Web hosting is one of those things that all websites rely on but few site owners tend to know much about. Website hosting is often chosen as an afterthought, but it is an incredibly important decision for your digital marketing efforts. If you are a non-technical site owner, how do you know what kind of hosting your website needs? Even more important, how do you know if the hosting account that your site has been on for years is keeping up with technology?
If you own a website and need to consider whether the type of hosting your website relies on is adequate to meet today’s tech demands, read on to discover important points to consider with your website’s host.
- How Does a Website Work & Why Does it Need to be Hosted?
- So, What is Website Hosting?
- Common Web Hosting Terminology
- Understanding Your Website’s Hosting Account’s Limits
- The Real Cost of Cheap Web Hosting
- Questions You Should Be Asking Your Web Hosting Provider
- A Final Word About Web Hosting
How Does a Website Work and Why Does It Need to Be Hosted?
Your website is really nothing more than a bunch of files, arranged into neat little folders, and stored in a location where other people can access them from a web browser. Each page, or “file”, is written in a scripting language that your browser knows how to read and display, known as HTML. Commands and words on the HTML file talk to the browser so that the browser displays the website the way that the website owner intends.
There are different types of websites that use different scripting languages, each a bit different in capabilities and commands. The most common website language is PHP and this is what WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are written in. PHP is very capable of doing more than just displaying words as it can offer up conditions to the browser that, if met, will force the browser to display one thing or another. For example, the PHP file may have a condition to render a login screen to a site visitor that has not yet logged into a website, but render an account page for a user that has logged in.
Some websites are just simple files and only display very basic pages with nothing but text and styles. But, in today’s digital world, most websites rely on a database to store the text, images, and information that is to be displayed on the pages. A database driven website is also known as a dynamic website. A good example of how a dynamic website works can be seen by looking at the pages of the website. If you have a five-page website and everything on every page is identical except for the text and images in the very center of each page, then why have to create five separate pages?
By using a database to hold the page content, a dynamic website would only need one file and it would retrieve and display the content intended for each page by determining the menu link that the site visitor was accessing. It just retrieves the content for each specific page from the database. For this reason that dynamic websites are more efficient as they cut down on the repetitive nature of basic websites.
In order for a website to be seen by site visitors it has to served up to their browser via a server. A server can host many accounts, with a limitation of the size of the storage the server is providing. Just like some file cabinets are bigger than others, some servers have more storage than others.
So, What is Website Hosting?
But those dynamic files need to be stored in a place that has the correct type of software to store them, that can display them to the browser, that can be accessed by the public, and that can be, ideally, kept secure from intruders trying to exploit the website. That is where a website hosting account comes in. The web hosting is located on a server that is connected to the internet and has an open port that allows other people to get to it, sort of like a highway. The server software reads the files and translates them into web pages, then serves them up when a site visitor types in the location of the server. The location of the server is usually a series of numbers similar to a phone number. That number is known as the IP address. But to make it easier for people to access the website’s server, domain names are used instead of IPs, so typing in a domain name brings a site visitor to the website server’s address .
You can think of a website hosting company as someone who owns lots and lots of file cabinets. Each file cabinet has many drawers and each drawer is a hosting account where the website’s files, database, and software pieces are stored. Some of the file cabinets they keep for themselves, and they rent the drawers out to individuals who want to have a hosting account but don’t know how to maintain a server. Most hosting companies will have different levels of services and server setups but tend to keep the lowest standards for their standard hosting accounts in order to keep costs low.
They also rent some of those file cabinets out to professionals who have the technical expertise to work with them. Those professionals that rent them tend to install additional security measures and tend to allow fewer website hosting accounts on a single server so that assets don’t get depleted, site speed won’t be negatively impacted, and security can be better managed. These are referred to as dedicated servers which are what we use at Moore Tech Solutions.
Common Web Hosting Terminology
Web hosting terminology can be extremely confusing and many of the terms are often bandied about by professionals who are familiar with their meaning. In order to help you to become better informed, we have included a list of common terms and how each relates to website hosting.
A domain name, like mooretechsolutions.com or senioridy.com, is purchased by an individual or a company from a domain name service provider for a certain term (the longer the better). This is the website address that site visitors type into a browser bar that directs them to the website. The domain name delivers site traffic to the I.P. address of the server. So, for example, if you type mooretechsolutions.com into your browser bar the browser would deliver you to the mooretechsolutions.com website located at the IP: 22.214.171.124. While there is some technical information surrounding what the IP address formatting and history are, that is not very useful information in regard to hosting decisions so we will leave that discussion for another day.
You may not realize it, but when you visit a website that has a little padlock in the browser bar your browser is telling you that the website has been secured with a security certificate. If you were to copy and paste that address into a word file, you’d notice that the “http” position of the website actually says “https”, indicating that it has been secured with a security certificate. This is also known as an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate.
