This is the section where I take the mess of information in your head, all the little bits and pieces you read online while trying to understand how to approach the building and maintenance of a website, and put things in their place.
It's going to be a painless ride, and by the time you reach the end of this web hosting guide, all of your questions will be answered. You won't be a guru yet, but you will have a clear idea of where to start and how to proceed.
Let's start with the basics and gradually progress.
Without getting all historical and sentimental, I'll stick to the current and modern definitions of the terms below. My goal isn't to teach you about the history of the internet, but rather about how things work today.
A website is a group of files which are accessible to anyone on the World Wide Web.
These files can be of all sorts:
There are 2 main groups of sites:
Any site that simply presents information in any form and has no special function.
Nowadays, most static sites are managed by Content Management Systems (CMS) - which are tools where you can type in some text, or upload some images, and easily design it, much like in MS Word.
You might have heard about Wordpress.
That's right, that small company you know of that has something to do with building sites. Well, their first and main product was a very neat and user-friendly CMS for bloggers.
As a matter of fact, this very site was built using a CMS: (not Wordpress, though)
These are sites which provide you access to using any type of software in your browser - (an application).
Web apps, much like mobile apps, have a function; unlike static sites they have to go through a process of computation before presenting you with information - you do something and the app responds with a result after thinking about it for a few milliseconds.
Twitter and Facebook are prime examples of web apps - they offer a variety of functions with one main goal (or functionality):
Twitter allows you to tweet out in to the world and to listen to others tweeting.
In fact, it's full of other tiny functions, which all require the software to think and respond. In this image which I snapped on Twitter, the green circles mark the secondary functions of the web app: reply, retweet, like, and view more options.
Regardless of website type, any website needs to be somewhere for you or anyone else to access it, and this somewhere is a web hosting server.
A domain is the public name of a site, and it's what you type in your browser's address bar when you try to access a site.
A standard domain is a combination of several parts. I'll use news.yahoo.com as an example to explain each of the parts:
This is the .com part. Top level domains are managed by organizations like ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which are responsible for all the technical management behind it.
There are two types of TLDs:
This is the yahoo part in our example.
It's actually the best part, because you can really customize it, assuming the domain name you want isn't already taken by someone else.
This is the news. part of the example.
Although it's not mandatory, you can have different subdomains on your site to separate sections of it. For example, you can have your site translated to different languages, and use a different subdomain for each language, like so:
In order to own a domain, you'll need to register it with a domain registrar and pay all the applicable fees.
Depending on the registrar and the TLD you choose, an average standard domain costs $12/month.
Take a look at my recommended domain registrars.
There are also premium domains which are usually either a very short name or a very popular expression, which could cost you an arm and a leg.
Most web hosting providers offer a free domain if you register with them, but you should know that you can register a domain with one company and buy web hosting from another company.
It doesn't have to be connected.
The internet is an interconnected network of computers - the World Wide Web.
Just like in cities around the world where every apartment has an address, every computer has an address on the web.
This is called an IP address:
The acronym IP stands for Internet Protocol. The address consists of 4 numbers each between 0 and 255, which are separated by 3 dots, like this: 126.96.36.199
It's really all very technical and you don't need to go any deeper down the rabbit hole at this stage.
What you do need to know is that when you visit any website, the site's domain name (i.e. google.com) is translated to an IP address. This is done on the Domain Name Server, a.k.a. DNS.
Here's a quick breakdown of how it works, just so you see how simple it really is.
However, it's not always like that.
Sometimes your computer will know the answer because you've visited the site in the past. In other cases, your ISP will know the answer because one of its customers visited that website.
Once you reach the website, which is google.com in this example, you can use it.
So what happens next?
Well, every site has a different function and goal, but since we're talking about google, you're going to search for something. And here's how it works:
Now that you understand how the web works, we can move on to the most important part of this web hosting guide.
Web hosting is a crucial part of the "holy trinity" of building and publishing a website.
The trinity is this:
A web server is just a computer!
Well, not just any computer... But rather a faster, stronger, fiercer machine with hardware that not just anyone can afford. You could, theoretically, host a website on your own computer but that would be a silly idea.
