I’ve been active around my online friends lately and i noticed something i thought didn’t exist. There is much confusion about what are all those variables when having to choose for a webhost. Bandwidth, memory, disk space, CPU, managed/unmanaged etc are some terms that make some people sweat out of fear when they have to make up their minds. Some of them also make the choice completely blindly on certain aspects of their hosting and they don’t even know it until trouble comes knocking on the door. I’ve had a chatter with some bloggers over email the past few months and i felt like writing this post to help out anybody that doesn’t feel right contacting me (or anyone that can help) and asking.
Different kinds of hosting
So, first thing you need to clear in your head is the difference between the big groups of hosting. The main categories are:
- Shared hosting
- Virtual Private Server (VPS)
- Dedicated server
Now let’s take them one by one. Shared hosting is exactly what it says. One powerful machine that many people lease it to host their sites all together. That’s why it’s very cheap. Because many many users pay for it. On a big hosting company it can be over 500-600 sites on one server alone. Big advantage is that it’s very cheap and you can have a website up in no time. Often, they come with many perks like free domain, emails etc. It’s an ideal solution for static websites (a.k.a. HTML ones that never change) and small dynamic ones like tiny blogs. When things start to get bigger, and more visitors stop by, then shared hosting doesn’t make the cut anymore. That’s where the other two solutions come in.
The main difference between them is the word “Virtual“. Actually, a dedicated server is a private one but without being virtual. But, what does that mean? What is the actual difference of the three? Well let’s say you want to make a trip and decide to take a train. If you don’t have enough money or the trip is short enough you just buy the cheapest ticket and travel with the crowd. When you buy a ticket you actually rent a seat where other people will be sitting next to you. If you want to take a nap you will have to ask everybody to take the blinds down. If you want to use the restroom that will have to be empty. That is shared hosting. Everybody is traveling together and share the server’s resources.
Let’s say you have some money on you and the trip is quite long. In that case you can rent a whole wagon. You will have all the space you want, your own bathroom, etc. That’s a virtual private server. And why is it virtual? Well it’s private because you are alone in the wagon but the train has some more wagons on. You can’t just decide that you want less wagons, or you want the train repainted, or change the course etc. You have your privacy among the privacy of others. But, you can decide that you want to redecorate the wagon, remove a few stuff or add some more. So, the machine you are hosted on, runs a virtual OS just for you but the machine you see is part of a big machine that hosts a few more people on the way it does you.
But what if you have an even bigger budget and you want to have your own train? That way you can add any number of wagons, have it go anywhere you want, paint it as you wish, invite anyone on board or keep it for yourself. That’s a dedicated server. That’s a machine, that is an actual one, there just for you. You want more RAM? You tell the hoster to add a few chips. You want more disk? Same thing. I think you get the point.
Managed or Unmanaged?
I believe we have the three categories covered. When it comes to choosing a VPS or dedicated server there is a major option you need to consider. Managed or unmanaged hosting. The difference is huge and can affect the way you do your business. With managed hosting you get round the clock technical support and a control panel like cPanel or Plesk (or some alike). What does this mean? The control panel gives you a way to control your server via a web interface. Starting up, rebooting, adding services, new sites, new domains, new users, all this can be done with just a few clicks. This has a downside though. Those panels need an enterprise edition of an OS, which typicaly means that Debian-like OS’s are out of the question. The most common ones to be used are CentOS and Red Hat. Moreover, they add some scripts to do their jobs. Now, all this, means one thing, it’s their way or the highway. What i mean with that is if you have a control panel installed then you better kiss the console goodbye. If you feel brave enough to mingle with them both, then things will go wrong one way or another. I also mentioned that you will have technical support. This means that if the server goes down due to a misconfiguration or something on the software then technical support personnel of the hosting company will step in and try to solve things out. This is the ideal solution for anyone that wants to make their business and want to have little to do with server management either because they don’t know how or they don’t want to bother. But this sounds great, why go unmanaged?
