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Are All Hosting Environments the Same?

hosting environmentThe short answer is “No”, and the long answer is “Absolutely not”.

The business of web hosting is a cutthroat market where even the smallest details set vendors apart.  To someone not-so-familiar with all the available tech and and/or good knowledge of how the web is served to users, the lingo used is very difficult to understand.  Hopefully this article can shed some light on what to look for when browsing the plans of web hosting providers.

1. Basics

This isn’t going to be a comprehensive guide on how web hosting works, but here are the basics.  A web server is basically just a computer (almost always a highly specialized, stripped down computer, however) that sits somewhere and runs a web server, which is a program or app like any other.  There are all kinds of web servers for the various operating systems: Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux, with the Linux flavors being by far the most popular.

Shared hosting is when you buy a share of a single server to use along with a usually large number of other clients for web hosting.  This typically means that one server is running many dozens or hundreds of websites.  Shared hosting is almost always the most economical plan, but it has its downsides.  Shared hosting is invariably slower, and your little section of the server is vulnerable if someone else’s section gets compromised by malware or malicious software.  It has upsides too: shared hosting normally comes with the most tools for helping you out with the backend tasks like FTP, SSL and email management.

Dedicated hosting is renting an entire server of your own for your app or website.  This type of hosting is the fastest but also varies considerably in price and specialization.  You should refer to an experienced back end developer or consultant to iron out the details of a plan before buying.

2. Location

The location of your web hosting isn’t usually the first thing most people think about, but it is extremely important.  If you have a local business in Miami, Florida and you unknowingly buy a web hosting plan from a company with its servers in Seattle, you are by default making your users jump through a lengthy set of loops just to get to your app or website.  Make sure when buying a hosting plan that the server location is not too far from your existing or potential userbase.  For the US, location selection is normally divided into thirds of the country:  New York, Texas, and California being the central locations.

3. Support and tools

One of the biggest differences between hosting providers is the level of support and hosting tools they provide.  That sounds vague to a non-tech person, so here’s an analogy: building a house.  Low levels of support and hosting tools would be like building a whole house by yourself: sourcing the materials, drawing up the plans, and completing the actual construction yourself.  A high level of support, commonly referred to as managed hosting would be just picking a home based on a template and everything is done for you by a contractor.

Sounds like an easy choice, right?  Not necessarily.  For some websites and applications, a managed environment would be perfectly suited to the job.  There’s a lot to be said for the hands-off approach where all the real technical stuff is handled by hosting support personnel.  Usually, the trade of for managed hosting is giving up the freedom of using/selecting a lot of the hosting tools yourself.  There’s a lot to be said for the freedom of being able to build out your own environment.  Talk with your development team to decide what kind of support your site or application needs or might need a year or two down the line.

4. Help and technical support

We all like to support local and small businesses, but this is an area where the giants usually capitalize and really have the smaller companies beat.  There will almost certainly be times where something goes wrong and you need something fixed like right now.  The availability of 24/7 technical support is invaluable and gets used more often than you might think.  That’s not to say the more boutique choices don’t have great help staff on demand, but the big hosting providers have an army of support agents ready to help at a moment’s notice.  Think carefully about what level of technical support your website or application might require when choosing a hosting plan.

Hopefully this information can help you be more informed when you’re looking for a web host.  Don’t be afraid to talk to sales staff and ask questions about the features a company provides, it can be the smallest details that might tip you towards one provider or another.  Get these details from your project scope and your developers and go find some great web hosting!