If you’ve got a website it will need to be hosted somewhere, and there is a bewildering choice of the best website hosting services to choose from.
In this guide, I will tell you a bit about web hosting in general and how to get the best website hosting services for your company.
What are Website Hosting Servers
In short, web hosting is a service that refers to using a special computer (called a web server) to store your website and to serve it out to your customers or visitors when they want it.
A web server stores all the files that make your website work and either serves them out (delivers them) or processes them (executes coded instructions) when your visitors ask for them using a web browser.
Just like the computer on your desktop a webserver has to have a set of electronic brains – cmos, bios and operating system. It has to have storage space (a hard drive for both the brains and the files it stores), and it has to be able to do processing (using the CPU) and to lots of things at once (using RAM).
Just like your desktop computer, it must have electrical power and safety features, and it must be switched on to operate.
Just like your PC, it needs updating and looking after and it needs protecting from threats. Sometimes hardware might need to be replaced and software might need changing or installing, and sometimes it might shut itself down if it overheats, gets stuck on a task, runs of memory or processing power – sound familiar?
Just like your desktop PC, a webserver will often need rebooting or switching off to do these things and sometimes the building it lives in will have a power failure and it’ll switch off accordingly.
If you switch off your desktop PC everything stops working, and if you switch off a web server everything stops working too (ie all the sites it hosts will go down).
This is clearly a major problem if you’re trying to run a website or a company that needs its website up and running all the time.
In theory, you can connect virtually any computer to the internet and use it as a web server, but in practice that clearly won’t work very well if you need to shut it down from time to time.
Instead of running our sites ourselves on our own servers in our offices, most of us choose to purchase a hosting solution from a specialist hosting provider.
They are skilled at setting up and managing large numbers of servers and ensuring that your website will stay up and running on a 24/7 basis.
There are many choices of methods, providers and prices so what exactly do you get for your money and what choices do you have?
Different types of website hosting services
You can generally buy hosting on the following basis:
- Personal hosting – sometimes provided by your home ISP and intended for very basic non-commercial use (do not use this for your company website).
- Cheap shared commercial hosting – usually a few £’s per month and your site might be 1 of 100’s on the same web server.
- More expensive shared hosting – you share the server as above but pay more to have fewer sites sharing the server’s resources.
- Virtual private servers (VPS) – you share a physical server but have dedicated resources allocated to you (which can be scaled) so it’s like having your own server but cheaper.
- Dedicated servers – your own server not shared or used by anyone else.
How the best website hosting services are priced
The best website hosting services can vary greatly in price but in general, you do tend to get what you pay for.
Expensive hosting is expensive because it’s generally very good, fast, and reliable. Cheap hosting is cheap because you share the servers’ resources and power with lots of other sites and it’s likely to be slower and less reliable.
The following things affect the price you pay:
Bandwidth refers to how much content your website sends out to your visitors in file size terms (not the number of pages). The more data you send the more you pay. Big sites with lots of traffic need high bandwidth, and bandwidth is the most expensive part of the hosting package.
Physical storage (hard drive space)
Think of this as a warehouse. If your site has more content you’ll need a larger warehouse to store it all – just like running out of storage on your home PC. Storage space is pretty cheap now and you can usually buy lots of Gigabytes of storage for not too much and you can usually increase this if you need to.
If you want a nice fast website for your customers, and let’s face it don’t we all, then this is a very important part of the hosting service. Several things can affect server speed:
- How full is the hard drive (storage)?
- How fast is the processor (CPU), and is it being used efficiently?
- How much RAM memory is available – this gives the server the ability to do lost of things at once (something they really need to do well).
- How well connected the server is to the network.
- The geographical location of the server (relative to the visitors).
- How many sites does the server operate?
- How up to date is the operating system and software on the server.
Generally, the more you pay the better all of these are. Most of these server resources can also be increased if you pay more.
If your host provides other services like monitoring and maintenance, email servers, staging and development environments then these will also increase the price.
Where to buy the best website hosting services
Using your web design company
Using your web design company is a nice easy option if they offer a best website hosting services. Many offer hosting as part of a maintenance package and they will simply take care of it for you for a relevant fee.
Most web design companies do not operate the web hosting they sell you – they outsource it to specialist hosting companies and sell it on to their customers.
If you have this in place already or have an option for this, here are a few things to ask or consider:
- You should know exactly what is included and what is not.
- Find out what type of hosting package you’re getting.
- Ask if they outsource the service and who to – do your own research and make sure the 3rd party is reputable.
- Ask about any performance guarantees available. These are sometimes called SLA’s (service level agreements) and refer to uptime and performance of the server/s.
- Ask for a dashboard or monthly report that shows you some key facts and figures about your website and it’s hosting performance. (You might need to pay extra for this).
Buying your own hosting package.
There are lots of reputable hosting companies out there and sometimes sorting out your own host has some key advantages:
- You pay what you think is right and there’s no middle man making a markup.
- You’ll have direct contact with the host who may be able to help you with website problems.
- You can scale or move the hosting to suit you and can add other services if required.
- You might also host your domain (DNS) with the host and this can make setting up sites a little easier – see my guide on DNS for more info.
- Some hosts specialise in specific popular platforms, like WordPress for example, and have lots of inbuilt tools and scripts to help you.
