The Search For The Perfect Web Host

Looking for a hosting service for your Web site? Read this first!

Survival Of The Fittest

Up until a few years ago, the Web was considered the sole province of geeks and nerds, pasty-faced individuals with massive egos, thick spectacles and a penchant for stale pizza. Then came Yahoo! and Amazon.com, and the Web was suddenly transformed into SillyCon Valley's flavor of the month. As pimply thirteen-year-olds found themselves being courted by venture capitalists and new economy jargon - think "angel" and "ESOP" - found its way into the popular lexicon, companies with no business model and an even smaller likelihood of profitability were floated on public stock exchanges, turning their not-quite-adolescent founders into multi-billionaires and proving once again the old saw about a fool and his money...

Naturally, this happy state of affairs was not destined to last long.

In early 2000, the NASDAQ tanked, sending shock waves through the industry and demonstrating clearly that in the new economy, the old rules still applied. As the first flush of passion faded and investors hunkered down for the long haul, a number of new dot.com companies found their extravagant marketing budgets slashed and their requests for additional funding denied. It was survival of the fittest in the Valley - and Darwin would have applauded!

What does all this have to do with anything, you ask?

Simply this. Regardless of whether you're an individual entrepreneur or an established company, there's never been a better time to take your brick-and-mortar business online. Technology is becoming cheaper all the time, companies with a proven history of profitability are back in demand, and the Web is slowly becoming all-pervasive. And as you go about the nitty-gritty of e-enabling your business - picking a catchy name, designing your Web site, creating your electronic identity - it's essential that the foundation on which you build your e-business - your Web host - be solid, secure and dependable.

Now, at Melonfire, we recently went through an exorcism when our hosting providers informed us that they would be unable to meet our demands of their service. Consequently, we were forced to look for a new vendor, one which offered the depth of features and quality of service we were looking for at a competitive price. During our search, we learnt a great deal about the questions you should ask a hosting provider before putting your money down - and we hope that our efforts are helpful to you when you begin looking for a hosting service for your new e-business.

Virtually Yours

When deciding on a Web host, the first - and most basic - decision involves whether or not you need a dedicated server. If you're a small- or medium-sized business, and your Web site will primarily be a focal point for information and news about your company, a dedicated server is usually overkill; you'll find it much easier to share space on a server with other, similar Web sites. This kind of hosting, sometimes referred to as "virtual hosting", is pretty economical, and is the recommended option for starter sites.

If, on the other hand, you're building the Next Big Thing and expect a hit count in the millions rather than the thousands, a dedicated server is the only way to go. With a dedicated server, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your Web site is the only one on that machine, you can install and use your own software on the machine [something many virtual hosting services refuse to allow you to do], and you're usually treated like a king by Customer Support. Naturally, don't expect this to come cheap...

If you're planning on a dedicated server, you shouldn't be reading this article, since the server vendor will allow you to custom-configure your system. The issues raised over the next few pages are primarily for those of you looking for a virtual host, where your control over the server is limited.

Assuming you've decided on a virtual host, the next thing to decide on is the amount of disk space you need. In addition to the space required for your Web site, with its assorted images and media files, remember to include estimates for company-wide email accounts in your calculations. For most small- to medium-sized companies, employee email accounts of five megabytes each are usually sufficient - although, of course, this is a subjective decision you'll have to make.

If your company is a service provider in the technology arena - software development, Web application development and the like - you'll probably also need to keep aside some space for software prototypes, or for file transfers to customers.

Once you've estimated the likely space requirements, add 25% to the number, and approach your potential vendors for a quote - the additional space is always useful in crunch situations. And while asking for a quote, make sure that you also find out how much you'll be charged - and the applicable discounts - should you decide to buy more disk space.

Make sure that your domain will be assigned a dedicated IP address - while you can get away with "IP-less" hosting, older browsers will have a problem accessing such a Web site, and reverse lookups on your domain name will report incorrect information. Additionally, a static IP address comes in very handy when transferring a domain from one provider to another, as it provides you with a way to access your site independent of the domain name.

Bandwidth Blues

On the Web, bandwidth is everything - and every Web hosting service allows you a certain amount of data traffic per month. Once you exceed that amount, the meter starts ticking, and you're charged for every additional unit of bandwidth consumed - not a very attractive picture when your fledgling Web venture begins to attract some serious attention from cyber-junkies.

It's therefore a good idea to find out exactly how much data transfer you're permitted every month, together with the upgrade options should you decide to purchase more. As explained above, if you're expecting a large number of people to visit your site, it's best to choose a package that allows a fairly high threshold of bandwidth consumption. You might also see advertisements for "unlimited bandwidth" - take these with a pinch of salt, and get clarification from the vendor as to just where "unlimited" actually stops.

