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The Perfect Web Site Host
Contributor: Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Your site looks great, it's a dream to use and provides the best services and products out there, but finding the right host for your web site will make the difference between on-line success and failure. Without the perfect host your efforts may come to nothing. I provide essential independent guidance that helps you make the right choice.

The work of a hosting company

There are thousands of companies that specialise in web site hosting. Their job is not only to ensure your web site is constantly available on the Internet throughout the year, but also to ensure you are supported when things go wrong, and things will go wrong, even with the best of hosting companies.

Web site hosting companies differ a great deal. There are those who provide 'free hosting' which is a fine solution if you have some news you'd like the world to hear of about your pet dog, but not so fine if you wish to present a professional image on the Internet.

Hosts offer different database, scripting, and server functionality, most are platform specific in that they cater for PC or Mac hosting solutions, all want your business. Your task is to seek out the host that best suits your needs.

The DIY host

It may be that you are considering hosting your web site yourself. After all, you only need a server and some free software and a connection to the Internet. Couldn't be that difficult.

My advice is that you do not attempt to travel along the road of self hosting unless you have a great team of people who are expert in the field, and that you are willing to spend a considerable amount of time, money, and energy in developing server infrastructure (including the implementation of an effective Firewall). In addition you'll have to maintain your team's expertise with a continuous program of retraining. Oh, and you'll also need an always-on telecom connection with an uninterruptable power supply that can deliver your expected traffic requirements without a hitch (which you've already assessed with the help of analysing your logs and web site monitoring).

The Internet technologies continue to be updated and develop. Hosting companies take on the responsibility for keeping staff skills and server systems up to date. The costs therefore of running your own host can be considerable, and you will be responsible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for your server's performance. When server malfunctions occur at 2.30am in the morning GMT and you start loosing your vital link to the US Internet community, your hosting company is there to keep a watchful eye and resolve the problems.

By paying a hosting company, you hand over the responsibility for server performance and maintenance to them. You can then concentrate on a task your company is more likely to be able to manage, the constant web site maintenance and content generation that defines a good site.

Hosting requirements

It's your job to be clear about your hosting needs before you approach a hosting company, and yep, you'll have to consider the whole list below carefully if you want to find the perfect host. I view those elements with exclamation marks that follow
! as essential to all professional web sites:

Add MIME types (short for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, a standard for encoding information other than text so that it can be attached to an email message and sent across the Internet)

Allocation of filespace (minimum of 5GIG and dependant on requirements) !

All servers configured as RAID 5 for redundancy

Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) systems in case of power outage !

Autoresponders (an autoresponder will reply to emails for you, using predetermined messages which you have written) !

Bandwidth - at least 10 GIG per month !

Bandwidth monitoring (the ability to view current and historical reports online about the bandwidth usage of your web site) !

CGI, SSI and PHP (for example, the provision of a CGI-bin allows you to run CGI scripts on your website) !

Control Panel (enables you to manage and administer your web site) !

Components (many scripting languages require third party extensions or additional extensions, and it's vital you enquire whether the hosting company provides the components that you need) !

Custom error pages (a vital component in keeping your visitors at your site) !

Data Transfer statement (how much information can be downloaded from your website - don't settle for 'unlimited', get a clear commitment) !

E-commerce options (to sell a service or product online)

Email support !

FAQ Support !

Firewalling and intrusion detection !

Full and unlimited FTP access (File transfer Protocol is known as the Internet protocol that allows the exchange of files. This protocol enables you to upload your pages to our server over the Internet. FTP is supported by all leading software) !

Filespace statement (all the space you use between your website's files, your e-mail, and your logs. Some hosts may say 'unlimited filespace' or 'unlimited diskspace', there's no such thing, check the fine print)

Disk space check (from within a 'Control Panel') !

Independent Server infrastructure (incl. network and servers) !

mySQL database server (dependant on requirements - the open-source standard for databases and is ideal for web applications based on Linux Servers)

Mailing Lists (a mailing list enables you to send emails to a group of people who have signed themselves up to your list) !

Multiple POP Email Accounts !

ODBC databases (dependant on requirements - Windows domains can use any ODBC compliant database such as Microsoft Access or Microsoft Excel)

Online account history/invoices !

Password protect directories

Personal site backup manager

Phone support (at least during business hours and at a non-premium rate) !

Platform and hardware requirements (choose from Windows, Apache, Cobalt, Linux®, or Unix® dependant on your web site needs) !  !  !

Profile Management (administer your website account) !

Secure Servers (dependant on requirements)

Server speed and bandwidth (dependant on requirements) !

Streaming Media (dependant on requirements)

Support, Support, Support (on-line, phone and email) !  !  !

Top-up filespace/data transfer

Raw and analysed logs !

  Reliability Statement (minimum 99.5% uptime guarantee = half a day lost in a hundred) !

URL Redirection

Unlimited POP/IMAP accounts

Unlimited mail forwarding !

Web-based control panel !

Web Space Allocation !

Web Usage Statistics !

The Decision

After your requirements are clearly defined create a short-list of hosting companies that meet them. Revisit their web sites frequently and take time to try out any demos of their services they may have on offer. Concentrate especially on the kind of support they provide as you will call upon it in the future.

Take your time at this stage as it is a considerable effort to transfer a web site if you're unhappy with your hosting solution. Make judgements about the way your short-list acts and behaves. Do they respond quickly to your questions by email and phone? Test this out! Is it easy to access information about their services? Do they provide help about web site functionality? The answers to these questions will provide you with a solid foundation for making a sound judgement about the appropriateness and professionalism of their service.

Read the fine print, especially concerning server reliability, payments, and refunds. Make certain you are comfortable with the language being used and ask questions if you are not sure about a statement they have made. Finally check their web site for positive references, awards, and press articles.

Seeing into the future

Ask yourself what your hosting requirements may be in the future. It's important your hosting provider can deliver the hosting needs you'll have tomorrow as much as those you have for today. Ensure their services are scalable to your web site's requirements, and that you have an easy path to upgrade your hosting provision as necessary.

Conclusion

With planning and research, finding the perfect web site host is possible. Don't go for the 'free' or cheapest option. They're cheap for a reason, and the reason isn't to benefit your web presence but to generate revenue fast, usually from advertising or providing a less than adequate service.

I've made much of emphasising the importance of web site hosting support. A hosting company that prides itself on providing first rate support will ensure your site performs effortlessly, generating the interest and recognition it deserves. Happy hunting.


     
       
 
Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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