanaged dedicated offering as a managed dedicated server. This has been known to happen, unfortunately, which is why it is important to do your homework and ask the right questions.

    2. Ask if your potential host's network has blackholed IPs.
    A number of hosts care little about who is actually hosting on their networks, so long as the clients pay their bill. That means a number of hosts will allow porn sites, spammers, and servers that create security issues on their network for the sake of the dollar.

    Even if you are to place ethical issues aside, this does have a negative impact on customers in general, however, when a network gets blackholed for spamming, for example. Getting blackholed means that other networks will refuse e-mail originated from IPs that are blacklisted. Some hosts have a number of entire class C (up to 256 IPs) networks blackholed and redistribute these 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 get to its destination.

    Check with any hosts you are considering to see if their networks are blackholed. Also, here is a link to a third-party source that tracks blackholed networks and lists them: www.spamhaus.org/sbl/isp.lasso.

    The following URL is a good resource to help you understand what is labeled spam and what isn't: www.spamhaus.org/mailinglists.html.

    3. Don't confuse size with stability.
    Just because a web hosting company is big, does not mean it is stable and secure. In fact, many of the biggest filed for bankruptcy protection or were saved by being sold to some other 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?

  • Is the company profitable and cash flow positive from operation-generated revenue?

    4. Don't make price your only priority.
    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 over-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).

    5. Make sure your host has fully redundant data centers.
    When dealing with smaller vendors, make sure that they have their own data centers and that those data centers are fully redundant in terms of power and connectivity. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • How many lines do they have coming into the facility?

  • What is the average utilization of their connections? (No matter how large the connection, if it is running at maximum capacity it will be slow.)

  • Do they have redundant power to the servers?

  • Do they have a generator onsite?

  • 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?

    6. Find out if they have actual experienced systems administrators on their support staff.
    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 help.

    7. Make sure the host is flexible.
    It is important that the host understands how important quality servers are to their 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 one that can bring that expertise to you through their services.

    8. Find out what their former/current clients say about them.
    Can your prospective host provide you with success stories from clients with similar configurations to yours? Are they able to provide references from clients who can tell you about their experience using that company?

    9. Make sure the host's support doesn't include extra charges.
    Make sure any host you consider provides you with a comprehensive list outlining the support offered, so that you can have 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 statements of high quality support, so make them get specific to win your business.

    Chris Kivlehan is with INetU Managed Hosting, an Allentown, Pa.-based hosting provider that specializes in managed dedicated hosting for businesses nationwide in the online retailing, web development, e-learning, financial services, and online marketing industries, as well as for governments, nonprofits, and civic institutions. For more information, call 610-266-7441, e-mail chrisk@inetu.net, or visit www.inetu.net.

    Publication date: 05/31/2004

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