There is a great perk on unmanaged hosting. You are the boss! If you know your way around web server maintenance and configuration then surely you are a lonely rider cowboy and you were wondering why bother with managed. Also, those control panels, although they make things much much easier for the administrator (and transparent) they are a burden on the system by themselves. One more thing is that at any given point you will have to do something manualy, a.k.a through a console, and then things will get tricky. Finally, to get managed hosting you must pay a bit more ($2-5 more expensive in a good case). That’s not a great deal of money but if you see it annually then it’s almost $60. And that’s the good case.
This decision is one of the most important ones that one should make before even considering the other variables of a hosting offer. Don’t take it lightly because it will come back and bite you in the ass.
The other variables
Now i can imagine that most of you have put their mind on the type of hosting they want by now. So, the quest for a hosting packet starts. I won’t start telling you try this company or the other because this is not the point here. I am not after affiliate links or anything, this post is just a small tutorial. So, all you need to do is google. What i would suggest is find some comparison charts between the major hosts. On this step there is a major thing to do. Compare the different kinds of variables of the packages and find a nice balance between price and benefits. A few of the major things you need to notice about a package are:
- Disk space: Bigger is better, but not always a requirement. I mean, if you intend on starting a photo blog then you probably need plenty of space. But starting a small blog, or even a static page then the disk provided is not as crucial.
- Bandwidth: This is a tricky one for new people on the business. This variable actually measures how much data the server distributes to the visitors. Let’s see a small example. Say you have a page that is 10Kb and a few images on it, totaling 100Kb. Each client that visits that page has to download those and the server has to deliver. These 100Kb count towards your bandwidth. If the package says “100Gb of traffic” this means you can send to your visitors data that will total 100Gb within a month.
- Databases: On a shared hosting this is very important. When you open a blog, a website etc you most probably need a database. More databases means more flexibility over the services you can host.
- SSH: This actually tells you if you will have command access to the server itself. If you are reading this tutorial then you most probably don’t know what i am talking about, therefore you don’t care. But, even if you do, on a shared hosting this doesn’t make a big difference.
- Memory: When going for a VPS or a dedicated server this is a crucial variable. It shows how much RAM memory your server will be running on. For a moderate blog, memory should be over 128Mb for a good performance. I would suggest 256Mb at least.
The tiny letters
There are more things you should notice but these are the most important ones. At least the ones that the hoster shows with pride on his product page. But there are a couple that they don’t tell much about and you most probably have to make a question to them. The two most important ones are CPU usage and network port. As with any computer, servers have CPU’s too. When running a web server (like apache), which is actually a program that serves the pages, you need CPU to do so. Also, dynamic pages using a scripting language, like PHP, need extra CPU to process the scripts that your site consists of. A typical example is a WordPress installation. More things required to be done by the script means more CPU utilization. Why is that bad? Well, on a shared hosting, there are more people on the server hosting sites that require the same resource. So, the game has to be fair. When a site consumes way more CPU than the others, the hoster notices and starts investigating. On a good case you will be notified and warned to reduce your usage. On the bad case scenario your sites will be disabled without warning. Remember when i said “minimize your plugins?“. This is one more reason besides your blog being slow. Generally it is a good way of thinking to profile your site before uploading it to be live.
One last thing, that most of the customers are not aware of, is the network speed of the hoster. Don’t you think it makes a difference if your server is plugged in a network of 100Mbps? That is not always the case. Most servers, especially the VPS and dedicated ones, are plugged into 10Mbps or less. And we are talking about upload speed. At your house the upload speed greatly differs from the download one (the latter beeing much greater). For instance on a 1Mbps connection the upload/download is probably 20KBps/100KBps. On a server it’s most probably equal (100KBps/100KBps). Besides checking out what the speed is, you need to see the word “guaranteed”. That is there because most of the times they say they provide a 100Mbps line but the speed is much smaller, even half at some points. This variable is very important if you want to make sure that your site will be speedy. Imagine making sure you have a super duper server that can handle many requests per second, but the clients can’t download as fast.
Choosing a host is one very important decision on one’s online life and activities. It’s taken lightly most of the times. Some even go with luck, which not always turns out good. If you are serious about your business you need to consider your hoster very well and examine every aspect of the offer. You need to be sure that your site(s) will be online when you are not.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comment here. I will be glad to help you out. Take care! 😉