At this point, it's also a good idea to find out a little more about the hardware and software your vendor has available. Ask them to provide you with technical specifications on their network, together with information on the kind of connectivity they have to the Internet. You should also ask them for information on their data centers or server farms - typical features of a good data center include emergency and backup power generators, internal monitoring systems like fire and humidity alarms, controlled temperatures, and 24/7 security, both electronic and human.

Most vendors offer a choice of operating system, usually either Windows NT and some variant of UNIX like Linux or Solaris. Obviously, you should choose the one that you're most comfortable with. If you're going the Linux route, you might also like to find out which distribution of Linux is being used, together with specifics like the kernel version.

You've Got Mail!

Email is crucial for any Internet-based business. It's the primary means of communication between you and your customers, between you and your employees, and between branch offices situated at different locations. Therefore, it's essential that your Web host provide reliable email services.

Every service package comes with a certain number of POP3-capable email accounts. POP3-capable accounts allow users to download email to their local workstations, and read and reply to messages using standard email clients like Netscape Messenger or Outlook Express. Ideally, you should provide each and every employee with their own POP3 email account.

Next, find out how many mail forwarders and auto-responders you have. A mail forwarder is exactly what the name suggests - it can forward email addressed to one account to any other account. This comes in handy when employees are travelling, and it can also be used to set up crude distribution lists - for example, email sent to <mis@yourcompany.com> could be automatically forwarded to one or more system administrators.

An auto-responder allows you to automatically reply to messages with a standard template - useful when you're on vacation. Ideally, your host should provide you with an unlimited number of both forwarders and auto-responders.

Spam is a major problem, and junk mail can clog up your Internet link. Your Web host needs to protect you from this by installing spam filters on its mail relays, and also developing - and enforcing - a no-spam policy. And since there's a spammer born every minute, you should also have the ability to block specific email addresses, or messages that match certain rules, from sending mail to users on your domain.

Many Web hosting services also provide their customers with a browser-based interface to check email. This is a very useful feature to have if employees are travelling - getting access to their email is then as simple as strolling down to the nearest cybercafe. Ask your service provider if this feature is available; if not, you'll find a number of free email packages online that can be modified to suit your purposes.

There's one other important issue to be aware of. Many Web hosting services which claim to offer POP3 accounts neglect to mention that their service comes with one important limitation - an inability to handle duplicate account usernames in an elegant, error-free manner.

What does this mean? Quite simply, let's suppose that you decide to host the domain abc.com with a particular provider, and the domain xyz.com is also hosted on the same physical server. You then decide to create a POP3 email account for <webmaster@abc.com>. Should there already exist a POP3 account with the username "webmaster" - say <webmaster@xyz.com> - on the same physical server, you will be unable to use the same username for your own domain.

Sounds idiotic? It is...and sadly, it's also pretty common. This problem does not exist with larger, technically-sophisticated hosting services, but rather with some of the smaller hosting services - so keep an eye out for it.

Finally, find out if your service provider allows you to define email quotas, or configure the size limits for specific email accounts. While this is not an essential feature, it can come in handy at times. Some providers also offer PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy, as part of the email system - this allows you to encrypt your mail, and comes in handy if you're concerned about security.

When Things Go Wrong

One of the most important things your Web hosting service should provide is technical support. Almost all service providers offer their customers a FAQ and online support manual designed to get them up and running - this is the bare minimum you should expect from your service provider.

Ideally, a Web hosting service should offer a full-fledged support center, staffed 24/7, and accessible via email, fax and telephone. A support ticketing system, which can track and log customer problems, is a further advantage, as it allows both the customer and the vendor to see for themselves how good or bad the service is over a period of time.

The larger hosting services also offer customers a number of active chat rooms, bulletin boards and mailing lists, so that customers can communicate with each other and learn from each other's experiences. These forums are often invaluable sources of information, and are also a great place to learn more about how to maximise your usage of your Web site.

This is also a good time to find out what guarantees your service provider offers as to backups and uptime. As a customer, you should have confidence that the vendor has adequate measures in place to replace defective or dead equipment within a specific period of time, at minimum inconvenience to you. You should also find out how often data backups are carried out, and how long they're stored, together with the procedure - and cost - involved in restoring data from a backup. Obviously, the data storage location should be off-site.

If your vendor offers an uptime guarantee, get yourself a copy and read the fine print carefully. It's also a good idea to talk to other customers located on the provider's servers to obtain some real-world information on the performance and reliability of the service. Remember, on the Internet, your Web site must be accessible to potential customers 24/7/365 - and if you're serious about your business, any service which offers less than that should be avoided at all costs.

Find out if your provider has an Acceptable Use policy, and read it closely. Most service providers have a serious problem with pornographic or racist material, and with illegal usage of their servers - for example, storing pirated music files or sending unwanted junk email. Familiarize yourself with your policy, and clarify doubts at this stage itself - for example, if you run a mailing list or offer your visitors files to download, find out if such usage is permitted, and the best [read, non-peak] times to use the server for these activities.

The Toolbox

Once you've received satisfactory answers to the fundamental questions posed above, it's time to dig a little deeper and find out what additional features and services are available to you.