Because your computer's hardware and your personal internet connection are designed for personal use and aren't remotely as strong nor as fast as the web server.
So, there are companies known as web hosts or web hosting providers who allow you to place your site's files or web app's software on their servers, which everyone can access.
Depending on what type of hosting and which hosting plan you choose, you're usually limited by a number of factors, such as:
But more on that later.
For different needs and different types of customers, there are different types of web hosting.
These are the most popular plans offered by the best hosting companies, and which are usually suitable for personal sites and medium-to-small businesses:
Lower on this web hosting guide I will outline the price ranges and factors to consider when deciding which type of webhosting to use.
Other types of hosting terms you might have stumbled upon are not really relevant to anyone who is reading this article, so I won't be talking about them in this article:
Protip: If you're starting out with a cheap hosting plan, make sure you have easy upgrade options available before signing up.
So, how do you choose?
The answer to this question is a question:
What are your needs?
In this section of my web hosting guide you will learn about the factors you need to consider when deciding which type of web hosting you need to choose for your website, and about the different types of web hosting plans you can purchase.
Ideal webmasters: Amateurs / hobbyists / students
Suppose you're a young artist and you want to share your art with the world. You're not very famous or popular (yet), and everybody knows that young artists don't have a great deal of available funds.
This is a case when free web hosting is a great solution.
It's just like your friend's small basement room where you currently live, and since you're not expecting a lot of folks to come by your website, it works for you as long as it's free.
One drawback is that if more than a few people come over all of a sudden, it will be really difficult to move in that room; similarly, your website will be extremely slow when overloaded by visitors.
And of course, nothing is ever absolutely free - your hosting provider will be showing ads near your thought-provoking art. Think about it like a corporate sponsorship for struggling artists, you don't like it but it pays for the hosting costs.
If you expect to make a living off your website, it will need to perform well, to be nice and slick, and to be able to support at least an average amount of concurrent visitors. This means that free hosting is not the solution for you.
Cost: Under $10 per month
Ideal webmasters: Young entrepreneurs / new small business owners
Let's say that you decide to open a local coffee shop / juice bar.
You know in your heart of hearts that your product is the best; you use only fresh fruit and roast your coffee beans right there where everyone can see. You need to get the word out, and standing on the corner handing out leaflets (while still a solid marketing strategy) is so 1994. Besides, who will mind the shop while you're gone?
This is the case where you should invest in shared webhosting.
Your café's website simply can't have ads all over the place (like with free webhosting) because it doesn't look professional. Besides, if several average customers arrive every month to your shop thanks to your site, you will have already covered the shared web hosting costs.
Shared hosting, just like it sounds, is when many websites are hosted on one server and they all share the resources of that machine. So if there's one website with a high surge of traffic, other sites on the same server might be affected and their visitors will experience lags (slow response time) to actions they perform - like going from page to page.
It's very rare and unlikely that you will share a server with heavily visited websites because webmasters tend to upgrade their hosting plan according to their growing needs.
Furthermore, it's important to note that no matter what your web hosting provider promises in regards to unlimited bandwidth, there's always fine print to watch out for. Web hosting providers impose strict limitations on shared hosting plans, and usually you can find them in their terms and conditions or on the page for pricing packages and specs of shared hosting plans.
For example, this is how Hostgator explains their unmetered bandwidth that is provided with shared web hosting plans:
It's unmetered for fair use. But if you exceed what they consider fair use, you will be warned.
There's nothing wrong with it, but it's important that you understand what it means when promises of "unlimited everything" pursue you around the provider's website.
Basically, this policy is great for all the webmasters sharing the server because if you enjoy so much website traffic that you repeatedly go over your limits, it means it's time to upgrade!
Cost: Between $30 and $70 per month
Ideal webmasters: Advanced / small to medium business owners
If you have an active small business which brings in a steady income, and your site's steady performance is important for you, you should be looking at VPS web hosting.
This is the well-balanced middle ground between the resource-scarce shared hosting plans and the expensive dedicated hosting plans.
