9 Things to Know Before Selecting a Web Host

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It may seem simple yet it is often overlooked. When it comes to choosing an Internet hosting provider for their Web sites, the majority of business owners or companies know little about making the best decisions.


What makes a good Internet/Web host for a business Web site? What makes a bad one? How can an Internet/Web host help/harm your business? What are the different types of hosting services? Which ones are best for which industries?


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


1. Understand the distinctions among shared, collocated, unmanaged dedicated and managed dedicated hosting. It is crucial to understand the differences among the types of hosting offered. As the hosting industry has matured, hosting offers have split into a few distinct categories, each with strengths and weaknesses.


· Shared hosting (sometimes called virtual hosting) means that you are sharing a server with 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 use the resources of that server. That means heavy traffic to one of the other sites on the server can hammer the performance of your site. Also, you typically are unable 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 buy a server from a hardware vendor, like Dell or HP, and you supply this server to the host. The host plugs your server into its network and its redundant power systems. The host is responsible for ensuring its network is available, and you are responsible for support and maintenance of your server.


Good hosts 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 similar to collocation except that you lease a server from a host and do not own it yourself. Some very limited support (typically Web-based only) is included, but the level of support varies widely among unmanaged dedicated hosts.


This type of server can be had for around $99/month. Support levels typically are provided only in general terms. Ask the host to go into specifics about what support it will provide -- will it apply security patches to your server? -- before signing up. This service is typically good for gaming servers (like Doom or Counterstrike 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 and security patch updates.


Ensure that your managed dedicated host is specific about its managed services so that it does not disguise an unmanaged dedicated offering as a managed dedicated server. This has been known to happen, which is why it is important to do your homework and ask the right questions.


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


Even if you place ethical issues aside, this does have a negative effect on customers in general, such as when a network gets blackholed for spamming. 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 reach its destination.


Check with hosts you are considering to see whether 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. Many of the biggest filed for bankruptcy protection or were saved by being sold to another 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?


· Are they 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 one of them. When you over-prioritize price, you risk getting a host that provides you 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. Ensure your host has fully redundant data centers. When dealing with smaller vendors, ensure they have their own data centers and that those 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 on-site?


· How often do they test their generator?


· What sort of security measures do they have for the network?


· What physical security do they have?


· What type of fire suppression systems do they have?


6. Find out whether they have actual experienced systems administrators on their support staff. When you call in for technical support, it can be frustrating to be stuck talking with a non-technical "customer service" representative when you really need to talk to a systems administrator who can resolve your issues.


Find out the structure of the support department, how quickly you can reach a systems administrator when you need to and which systems administrators can help you when you need help.


7. Ensure the host is flexible. It is important that the host understands how important quality servers are to its clients' businesses. Even most managed dedicated hosts will not go near supporting applications that are not part of the initial server setup. Find a host with vast experience to support a variety of applications, and one that can bring that expertise to you through its services.


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


9. Ensure the host's support doesn't include extra charges. Ensure that any host you consider provides you with a comprehensive list outlining the support it offers so you understand what is supported for free, what is supported at a fee and what is not supported at all. Many hosts try to hide a substandard level of free support behind non-specific statements of high-quality support, so make them get specific to win your business.


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