Depending on how complex your site is, you'll need one or more server-side scripting languages. Every self-respecting Web hosting service offers Perl, one of the most popular server-side scripting languages on the Web. You should also find out if popular languages like PHP, ASP and Python are available, and if you have access to a C/C++ or Java compiler - all these tools come in handy if you're planning to develop a cutting-edge Web site, or do software development online.

Next, find out if your provider offers you access to a database - this may be MySQL, Oracle or Microsoft Access. If you're planning to develop a content-heavy site, or one which offers a customized user experience, you'll need a large and powerful database to store user information and other data. Ideally, your service provider should also offer a graphical, browser-based interface to simplify database administration tasks.

If you're planning a media-heavy site, find out if your provider has the tools to support you - you'll probably need a RealAudio and RealVideo server if you're planning on streaming audio and video services, and support for Shockwave content. Depending on your technical requirements, you may also require other tools - find out if they're available, how much they cost, and what level of support comes with them.

Many providers also offer a number of ready-made scripts which allow you to add everything from mailing lists and chat rooms to auction houses, bulletin boards and online calendars to your site. If you anticipate needing any or all of these, find out what kind of technical support is offered for these services [because setting up an online auction without technical support is a quick route to premature baldness], and whether they're a part of the standard package, or chargeable add-ons.

WML, or Wireless Markup Language, is all the rage at the moment. Find out if your provider supports WML-based Web sites. If you're planning on using FrontPage extensions, make sure that your provider has support for them.

Administrivia

Once you've got your Web site up and running, you're going to be faced with a whole new set of problems. You'll need to update your site on a regular basis, keep an eye out for creeping clutter, analyze server logs to determine where your visitors are coming from and which sections they visit most often, and a whole lot more. And so it's important to choose a Web hosting service that makes these tasks as simple as possible.

All hosting providers allow FTP access to upload and download files. However, if you have a large number of pages on your site, downloading a set of files, modifying them and uploading them again is often a tedious task. Therefore, a service which allows you to telnet into your virtual server and modify files online is often a good bet.

There are two issues that you should be aware of here. First, you should make sure that your provider supports SSH, or Secure SHell login - this is essentially an encrypted, authenticated telnet session which reduces the risk of electronic eavesdroppers stealing your password. And second, you should find out which programs you have access to once you've successfully logged into your shell. At a minimum, you should have access to text editors like "vi" and "emacs", mail clients like "pine" and "mutt", disk utilities like "du" and "ls", and compression utilities like "zip" and "tar"

Access to a shell via telnet also raises the issue of security - the hosting sub-system should be structured in such a manner that users cannot access each other's private files, or compromise system security by running rogue programs. A good hosting service will restrict its users to a specific location on the system, and will only provide access to "safe" programs.

In addition to a shell and command-line interface, your service provider should also allow you to administer your Web site via a graphical, browser-based administration module - this is simpler and far more intuitive than a command line, and also offers less scope for errors.

If, like us, you often need to transfer files to your customers via the Web, you should also find out if your service provider allows you to create additional FTP accounts - this allows you to provide customers with their own password-protected account on your FTP site, and adds an additional layer of security to data transfers between you and your customers. Remember to factor the additional disk space you'll need into your calculations.

If your business model is based on advertising revenue, or if you're curious about where your visitors are coming from and which sections of your site they're visiting, you need access to the Web server access logs. These access logs provide a detailed breakdown of every HTTP request made to your Web site, and come in very handy when analyzing usage patterns. Your service provider should also provide you with access to log analysis software like "http-analyze", which can read the access logs and provide a graphical representation of visits to your site. You might also need a "banner rotation" program, which can be programmed to automatically display different banner advertisements on your site.

If your business model is based on selling goods online, you'll also need a secure and reliable shopping cart system. Most hosting services bundle this software with their package - but you'll almost certainly have to spend a little bit on getting yourself a digital certificate, setting up a merchant account et al. Find out exactly what your provider offers, and whether you can avail of discounted rates on transaction charges via your provider's network of partnerships and promotional benefits.

Showing Them The Money

If everything checks out and you're happy with the level of professionalism displayed by your potential vendor in your discussions thus far, it's time to put your money down and get things rolling. Ideally, your vendor should allow you to pay for your Web site via either a credit card or a cheque - although, if you're located in another country from your hosting service, you'll find the credit card option far more convenient.

You should have the option of maintaining your account via the Web - renewals, package upgrades, changes in service term, and payment/billing information should all be accessible via a Web browser. If the provider offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, it's usually a good idea to avail of it so that you can judge the service for yourself. Many providers also offer customers a "price-freeze" option - this is usually a good thing, so make sure that you ask the provider if that option is available to you.

Well, that's about it. Hopefully, you'll find the material above useful when you begin looking for a hosting service, or if you decide to switch to a new vendor.

See you soon!

This article was first published on 21 Jul 2000.