A security certificate has two main functions The first is that it confirms that the website you are visiting is the verified website. That’s really important in today’s world of hacking and phishing. The site has a numbered certificate that works like a key where the browser is looking for a specified sequence of numbers and the certificate provides it for the website. It unlocks an additional layer of security protection like a blanket over the website known as SSL.
The second function of the security certificate is to provide encryption services as part of that blanket. Encryption takes the readable text that has been input into the website’s forms and jumbles it into unreadable pieces that can only be unjumbled with the security key. So, when you fill out a form with your information, that information is jumbled into a long string of code, and it stays jumbled until it ends up in the server’s database where the key unlocks it and unscrambles it.
Ecommerce sites are almost always required to be secured with a certificate by the merchant services that handle the customer’s payments. Furthermore, sites that are not secured with a security certificate often times will be ignored by search engines, who penalize unsecure websites by not indexing them in their search engine results. For more information on the impact of a security certificate on your search engine results read our Google Highlighting the Importance of Encryption post.
cPanel, a branded name for a specific type of server Control Panel, is very similar to the admin panel of a WordPress site. It provides a user interface for performing maintenance tasks and for configuring things. Now, if you think about it, you don’t really need to have an admin panel in WordPress to perform all of that stuff. If you knew how to code and were comfortable around a database, you could go straight into the database or the server’s files to get the site’s settings the way you’d like. But that is not only very time-consuming it’s also fraught with dangers and definitely not recommended for the unexperienced website owner. The same thing is true of the server.
cPanel is installed on a server to act as an interface for web developers to perform common server tasks quickly and easily. The most common tasks that web developers tend to perform on the server via the cPanel interface are:
- Files uploading and deletion
- Setting up backup automations (if the server is capable)
- Adjusting PHP versions (if the server is capable)
- Accessing the database via the phpMyAdmin interface
- Setting up emails and email routing
- Checking server logs
- Configuring and optimizing the server
Once again, all of the items can be accomplished without using cPanel by accessing the server via SSH and using a computer’s command line interface. But there are some very good reasons that you wouldn’t want your web developer to have to perform server-side work in this manner:
- Many web hosting servers won’t allow access this way as the port to SSH is often closed off.
- It is very, very easy for an inexperienced (or even an experienced) web developer to run a command that can kill the whole site in a flash. Boom. Gone.
- It takes longer. Why should that matter to you? Web designers and web developers tend to charge by the hour so work that needs to be performed on a server that has no cPanel is going to cost you quite a bit more. A common task in cPanel may only take a few minutes but the same task using command line may take hours, especially if the web developer is not familiar with the site or the server.
While there are some hosts that use proprietary server administrative panels, like GoDaddy, the bulk of the more professional grade servers almost all use the cPanel interface. If your hosting account does not use cPanel, you may end up paying more money for website maintenance if your developer or designer has to perform any work at the server level.
A database is like an excel workbook with a bunch of sheet tabs. Only the sheets are called tables, and each table stores information about a specific item on the website. If you have a Joomla! or WordPress website, each plugin or extension on your site will have its own table. The table will have rows and columns and each cell will hold some information (data). For example, if your website has a blog then you will have a table with those posts, each post on its own row. The columns will be things like the post ID, post created date, author, status, title, permalink, content, and featured image.
The database can be most easily accessed via the phpMyAdmin interface so that website data can be accessed or manipulated. Be aware that not all web hosts provide phpMyAdmin so costs for performing maintenance on those servers will tend to be higher.
Disk space on a server is no different than disk space on your local computer. It is the amount of space that you have to store items. But not all hosting companies are equal when it comes to disk space. Most companies will offer plans for a set amount of space for a given price but it’s important to note that some will only sell you up to a certain amount of space before they require you to purchase your own separate server which may or may not come with support to manage it.
Bandwidth is the capacity of data being transferred during a given amount of time. You can think about bandwidth like a highway. A big wide highway may have multiple lanes which would allow the transfer of more vehicles at one time. A small, country highway may be one skinny lane that only allows a small amount of traffic at one time.
In website hosting, the amount of bandwidth is accumulated in units per month. During each month, the amount of data being transferred back and forth between your website and the site visitors is tallied up. If you exceed your month’s allotment of bandwidth, you’d have to either step up to a higher hosting account or wait until the beginning of the next month for the bandwidth limit to reset to 0 again.
Even if your website hosting account reports that it has “unlimited bandwidth” you will likely find that to be misleading. Most hosting accounts that offer unlimited bandwidth have a set amount of maximum bandwidth that they reveal in the small print of their terms and conditions. Many a website owner has been lured into cheap hosting with unlimited bandwidth to find that their website goes down near the end of every month due to bandwidth overages.