While with shared hosting you and a 100 other webmasters are crammed into a large lobby, a virtual private server is more like a hotel where there are different types of rooms and suites, and their cost is defined more or less according to size and how luxurious they are.
Each webmaster can decide which room is best for them and usually upgrade to a bigger room when necessary. Nobody else is sharing your room, but they're still in the same hotel as you are right behind the wall.
In this analogy, the hotel is the physical server and the wall is the virtual partition on the server, which separates the resources your neighbors' sites consume from yours.
As your web traffic steadily rises and more people come to your site, you might experience a gradually-rising impact on performance.
This means you need to move to a bigger room - which for VPS means to request the webhosting provider for more system resources to be allocated for your website. It's even better to plan this move before you begin to experience performance issues.
Since in most cases the most suitable web hosting solution is either a shared hosting plan or a VPS plan, this is a good point in the web hosting guide to compare between the two and explain the differences, so that you can decide which type of hosting solution is better for you.
There are several important differences between VPS and shared webhosting:
Shared hosting is a first-come first-served type of situation. There's a limited amount of resources allocated to everyone all at once, and everyone can use them. When the system resources are in full use, everybody is affected.
With VPS hosting that's not the case.
Each webmaster has their own bundle of allocated system resources and doesn't depend on the usage of others. When you need more resources, you can upgrade your hosting plan.
Shared hosting doesn't allow you full control over the server, and in some cases you will have to request your web host to make software configuration changes when you need such changes done.
With VPS hosting you get full administrative access to configure your virtual server according to your needs from your control panel.
While with shared hosting plans the system is managed and maintained by the web hosting provider, with VPS hosting plans the webmaster is usually responsible for maintenance.
So should you choose to go with VPS hosting, make sure you have the technical knowledge to manage a VPS, or that you have a person on your team with sufficient IT skills.
When you use shared hosting, everybody on that web server shares the same IP address, which is far from ideal.
VPS hosting plans provide you with a unique IP address that's not connected to any other webmasters, which is a great benefit for two reasons:
Clearly, shared hosting is much cheaper than a VPS, but it's only significant if you're on a really tight budget.
When you have a website with several hundreds of visitors every day and your budget allows for it, a VPS hosting plan is a good investment. Especially if you intend to grow.
Cost: Between $70 and $250 per month (sometimes more)
Ideal webmasters: IT professionals / big businesses
If you're reading this article, the odds are you don't need a dedicated server hosting plan, but it's always good to learn, right?
A dedicated web server is a powerful computer that's all yours (for as long as you pay for the dedicated webhosting plan), and that's why it's so expensive. It's like renting a whole bus as opposed to buying a bus pass.
You can do anything you want with this server because it's fully dedicated to your needs. Install any software you need, and set it up according to your specific needs.
This is an investment you should consider when you have the scale of thousands of visitors every day or even more, when you have very specific software needs which require a customized set up, and when you need to have tight security and your own trusted professionals to handle the day-to-day routines and of course, to respond in case of an emergency.
Uptime is money!
When your website experiences performance issues, or you find out that Anonymous have a bone to pick with you and suddenly somebody is trying to hack your database of innocent and trusting customers, your team needs to act fast and make sure your website continues to operate seamlessly with minimal to no interruptions.
Cost: Flexible, depends on resource usage
Ideal webmasters: Medium to large news sites / viral content publishers
Cloud based web hosting is a flexible type of VPS hosting solution.
The resource limitations change dynamically according to your current needs - and the more resources you use, the more you pay.
This solution is perfect for websites which experience unexpected surges of traffic from time to time. A good example for this is what happens to news sites in the midst of a national crisis, a viral story, or a terror attack.
Cloud hosting differs from VPS hosting because with a cloud-based solution, you're not sharing one virtually-compartmentalized web server with other webmasters, but rather you're sharing a pool of resources spread out across several machines with all the other webmasters who paid for a cloud hosting plan.
From the last sentence, you might get the impression that cloud web hosting is a bit like shared hosting, but the difference (and big advantage) here is that heavy resource usage by other webmasters has absolutely no effect on you. Your webhosting provider (assuming it's a reliable company) will have a large buffer to have enough resources for surges of traffic that might happen on multiple websites at once.
