Choosing a Web Hosting Firm
Asked about the difference between Web hosting a decade ago and today, Mike Sowada, CEO of the Eden Prairie–based Internet services provider Visi, joked: “Well, Henry Ford once said, ‘You can get a Model T in any color, as long as it’s black.’ You got what you got in the early days of the car, and it was the same way with the Internet.” Web hosting used to mean only one thing: putting a customer’s Web site on line so users could visit it. These days, Web hosting is much more complicated.
“Web hosting has really evolved to where it is another part of your sales and marketing department,” says Dave Perrill, president of BHI Advanced Internet in Eden Prairie, which hosts Web sites for more than 3,300 customers. “It’s a critical part of people’s businesses. And if your site goes down, it’s not just an inconvenience anymore.”
So how can companies know they’re making a smart choice when signing on with a Web host? To find out, we talked with Web hosting companies about the types of services that are available, how they might be of use to your company, and what questions you need to ask to get the best service for your money.
Web Hosting Basics
While company size does figure into the equation when considering what types of services your company may need from a Web host, the most important consideration is what you plan to do with your site, Perrill says. If you just want to post something simple—say, some information and a few photos (like an electronic business card or brochure), you’re probably safe to go with a basic shared-hosting package.
This is by far the most widely used way to host Web sites. A nominal fee will get you modest levels of bandwidth—1 to 1.5 terabytes—and storage space, as well as several e-mail accounts and 24-7 automated phone support. For a higher fee, you’ll get more of everything and, depending on the company, you may also get better customer service from real-live humans when you need it.
With shared hosting, you will also get a personalized Web address (www.yourbusiness.com), which looks more professional than the type where your company’s name is accompanied by the name of the host (www.hostname.yourbusiness.com). This type of dual address is most often seen with build-your-own sites offered by providers such as Yahoo Geocities and Amazon. These low-cost options are quick and easy, but they lack the professional-level services most businesses want.
“This is definitely an industry where you get what you pay for,” says Sowada, whose company hosts several thousand sites. (He declined to give an exact figure.) “If someone is offering a deal that sounds too good to be true, it really is too good to be true.”
Unlike the do-it-yourself sites, most hosting companies don’t have templates to help you build your site, and many don’t offer site design as a service either, since that is a whole different area of expertise. However, Web hosts usually have relation- ships with design and programming firms to which they can refer you; or they’ll handle the whole process for a fee.
The biggest downsides with a shared server are that you’re sharing, so what happens to others can happen to you, says Alex Capehart, vice president of business development for the California-based provider Media Temple, which hosts more than 300,000 domains in 40 countries.
For example, if a company that shares a space on your server is the target of a spammer, your server could become overloaded and shut down, taking your Web site with it. Or your e-mail could be blocked for a time.
Still, if your needs aren’t complex, meaning you aren’t doing interactive things like selling products or streaming video and audio files, shared hosting might be a smart and affordable choice for your business. Just be sure to get good referrals. Ask if they host organizations that send bulk e-mails (spammers) and adult content. If they do, walk away.
Mid-Range to High End
If your business sells on line, you’re going to need some kind of e-commerce capability. Though most Web hosting companies don’t design e-commerce systems, many will walk small businesses through the process of setting up simple, one-click e-commerce solutions available through Zen Cart and many others. Businesses with higher sales volume will want a more full-service e-commerce package, which usually requires the expertise of an experienced programmer. “We work with customers to be sure whatever they’re using is integrated into their Web site and up and running,” Capehart says. Temple uses a grid system powered by hundreds of servers working together in a cluster, that keeps sites from slowing to a crawl (or worse, crashing) due to sudden upsurges in Web traffic.
Businesses with even moderately interactive sites often need more than a shared hosting situation can offer. For those customers, a dedicated server—meaning you are the only user—might be the best choice. Dedicated servers typically offer between one and two terbytes of bandwidth.
There are two types of dedicated servers. If you have a large, highly trained IT staff, you can opt for an unmanaged dedicated server. Your host will provide the hardware for a monthly fee, but it’s your company’s job to do everything else, including loading applications, updating security software, and ensuring the site is running smoothly. For an additional fee, you can get what’s called a managed dedicated server, and your host will take care of everything for you. “Dedicated servers are great for people who don’t have the money to buy the equipment and they want us to buy it,” Sowada says. “If we manage the server, we make sure everything is up and running, and if the computer fails, we replace it.”
For managed service, you’ll want to ask providers about their service level agreement. This document tells customers how much uptime a host guarantees. For example, some providers will say they are up 100 percent of the time; others will say 99.9 percent. What you want to know next is how they will compensate you if they are down more often than they claimed they would be.
If you don’t want to spend the money necessary for a dedicated server, but need more capacity than a shared-host situation can provide, a virtual server is a good option, Capehart says. While companies using virtual servers do share space, this type of hosting differs from other shared services because only a handful of people are using it, rather than hundreds or thousands. Virtual servers can be hosted in-house or outsourced. Another key difference is that the server is divided up into individual “virtual” machines, so customers are not interconnected and cannot affect each other in any way. “It’s like you have your own mini machine,” Capehart explains.
Increasingly, businesses are also taking advantage of the savings that come from using a service called colocation, says Joe Caldwell, vice president of sales for Wayzata-based U.S. Internet, which hosts more than 30,000 sites. Companies that have their own server or multiple servers can rent space to have them (and other network and storage gear) housed off-site at a secure, state-of-the-art data center. For a monthly fee, you get space, power, a well-cooled environment, bandwidth, and security. It’s usually up to your IT staff to maintain the equipment either remotely or in person. For a price, though, many companies also offer managed colocation where again, they take care of everything. You just supply the equipment. “This is usually the most expensive service,” Caldwell says. “But companies have the assurance that everything is being monitored 24-7 and if anything goes wrong, we’re there to fix it.”
What to Ask
If your Web site data is on an off-site server and it’s important to you that information is backed up constantly, make sure you ask about that service, Perrill advises. You’ll pay more as the frequency of the backups increases, so ask yourself how much data you could reasonably afford to lose. Also, it is not uncommon for companies to rely on more than one data center; if one goes down, information can be transferred to the next. Be sure to ask whether a company is storing data in more than one location.
You have a disaster recovery plan and your Web host should, too. If disaster strikes, ask how quickly they plan to get your data back on line. “How well someone answers this question is a clue to how well the organization is run,” Caldwell says. “You want to hear something thorough, so you have a complete understanding of what they’re going to do.” It’s a good idea to ask some concrete questions about data center quality, too. Do they have backup generators in the event of a power outage? What kind of security do they provide? While some small companies feel comfortable signing on with “dark data centers” (which are unstaffed some of the time), most larger companies usually opt for those that offer round the clock on-site security, as well as monitoring of equipment, cooling, and power.
Of course, you also want to know about the level of customer support a provider offers. If you’ve got a problem at 3:00 in the morning, will there be anyone there to help you? “A lot of companies have so many clients, they may not have someone who can get on the phone and help with problems,” Perrill says. “I encourage people to come here and meet our support team, so they’ll know who’s going to be there to help. I even give out my own card and tell people to call me because, at the end of the day, that’s what customers care about. They want to know that their Web site is going to be there and that it’s going to work.”