What hosting is

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The term ‘hosting‘, in a website context, refers to the storage, processing power, connectivity and other internet services required to maintain data and render the pages for a website. To better understand what hosting is, it helps to know a little more about how the Internet works.

Addressing what hosting is

In a not so metaphorical sense, the Internet is a massive worldwide network with millions, if not billions of people accessing it at any one time. When you connect to the internet through a modem or a high-speed broadband service, your computer connects to that network via your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Every computer that connects to the Internet is given its own ID number called an Internet Protocol address (IP for short). In a similar fashion to a phone number, this number is unique to your computer and is used by other computers around the world when communicating with it. With user connections, the IP address will be assigned to your computer by your ISP upon connection.

If we continue the theme of addresses, a website needs to be found by entering its domain (site) name. No-one is going to want to take the time to work out the IP address of a site (although this is of course possible if you know where to look). Without getting into the gritty detail, the domain name system is controlled by a number of authorities around to world to ensure that all domain names are unique and that requests sent to them route to a particular computer responsible for hosting the website in question. Thus requests for the domain webdezign.co.uk will be routed through to the computer on which our site is hosted. Web hosting companies thus have Domain Name Servers (DNS) which are used to finally route the requests to the correct machine.

Web Servers

To make a website available to the Internet public, it must be placed on a web server that is permanently online with a high speed connection. A web server is a specially configured computer, in most cases similar in performance to a high end desktop computer. It runs a web server version of either the Windows or Linux operating systems. In addition to standard operating system functionality, a web server includes, unsurprisingly, specific web services to allow the management of one or more websites, requests for web pages, security and other elements specific to the needs of a website. Web servers tend to be housed in large dedicated facilities, with rack after rack of web servers all whirring away. Although it is entirely possible to configure, host and manage your own web server at home, the costs and work involved in setting up and maintaining a web server are significant, as indeed are the costs of the high speed connection needed to connect to the internet and to handle a reasonable volume of requests. Thus most businesses and individuals alike choose to use a hosting company.

Email Servers

Most hosting companies have shared email servers. Even if your site is on a dedicated server you will often find that the emails for your site are handled on a separate mail server at the hosting company. Mail servers are a science in their own right and require a great deal of management. Some assessment of the hosting mail set-up can be important for sites planning to use email as a key component of their marketing strategy – not all mail servers are equal!

Shared or Dedicated

A properly configured web server can potentially handle hundreds of websites assuming none of them has a huge volume of traffic. Hosting companies tend to offer a range of packages from a small amount of space on a web server shared with hundreds of other sites through a “premium” type shared server with perhaps 10 or so sites all the way through to a dedicated server where you have the entire machine to yourself and may host one or more of your own sites exclusively.

Own Infrastructure or Reseller

Some hosting companies own the web severs, connections and even the building in which they are housed. Others resell the services of other hosting firms without actually owning the hardware. Although both types can deliver excellent service, those who own the infrastructure are generally closer to the detailed operation of the business and may be able to resolve issues more quickly.

Creating and Uploading Your Site

Site design and coding is a discipline in its own right which we cover elsewhere on our site. However, once you have the code for your site, you will need to connect to your web server to upload it. This will generally be via File Transfer Protocol (FTP) software (available free online) or perhaps via the connectivity of a web publishing package if you are using one.

Other Services

Hosting is a competitive business and hosting companies are offering ever more in the way of add-ons ranging from free domain registration (but be careful – you may not be able to move the domain from the host), photo libraries, consultancy services, site building software and various other “goodies”. Most of these tend to be targeted at the consumer market and are unlikely to be well suited to a serious commercial operation but they may represent a good point of entry for the novice.

Other Factors

In addition to the main factors of uptime (time the site is available without failure or planned maintenance) which should be 99 point something percent; support hours; service levels; excellent testimonials; and a suitable package, you need to look at any hidden costs. For example ecommerce sites will require SSL security which may come at a premium; some will charge a great deal for “bandwidth” as traffic to your site exceeds a certain level; some “free” or ultra low cost shared hosting will smother your site in hideous advertising. There are also a wealth of technical “nasties” inherent in some hosts and advice from a trusted agency partner is thus invaluable.

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