Beginner’s Introduction to Web Hosting

If you’ve bought a domain for your website, next you need to choose how to host your website. This article will answer all your questions if this is your first site.

Buy your web hosting

Making the right choice on web hosting from the start can save a lot of pain later.

Once you’ve got a site up and running, you’re going to be very reluctant to move it without a good reason.

Even if you know what you’re doing, moving your domain and a live website can be a complete pain.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can feel like you’re punching yourself in the face. Just for reference, here’s the British boxer Tyson Fury demonstrating what that looks like – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dxPO_Z57xg.

The different types of web hosting

We’ll consider three different types of web hosting, shared hosting, virtual private servers and dedicated servers.

Shared hosting

The most common and usually cheapest type of hosting is called Shared Hosting.

The name is quite descriptive as it means multiple web sites are placed on to the same web server. The exact number of sites sharing a server varies from host to host.

All these sites share the same resources, so the more sites there are on the server, the greater the likelihood of poor performance.

Most sites on shared hosting are likely to have little traffic, so much of the time there are plenty of resources to share around. However, if a few sites get busy at the same time, they’re all fighting for the same resources and this can lead to all the sites on the server running more slowly.

When looking for a shared host, there are a few things to consider. Look for a host that states they use SSDs (Solid State Drives). These are faster than than the traditional Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) and also more expensive. If a host uses SSDs, it’s likely they’re also taking other steps to try and ensure your site is as fast as possible.

Also make sure they supply a free SSL certificate. An SSL certificate is needed to get the padlock icon to appear in the address bar of your web browser. The Let’s Encrypt project supplies free SSL certificates that anyone can use. These certificates are fine for most sites, so don’t choose a host that only offers paid for certificates.

In some cases, there may be a requirement to use a higher grade SSL certificate, but if that’s the case for your business, shared hosting is probably the wrong choice for you anyway.

A final word of caution about shared hosting. If the server is poorly configured, it may be insecure in the event that one site is hacked. That one site can open the door for the hacker to hack every other site on the server. This is probably more of a historical problem now, and most big name shared hosts shouldn’t be vulnerable to this, but it could still be an issue with some smaller hosting companies.

Some of the pros

  • All completely managed for you
  • Usually includes email using your domain name
  • Many include a free SSL certificate

Some of the cons

  • Performance may be variable
  • Some charge for additional features you hadn’t realized you would need

Virtual Private Server (VPS)

This is similar to shared hosting in that multiple sites are placed on the same server. The difference is that each one is housed in its own virtual server that has its own IP address and it’s own guaranteed resources.

That means that if every other site on the server is busy, it won’t impact the speed of your site at all. Your site will always have at least the resources that you pay for. In fact a lot of the time, it may be able to access more than you pay for as some hosts keep an additional pool of resources that can be shared by sites getting traffic spikes.

At first glance that sounds great, but it does come with a potential downside. With Shared Hosting, everything is managed for you, but with a VPS, you have to take full responsibility for your site and the VPS itself.

You have to install the web server software and then maintain that server, as well as installing and maintaining your website. A few years ago that would have made this an impossible option for any but the most technically able site owners.

Nowadays though, there are a few services that automate this for you almost completely. This means this can be an option for those with a little bit of experience. We’ll look at these in the next section on Which host should you choose?

If there are problems with the VPS, you will have to resolve those issues yourself. In practice problems rarely occur, but they can happen so you do need to have strategies prepared for dealing with issues. That could be as simple rebuilding the VPS and reinstalling the website from a backup. That process may take an hour or more, but it’s not complex if you know what you’re doing.

Some of the pros

  • Guaranteed resources
  • Usually better performance than shared hosting

Some of the cons

  • You have to manage the VPS (this is easier to do nowadays as I’ll show)
  • Generally more expensive than shared hosting

Dedicated Server

As the name suggests, this is a web server that is dedicated to just your site. In fact you could choose to run more than one site, as you get to do whatever you want with your server.

You will usually find two types of dedicated server offered. One sees you receive access to a server that you then take full control and responsibility for. The other option is a Managed Dedicated Server where you specify what you want and the hosting company take care of it for you.

Either way, this is really a choice to consider later, when your site is established and constantly busy. At that point you may want to look into a dedicated server, though it’s possible a larger VPS will be a better option.

Some of the pros

  • Great performance guaranteed all the time unless you get super busy

Some of the cons

  • Can be very expensive, especially for a managed service

Which host should you choose?

The first choice you need to make is which type of hosting. If you’re starting out and you’re not too confident with tech, Shared Hosting is probably the best choice as most things are done for you.

A VPS may be the right choice if you’re more comfortable with tech stuff or have a site that is already getting a lot of traffic and you’re having performance issues with shared hosting.

Before we press on, some hosting companies allow you to pick the location of the server your site will be hosted on. If that applies to the host you pick, select a location that is nearest to your customers. For example, if your customers are all across the USA, you might pick Dallas as it’s fairly central for most users. For a European customer base, a location in France or Germany might be preferable.

Shared hosting companies

I don’t personally use shared hosting, but have past experience of a few companies that I believe offer reasonable performance at an affordable price.

All of these offer WordPress hosting packages that will give you a blank website to get started with.

  • Siteground
    Note they offer an introductory price, so the rate increases when you next make a payment
  • Dreamhost
    Offers a relatively low monthly fee, but email isn’t included in the price you see
  • A2 Hosting
    Usually automatically applies a discount code to first payment, so check the Monthly fee at checkout to ensure it’s what you expect

Of course there are other shared hosts you can pick from, but bear a few things in mind.

As I pointed out previously, look for a host that uses SSDs (this is usually clearly stated if that’s the case as they’re more expensive). This is generally a positive indicator that a company is prioritizing performance for customers over profits for shareholders.

