Choosing web hosting

One of the great mysteries of life as a web developer is the number of people who are willing to spend several thousand pounds getting a site or web application developed, only to then want it to be deployed on the cheapest of cheap hosting.

At edgeofmyseat.com we pride ourselves in developing efficient, scalable applications. Our CMS framework has been developed to be able to run on almost any PHP hosting, but just because something can run on cheap hosting doesn’t make it a good idea to get cheap hosting. There is more to selecting hosting than if it meets the minimum requirements of your application or script. Rather than just have a rant about dodgy hosting I thought I’d write a bit about how to go about choosing decent hosting, and the sort of solutions we recommend.

Ask around

Where hosting is concerned a good recommendation is a positive sign, especially if the person making the recommendation has used the host for a number of years.

It is always worth doing some searching using Google on a hosting company name. If people are having trouble with a host then it is likely they will be posting in forums or on their blog about it, so a bit of research can prove very interesting. If you see a lot of bad experiences with a particular company it would be wise to look elsewhere. Twitter is another good source of information, particularly as people tend to post to Twitter in real time when they are having problems, even if they might not write a lengthy blog or forum post about their trouble or positive experience.

Cost

It is possible to get some very cheap webhosting, which is fine if you are setting up a personal site or something for a friend, however if your site is at all important to you or your client’s business it is worth remembering that you do indeed get what you pay for. If you want to have support available and to have any issues fixed quickly it is worth paying a little bit extra for that.

Support

Find out how the host deals with support. Some hosts may have email only support which you may be happy with but if you prefer to be able to phone make sure the host offers this. If you know someone who uses the host find out if they have ever had to contact support and what the experience was like.

Up to date servers

Check the versions of software the host uses on their servers. If a host is using very old versions of languages it may be that their servers are not very up to date and so might be less secure. You may also run into problems installing scripts that rely on up to date versions.

Uptime guarantees

Many hosts offer an ‘uptime guarantee’ usually as a percentage, a ‘100% uptime guarantee’ means that they guarantee your site to be up 100% of the time. These guarantees tend not to mean a lot. They generally will offer compensation if your site is down for longer than their guaranteed amount – however you usually have to have contacted the host to say that your site is down before the timer starts. Not a lot of good if your site routinely disappears off the net at 2am! Also the uptime guarantees tend to come into effect only if the server itself is down and not if any external problem is effecting connectivity.

I tend not to take a lot of notice of uptime guarantees when selecting a host, I would far rather choose based on reports I hear from other users as to how good in practice the host’s uptime and support when there are problems is.

Hosting resellers

Be aware that many companies offering hosting services are in fact resellers for larger companies. It is possible for anyone to take a server with a large hosting company and begin to resell space on it, without very much knowledge or experience of hosting at all. If you site goes offline and you contact your host, you may find that they actually can’t do anything about it, as they just have to contact the larger company’s support and raise a ticket there. In this situation you just end up with a middleman between you and the people who can do something about your problem.

Virtual server hosting

For many years shared hosting – hosting your site on a server where you have an account for a single site – was the only cost effective way of hosting all but the largest websites. A site on a shared host may share a server with hundreds of other sites. You will typically have a certain amount of space allocated to you and will be unable to make any changes to the server configuration or install any additional software.

The alternative to shared hosting was to take out a dedicated server. This would mean having an entire physical computer at your disposal running your website. This would be far more flexible as you could make changes to the configuration of the server and the software hosted on it but is expensive and most sites do not need the amount of space and resources that an entire server would give them.

In the last few years a new type of hosting has begun to emerge. The Virtual Private Server gives you what appears to be an entire server to yourself, however you are in fact sharing one physical server with a number of other virtual servers. The benefit over regular shared hosting is that you have your own version of the operating system and software running on your virtual server and so can make changes to the configuration and host multiple sites on the one server. In addition, a virtual server set-up should guarantee you a certain amount of system resources, in comparison to shared hosting where you compete for resources with other users of the same server. A virtual private server also offers better security than shared hosting due to the separation of the individual virtual machines.

Most companies who offer this type of hosting offer it with control panel software installed to make managing your server easy even if you don’t have systems administration knowledge. This software will help you to set up new sites on your server and will usually allow you to schedule updates of the server software or configure what services are available to individual sites.

Virtual Private Servers are a great option for designers and developers as you can set up demonstration versions of sites for clients before they go live, perhaps hosting them on a subdomain. If you have a policy of not handing over files until the client has paid you then this means the client can view the work as a complete website and approve it before it is moved onto their server.

Hosting recommendations

I’ll wrap up by recommending a couple of companies that we have found to be excellent hosts.

We tend to advise clients to take out a virtual private server package for all but the smallest sites. The advantages are certainly worth the small additional cost over good quality shared hosting. We recommend Memset, we have been using servers with them for many years now and their service and pricing is excellent. If you are looking for shared hosting we have found NSDesign to be reliable, and several of our Perch customers have been happy with hosting with NSDesign.

Share your dodgy hosting pain, or your recommendations for excellent hosting in the comments.

Comments

Clive Walker: 16 Jan 2010 at 10:13:25

I would echo your comments about getting what you pay for….and the ability to contact tech support and elicit a quick response is far more important than uptime guarantees. I used a medium-sized hosting company for all client sites for several years but it was a real problem for me when this company started to have problems with the shared server where my sites were. My clients would call me, I would call the hosting company…. etc etc. Now, I am lucky to work with a small hosting company run by a friend of mine. It’s more expensive in purely money terms but a lot less expensive in business terms! And we are still friends! In my case, smaller company and personal service has proved to be much better.

matthew: 16 Jan 2010 at 14:19:54

+1 on memset, although if you’re not clued up on managing your own server, it can start to get pricey with paying for managed services, or the control panel cost.

James Stewart: 17 Jan 2010 at 11:54:35

I’ve been very pleased with bytemark over a number of years. Their offerings are all VPS or dedicated boxes, so again you need some knowledge of server management. Their support is excellent and their control panel looks good, though I’ve never used that.

Service-wise I’ve also had good experiences with slicehost, but I’ve never really needed to contact their support department so can’t vouch for it.

Tim Payne: 21 Jan 2010 at 12:03:48

There are certainly a few of the cheaper places that I avoid like the plague after a few bad experiences with clients using awful hosting.

I rate Crystaltech.com quite highly for smaller sites that can live on shared hosting. Not as cheap as they used to be with the changing exchange rate, but good servers and excellent support.

Most of the stuff I work on these days tends to be on dedicated boxes, and I recommend Rackspace highly. They really aren’t cheap, but you certainly get what you pay for, service and support is top notch.

Leave a reply