Understanding Your Website’s Hosting Account’s Limits
Hosting accounts are sold as packages with given limits, most of which you won’t learn about until you have exceeded any of those limits. Hosting companies seem to go out of their way to hide the important little details about plan limits until after you’ve signed on. So, make sure to ask about your web hosting account limits before you sign on the dotted line. Here are a few things to ask about:
- Website Hosting Uptime – Every hosting company has the ability to provide you with the amount of time, in percentages, that the server is up and running in a given year. You will want to find a hosting company that touts at least 99% uptime.
- Automatic Scaling – automatic scaling is what is needed to prevent a site from going down under unusually heavy traffic. If you have a scheduled online event you will want to make sure that your host can handle scaling up resources quickly and automatically well before the event is scheduled.
- Restorable Automated Backups – Automated backup are definitely not available with all hosting accounts. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them on standard accounts. Restorable backups are even harder to find. A standard backup is a copy of your sites files and sometimes the SQL database file. You can take this copy to a new server to use as a method to restore your website. However, much work must be done to create the new account, the new database, and the restoration sequence to get the site up and running. A restorable backup can be restored on the spot and the entire website is restored back with the click of a button.
- Website Hosting Support Policy – Many, many hosts will farm out their customer support to outside, overseas companies. All websites will go down at some point, whether it be for a brief maintenance period or a long-drawn-out problem. How good your hosting account is depends on how good your support is. “Good” web hosting support is like a “good” doctor, you never know how good or bad they are until there is an emergency. Be sure to find out about your website’s hosting support policy. Will they cover you in an emergency or expect you to fend for yourself?
The Real Cost of Cheap Web Hosting
How would you feel about placing your Porsche 911 Turbo in a rickety garage? So much money and effort goes into building a business: the costs for online presence, the struggle to get indexed by search engines’ results, the tons and tons spent on marketing. There is so much money that can be thrown away due to a cheap hosting account. When your website isn’t up when it should be, when a search engine crawls it and its pages are slow to load, when your customer leaves your website because it doesn’t perform well enough or fast enough…all of that has associated costs. The difference between the cost of very good hosting and not very good hosting is typically about 25 bucks a month. Your online presence represents your company to the public online, why risk that with cheap hosting?
Questions You Should Be Asking Your Hosting Provider
What is your uptime?
If your hosting provider can’t guarantee that you will have at least 99% uptime, then don’t waste your time with them
If I need Elastic or Automatic Scaling – do you offer it?
Planned events can cost quite a lot to set up and market. If you have a planned event and expect a lot of simultaneous users make sure that your hosting account can handle it.
What is your support policy?
Your website is up 24/7 – your hosting account service should be as well. Make sure to find out if your hosting account is hosted on a server that is attended to at all hours of the day, even during holidays.
Do you offer automatic and restorable backups?
You will not only want to find out if backups are available, but you’ll also want to know who is responsible for setting them up and taking them. You will also want to know how a backup is restored and who is responsible for restoring it.
What kind of server software do you use?
The typical software for a WordPress or Joomla! Hosting account will be Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. If they use cPanel and Lightspeed, all the better.
Where is the hosting server located?
Make certain that your website server is located in the US.
Is an SSL Security Certificate Included?
Not all hosting providers will give you a security certificate. If it is not included in your hosting account a separate certificate will need to be purchased and installed by an outside party.
What kind of firewalls and security measures do they have in place?
Any site can be hacked, on any server. Check with your host to see what measures they take to reduce the risks.
If I want to pack up my site and move to a different provider, will you help with that?
No one should ever feel obligated or tethered to a web designer or developer. If you want to move your site to a different provider, you will want to know that the process would be relatively quick and easy.
If I want another website designer or developer to have access to cPanel or FTP can that be arranged?
A site owner has the right to have his website worked on by the professionals that they hire. Development access to the server and files via FTP should be something that can be easily set up.
A Final Word About Web Hosting
So much thought goes into what a business’s online presence should be. From the costs of the logo, the branding, the marketing, and the advertising, it takes effort to have a successful online presence. A portion of that effort should therefore also go into how solid the website’s hosting server is. There is so much more than cost when it comes to web hosting as the overall value has a lot more to do with the software and the services than with the nickels and dimes.
At Moore Tech Solutions, we offer web hosting for all kinds of websites including WordPress, Joomla! HTML, and other websites as well. If you would like to discuss having us move your existing website to our Solid-State Cloud-based lightspeed servers that are located here in the United States, then just reach out to us at (205) 414-1902 and we’ll be happy to make that move for you.
Or reach out to us by using our contact form.