Once you've arranged your domain and web hosting, there are other things to consider
Although all web-hosting companies essentially provide the same thing - namely storage space on a server for a website - that’s far from the full extent of their services.
Indeed, when you register a domain and buy a hosting package you may find that you’re offered a bunch of other online services, from extra email inboxes to web-design tools. Not all are essential, but a basic understanding of what these are eases the choice of host. So read on to get the lowdown on what else a web-hosting company can do for your website, besides simply hosting it.
Server storage and bandwidth
The two key requirements from a web-hosting company are storage space and bandwidth. Storage space is the amount of hard-disk space a website occupies on a web server. A blog that’s mostly text and graphics will usually take up no more than around 50MB, for example, but an online photo gallery with hundreds of high-resolution images will need more.
Bandwidth refers to the amount of data that each visitor downloads from a site when they view one of its pages. A simple site with few visitors might only use a few hundred megabytes (MB) of bandwidth each month, whereas a site such as ours might have to deliver hundreds of gigabytes (GB).
Hosting companies usually offer tiered services for storage and bandwidth, with users paying more as requirements increase. Popular web-hosting companies such as Fasthosts, Easily, Strato, 1&1 and 123-reg all offer between 1GB and 15GB of storage space, plus unlimited bandwidth, for around £5 per month. However, unlimited bandwidth isn’t a given: 34SP, for example, limits bandwidth to 20GB a month with its cheapest package and charges a little extra if this is exceeded. Whatever the case, more storage and bandwidth can always be added to a site as required, without affecting its operation. Moreover, know that some ‘unlimited’ deals may be subject to ‘fair use’ terms, whereby use deemed ‘abusive’ may attract penalties or extra charges.
One reason for registering a domain name is to have a personalised email address - Dave Perkins might fancy firstname.lastname@example.org, for example. Web hosts usually provide an email service as part of a hosting package, but some also offer it separately for people who want a personal email address without an associated website.
Email forwarding is the simplest option for a personalised email address and there are two options. ‘Catch-all’ forwarding doesn’t provide a specific email address as such but just forwards all email sent to the domain, regardless of what comes before the @ symbol. This can make email management a little tricky, since spammers tend to generate email addresses randomly and anything sent to the perkins.co.uk domain (with our example) will be forwarded along with genuine messages.
A better option is to use an email ‘alias’ and hosting companies that offer this allow one or more specific email addresses, based on the domain name, to be created. Only messages sent to these valid addresses are then forwarded - everything else is rejected.
Whichever option is used, email forwarding still needs an active email account elsewhere to act as an inbox for forwarded email. Gmail is a good choice for this because it can also be configured to make sent emails appear as though they’re from any email address. So someone who sends an email to email@example.com will get a reply from firstname.lastname@example.org, even though the recipient is using Gmail.
A full web-hosting package, on the other hand, usually provides a full email server with one or more mailboxes - specific email addresses that have their own Pop or Imap server. The only practical difference to a forwarding service is that a third-party email address isn’t required for sending and receiving email, and it’s instead done via the web host’s webmail service or with a suitably configured email application.
Paying for storage on a web server is one thing but doing something useful with it is another. Easily offers an optional website-creation tool called My Website that takes the hard work out of building a bespoke site, while other hosting companies offer one-click installations of Wordpress and similar blogging tools. Such tools remove the need to manually upload program files and run software installations, but all web hosts still allow this via FTP - something that can be used for uploading and downloading files in bulk, too.
Setting up a content-management system (CMS) of any kind also requires a database to hold its content and almost all hosting packages provide one as part of the deal - and SQL databases are the industry standard (so this is what to shop for). Those one-click installation options make use of this automatically, but it’s also usually possible to access the database, along with other web-hosting features, via a web-based control panel. Few people need this low-level access but it can be useful for checking ongoing bandwidth use and other simple tasks.
What kind of host?
Many affordable hosting packages provide ‘shared’ or ‘virtual’ hosting, which means your website runs on one of the hosting company’s servers alongside many other websites. This is adequate for sites that don’t attract too many visitors but not for very popular ones. Running multiple websites on one server is like running multiple programs on one PC - there are only so many resources to go around and a site that needs more than its fair share will end up running slowly.
Sites that attract lots of traffic are better off with ‘dedicated’ hosting, which means they get a server to themselves - and the greater amount of resources that come with it. Dedicated hosting costs more than shared hosting (and is often billed as ‘business’ hosting).
Most web-hosting companies offer similar basic features but compare providers closely if a specific feature is important. Don’t rely on a company’s website for proof of its good service - check its support forums and other discussion areas, such as our own forums, for feedback from customers before committing to a contract.
Uptime and support
Perhaps the most important measure of any hosting company is server uptime. Put simply, you want to know that your website will work all day, every day. Good hosting companies will have at least two data centres (rooms full of servers) in different parts of the country to protect against power cuts and other potential problems but such things as backup electricity generators and fire-protection systems are also commonplace.
Around-the-clock technical support is also important. Hosting companies seldom allow customers physical access to their web server, so having someone on hand to address problems that can’t be dealt with remotely is a must - so check the service-level agreement before committing to a contract.
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