While most VPS and dedicated servers use the hardware (storage, RAM & processors) of one physical machine, with cloud-based hosting solutions the hardware is spread out across multiple web servers and can be used according to your needs at the necessary time.
As I already mentioned, shared hosting offers mainly managed hosting plans, while the more advanced solutions are unmanaged or to put it more accurately, you have the option to manage your web hosting server yourself.
The operative word in the last sentence?
When shared hosting is just not enough for you, but you don't have the professional knowledge required for web server management, web hosting providers are happy to manage your web server for you extremely professionally for a small additional fee.
This includes updating your web server's software, solving network issues, setting up your firewall, and other configurations.
Assuming it's not already included in the more advanced hosting plans (like cloud or dedicated server web hosting), the prices for managed web hosting are based on the number of hours you need. Sometimes you can purchase a package of several monthly hours for a lower hourly rate, or you can just pay only when something needs to be done. Typically, the hourly rate for additional hosting management services ranges between $30 and $50.
Once again, it's not always the case:
For example, the VPS hosting plans that GreenGeeks and HostGator offer are fully managed by default. You can usually choose to manage your server yourself even if your hosting company provides you with free management services by default, but you're already paying for it, so...
You might stumble across the term semi-managed hosting, which might mean slightly different things from host to host, but what it basically means is that the technical support team will handle basic stuff, like hardware issues or operating system configuration.
What both fully managed and semi-managed web hosting services include may differ from provider to provider, so check on the host's site (or ask their support/sales team) what services they actually do and do not provide, or read our web hosting reviews where we cover it to the best extent possible.
Now that you understand what choices you have in terms of host features and budget requirements, you can choose a web host more easily and publish your website.
Most webmasters will find that either shared web hosting or VPS hosting is the best hosting plan they can choose. If you're a more advanced user, and/or you have a more popular website or a network of sites, you should consider a more complex solution like scalable cloud web hosting, or even a dedicated server. Assuming your budget allows for this, of course.
Here's a small web hosting comparison table to summarize everything I mentioned up to this point:
So, now that you're well-versed in the different types of web hosting, you can confidently zone in on one of the options outlined above in this awesome web hosting guide.
Web hosting plans are pre-set bundles of web server resources you can receive for a certain monthly price.
If we go back to the hotel analogy, you might remember choosing a room. Well, the next stage is to decide whether you want breakfast included. How about lunch? Dinner?
Each included meal will make your stay pricier, and it's exactly the same principle with web hosting providers.
Suppose you decide to use VPS web hosting:
More often than not, upon signing up you will face a selection of several plans each one diffrent from the other by the amount of resources for which you'll be eligible.
Here's an example which I also presented in our InMotion hosting review:
As you see, the more expensive a plan is, the more computing power, storage, and bandwidth you enjoy.
Here's a quick explanation about what each of these terms (and a few other key factors) means:
RAM is the most popular type of memory chip used in computers, smartphones, tablets, and other computing machines.
Over the course of a computer's work day, it has to remember certain things, and that's the purpose of RAM. The best analogy is a piece of paper you keep handy during your work day to take notes in order not to forget phone numbers or important stuff to do that same day. When you go home, you toss that piece of paper.
When you shut down or restart your computer, the RAM clears itself as well.
In case you're wondering (and obviously paying attention), I'll clarify that shared hosting plans don't guarantee you a specific amount of memory because as explained I previously, you and other users share one machine and use this resource according to your needs.
This is a web hosting guide, so if you want to learn about RAM in depth try this article.
A hard disk drive consistes of several parts, the main of which is a disk, or a set of disks, each covered by magnetic coating on each side.
Another part of the HDD can write information on these magnetic disks. Now, I don't mean write like a pen, but rather in a series of binary (0 or 1) signals, which together can form and represent complex information.
The hard drive is used to store this complex information or data, which you most often encounter as files on your computer.
Every computer has a hard drive.