Watch out for loss leader pricing where the price increases significantly when the package renews.

Be guided by the opinions of experts, rather than other site owners who may have no experience of other hosts to compare against. Users with little experience tend not to realize that their site loads more slowly than similar sites on other hosts. They also generally won’t have set up any type of monitoring of their site to let them know if it’s not working. So their site could be slow and unavailable multiple times a day, yet they’re happy to recommend the host because as far as they can see, everything is fine.

To find some expert opinions, pay a visit to Web Hosting Talk and try searching for the name of any web hosting companies you’re interested in. This is a site frequented by many professionals working in the web hosting sector, plus developers and established site owners, so should provide more objective feedback. Of course every company will have some problems now and again, so don’t be too swayed by the odd good or bad opinion, if the majority of opinions point the other way.

Finally, it helps to know that hosting companies tend to come in a few different types, though it’s not always obvious which type any company is.

At the time of writing, the three hosts I suggested above are all independently owned companies. As such they tend to prioritize the user experience. They can balance their customers’ needs with achieving sustainable revenues, as opposed to seeking to maximize returns for shareholders by employing lower cost technologies and cutting corners elsewhere.

Those aren’t the only independents and there are many more in the market.

You may also encounter resellers that put their branding on white label hosting services. There’s no easy way to identify a reseller, but it’s not always a bad solution. There are some good white label hosting suppliers. They handle all the tech side and the reseller just sells the hosting and manages the customers.

On the other hand there are resellers who rent servers and take full responsibility for them. These usually charge less as their fees are lower, but service may be very variable as they may not be qualified to manage web hosting. This is where researching a company first may help you identify hosts that should be avoided.

Finally, I want to highlight a single publicly owned company. Endurance International Group (EIG). Their business plan is to buy up existing hosting companies and maintain those brands while cutting costs through economies of scale. Wikipedia has a list of EIG brands at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endurance_International_Group, which includes some well known names.

If you search for more information on the company, you’ll often find reports that the service in companies they acquire drops after buyouts. Web Hosting Talk will be fruitful if you want to learn more about the business.

Most comments and articles I’ve read on EIG have not been favorable, sometimes down to performance and sometimes down to poor support and sometimes both. However, I must be clear that I’ve had little experience of EIG companies personally. I did work on a couple of customer sites on Bluehost a few years ago though and both those sites suffered from noticeably slow response times. Of course things could have changed. That’s where looking for contemporary feedback is vital.

Virtual Private Server companies

If your site is already up and running and getting significant levels of traffic, switching to a VPS may be worth considering to help ensure better and more consistent performance.

Note that setting up a VPS following my suggestions won’t include email using your domain name. I’ll explain how you can get 5 free domain email addresses and set it up.

If you’re particularly technical, it’s also possible to set up unlimited domain email addresses for just $5 per month. I give an overview of it in this article on using unlimited email addresses, but this really won’t be a good option for the majority of business owners.

For those just starting up, if you have a degree of tech confidence, a VPS may be an option for you to consider. I’ll give you some more information to help you decide whether this is a viable option for you.

I’m going to recommend just two companies, one that I use and one I haven’t. They have slight differences which is why I’m showing both to you.

In each case, we’re looking at a 1GB VPS. The 1GB refers to the amount of RAM the VPS has and that should be sufficient for most sites as they’re starting out. If in the future the site becomes busier and slows down, it is easy to upgrade a VPS to a higher specification.

Linode

I have several VPSs with Linode (https://www.linode.com/) and have been using them for at least four years. At the time of writing, a 1GB Linode is just $5. There may be taxes applicable on that depending on your location. That’s a similar price to low cost shared hosting.

As outlined earlier, you need to manage your VPS. That used to be horribly complex, but now it’s so straightforward, anyone who’s a little bit tech happy can cope with it. There are several companies that offer services that configure and maintain your VPS for you, but I’m recommending Runcloud (https://runcloud.io), which is one that I use.

This will set up and maintain your server for you. The full version for a single VPS currently costs $7 per month and I think it is excellent value for money. They also offer a free service level that you can use on a single VPS, which has less features.

The biggest negative with the free level is that it doesn’t include SSL certificates. An SSL certificate is needed to display the padlock icon in the address bar of your site. Whatever type of website you have, you really do need to have an SSL certificate. If you don’t, web browsers may display a Not secure warning on pages of your site.

It is possible to install a free SSL certificate supplied by Let’s Encrypt on a VPS using free Runcloud. You’re getting into quite specialized territory though and I believe you can’t set them to auto renew. That means you’ll have to manually provision a new certificate every three months. Still, if you’re comfortable using SSH and Bash (if that just sounds like an instruction from a librarian and another way to say hit, this isn’t going to be a good idea for you), this could be a short term option while you grow revenue.

Later on I’ll discuss a free service called Cloudflare. Among other things, they supply a free SSL certificate for sites using their free service, so you could use them and the free Runcloud service.

Cloudways

Cloudways (https://www.cloudways.com/) aren’t a VPS provider like Linode, in fact they’re perhaps more like Runcloud. What they do is resell VPSs from other companies with their server management tools already installed. So you only pay one company each month instead of two. On top of that though, they take care of the initial setup of your VPS and are also responsible for any problems that occur on the VPS.

I haven’t used Cloudways, but from what I’ve read about them, they offer a very good service. At the time of writing, their cost for a 1GB Linode is the same as if you were paying Linode and Runcloud. They resell other VPS services too though.

Select Digital Ocean or Vultr for the VPS provider and it’s a little cheaper. Both those VPS providers also have good reputations. I’ve used a Vultr VPS for an email server for years that’s been problem free.

Be aware though that Cloudways can become relatively more expensive if you have to start upgrading your VPS specification to cope with more users on your site.