However, there may also be some disadvantages to this approach:
- Not all hosts have immediate help and support if you have a problem and often it’s via email, not the phone.
- They won’t always help you with website specific issues and errors like poor coding and configuration (including your site being hacked).
- The host may not have servers in the UK (or your prefered geography) and they may not tell you that.
- You won’t have a single point of contact with the host unless you’re a huge customer.
- If you don’t keep your account info in good order you could end up missing a hosting payment and finding services stop working or your site goes down.
- You’ll need to learn how to use a host control panel (and/or give your web designer/developer access to it) to do some tasks.
- If you work with a web developer/designer on a new site they might charge more if you don’t host with them.
(I would charge a bit for this as I sometimes have to learn things about a host I haven’t worked with before, and they are not all the same.)
If you are considering this, here are a few things to ask or consider:
- Is this package the correct technology stack for your website?**
- You should know exactly what services are included and what isn’t.
- SSL certificates (which give you the means to run your site over HTTPS) usually cost more and are not included.
- Be aware of low-cost introductory offers – what is the normal price and is it more if you pay monthly rather than annually?
- What type of hosting package are you getting – shared, dedicated, VPS, cloud etc.
- What is the specification of the package you’re buying?
- Can you scale the hosting service (up or down) if you need to?
- Is there any reporting available?
- Do they offer any service monitoring and tell you if there are problems with the service or your website?
- Do they have other useful services like DNS and/or email you might like to use?
- What back up options do they have – these may not be included by default and usually automatic backups require additional payment?
- What control panel do they use – there are 2 very common control panels in use – Plesk and cPanel.
(They might offer their own and your web developers might not know it or like it.)
**If you do buy your own hosting make sure you choose a package that is suitable for the kind of site you have. This is sometimes called the stack. For example, WordPress is typically built and hosted on a Lamp Stack, which stands for; Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, although there are a few other options in this stack if you prefer them.
For something like WordPress, I would always recommend a WordPress specialist host like Pantheon or WP Engine, or at least a host package made for this type of site. These hosts offer a lot more than just basic hosting plans and can even offer fully managed services where they look after your site for you.
Inclusive design/build and host systems
If you made your website with a website builder like Wix or Squarespace then hosting is included as part of your monthly fee.
Tips for getting the best out of your website hosting service
- If you control your own hosting make sure you have logins to the control panel that the host provides – they should have sent you a username and password for this. If you have lost them try to recover or reset the passwords.
- If you have been given FTP and/or SFTP or SSL access information to the server itself please keep this safe. Web developers will need this for site maintenance and for key tasks like moving hosts, creating backups, and recovering from website issues.
- If you are not too sure what is happening with hosting in your business start with the money trail. Someone somewhere must be paying for it or will have in the past. Find out who and follow the trail until you can get all the information and access you need.
- Keep your hosting up to date and do any configuration updates or changes that the host recommends. Not all these are automatic and software on webservers gets out of date in just the same way it does on your mac or pc.
- If you have an SSL certificate on your host make sure you do not let it expire – let me just say loads of issues here if you do!
What do I use for the best website hosting services?
I don’t usually recommend specific products or services as what suits one organisation doesn’t always work for another so I usually recommend people research the large range of services available and pick something that fits them best.
However, in this area, lots of people ask me what I use to provide the services that I do and why I use them. I have of course also researched these things pretty thoroughly so here goes:
Domains and Email
I use the same provider for managing and buying domains and for providing email services (but crucially not hosting) gandi.net.
I use Gandi because their domain prices are competitive (not the cheapest but pretty similar to most others). They are also brilliant at managing domains have a good control panel, allow me to add other accounts for my customers so they can own and renew their domains themselves.
Crucially Gandi also offers very good email systems. They will give you 2 free IMAP email boxes for any domain you buy, renew or move to them and additional email boxes can be added for as little as £0.37 per box per month and a very reasonable £1.88 per month if you really feel you need an email box with 50GB of storage.
Gandi’s support is excellent and quick and it’s very easy to set up the email boxes on email clients and phones.
NB: I do not use Gandi for Web Hosting. It’s a service they offer and I am sure they are very good at it too, I just like to keep my hosting and domain and email services separate. If you want to do the same please be aware that some of the DNS setup will more complex than it would be if it were all with the same provider.
I use a combination of tools to help me provide and manage web hosting.
I use Digital Ocean as the primary hosting service. They have super fast VPS and Dedicated servers all over the world. These can be spun up and shut down in an instant if needed. They can be upgraded and downgraded at will and backed up and transferred and they have a huge range of other hosting and cloud-based IT solutions if you need them.
The downside with Digital Ocean is that there’s no human support much and they don’t do much for you. In basic terms, if you aren’t a server admin already and rather au fait with the command line you might struggle with it – there’s no control panel on your server unless you install one yourself with ssh access and the command line. If you lash up the server then you are relying on reinstalling a server back up yourself. In short, you kinda get a great engine for little money but you must sort the rest out yourself.
To make Digital Ocean easier to manage I also use ServerPilot which provides a nice simple user interface and some cool management tools to help me deploy websites and apps to my Digital Ocean servers really quickly and easily. They also have some other nice services like Hostlaunnch, free SSL certificates and a nice tool to help you move and migrate sites if you need to.