For a deeper understanding (which is not really necessary for this hosting guide) of how hard disks work, check out this video by Nick Parlante, a lecturer at Stanford's Computer Science Department, explaining how hard drives work.
Ever noticed how long it takes your computer to boot up before finally get a login request for your PC or Mac?
If your answer is yes, than you either have an HDD or really high performance standards. The solid state drive (SSD) plays the same role in the computer as a HDD...
But it's much faster!
The reason for this is that the SSD has no moving parts at all and the data is stored in micro chips instead of being stored on magnetic disks. Since it's significantly faster, the SSD costs a lot more than a regular hard drive, but like with any new technology, prices drop over time.
Nowadays, more and more hosting companies boast that they offer SSD storage as part of their web hosting plans.
I'll stop rambling now, because all you really need to know is:
For a detailed comparison between HDD and SSD, take a look at this page.
You might have heard the word bandwidth in the context of the upload/download speed your internet service provider allows you at any given moment.
This is not the case here.
With web hosting companies, bandwidth actually means a data cap. This is a limitation referring to the total amount of information you can send to and receive back from your site's users.
Well, it might be a bit tedious to actually calculate it, but if you do it once you can easily estimate your actual web hosting requirements and avoid over-paying for unnecessary and underused bandwidth.
In order to calculate how much bandwidth you need, you will need to know the size of each page (how much space it takes on your web server's hard disk) of your website, and then to try and predict how many people visit each page over the course of a month.
Let's do a math example:
Suppose you have a website with 2 pages:
|Page||Size (MB)||Monthly Visitors||Required Bandwidth (MB)|
The total bandwidth you can expect to use every month in this example would be the sum of the bandwidth required for each page: 15,100 MB, or 15.1 GB.
You can learn more about the measurement units in this wikipedia article. (which by the way, are also relevant for the RAM and HDD/SSD sections I wrote about earlier in this hosting guide)
Always get a package over your actual needs because with some providers and some hosting plans, going over the pre-packaged bandwidth may incurr overage charges (according to the Terms of Service).
Every command you give your computer is computed.
In a similar fashion, when your server receives a request from a visitor, the speed and abilities of your web server's CPU determine how fast it will send back a response for each request from the moment the request reached the server.
Today, a single-core CPU is rare to find even in older personal computers, and it's all about dual-core (2), tri-core (3), quad-core (4), and even 8-core processors.
Every core can think about one thing at a time, and perform actions in order as the commands arrive. A multi-core CPU can work on as many computations at the same time, as the number of cores it has.
Similar to RAM, this feature isn't something you will see in the hosting plan's specs if you choose a shared hosting plan.
More about CPU for the more relentless and curious readers, here.
When you're managing any complex service or process, you need a control panel for order and an easier work flow. Managing your web hosting server is no different.
You can use the control panel of your web server to access and manage every aspect of your operation, for example:
The most popular control panel used by web hosting providers is the cPanel, which is a Linux-based proprietary software. Proprietary means it isn't free.
On the bright side:
Most hosting plans include a cPanel or a similar control panel in the subscription price, and the hosting provider pays the licencing costs.
The number of domains question is pretty straightforward:
If you plan on hosting several sites, you should be looking at an unlimited web hosting providers like GreenGeeks or InMotion Hosting. You can use multiple subdomains on one domain for different purposes, like separating completely different sections of your website or creating a separate sub-domain for a translated version of your site.
If you know your needs and future goals, planning according to this criteria is really a no-brainer.
As I outlined earlier in this hosting guide, every website has an IP address. In some cases, one IP address is given to you and other several customers and shared by all of you (on free or shared webhosting), and in other cases your site has its own IP address.
Receiving more than one IP address from your web host allows you higher flexibility when you own more than one web site.
There are a few benefits to this but they require further explanation which I will cover in my advanced hosting guide. These are also the same advantages you may consider if you're deliberating between shared hosting and another, stronger solution.
I'll just list the few upsides of a dedicated IP per site:
I will elaborate about those and about more complicated features and options in my full guide to choosing a web hosting company.
In this article you learned:
In the next article I will cover everything related to choosing a web hosting provider, the factors you should consider, and the ones you should disregard.
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