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How to Pick a Web Host

By John Stone
Posted Friday, October 1, 2004

In today's Internet, everyone and their brother are jumping on the hosting band wagon. On the one hand, you have the mega hosts (with a look of security and safety) and the independents (who in most cases look barely credible). Software vendors are getting into the act, as well as most other companies that offer anything from baseball cards to safety glasses.

So what is the deal? How did we get to a point that EVERYONE can offer web hosting? The answer is simple. In most cases, everyone is not offering web hosting. A few places are offering web hosting and everyone else is reselling. It's a bit more complex than that, but for the most part, you can place web hosts into five categories:

* Mega Hosts - These are the big guns. They charge you a premium price for the power and a user friendly hosting interface. Put a few tools on board and rely on the big name to generate the sales. The servers are very powerful and stable, but often times, very overloaded.

* Data Centers - The name of the game for the data center is servers and cables. They tend to stick to what they know. Their business model is to give you a place to host your server with all the advantages of a mega-host. Meaning, the pipe (data connection to the Internet) into the server is usually HUGE. They perform server resets for the server owners and will even lease servers to people needing dedicated hosting. Sometimes, the even sell hosting accounts.

* Dedicated Hosts - These are the meat and potatoes of the hosting world. They either purchase servers or lease servers, place them in a data center and sell hosting. Most people that do dedicated hosting needed the server anyway and are looking for a way to split the cost of the expensive server. They even go as far as to open the server up for affiliates and resellers. In many cases, you will find the dedicated host will have wrapped additional software or services around the hosting.

* Resellers - You find them in almost every successful Internet offering. The affiliate (or reseller) is responsible for about 50% of all Internet sales. They put a lot of work into advertising and marketing and share revenue for their efforts. In most cases, they have no real knowledge of the inner working of the products the resell. Web hosting centers have pretty high end resellers control panels.

* Garbage Hosts - With the explosion of High Speed Internet and Linux, the hobbyist can now put together a "server" for very little cost. Install the free hosting control panel and pay a couple of bucks for a merchant account and viola - Instant garbage host. These are usually people looking to make a quick buck while learning how to maintain a server. Beware... -

At first glance, you would probably think that picking a host was as simple as moving down the list. This line of thinking would leave one to believe that the Mega-host was best and the Garbage host was the worst. "Not true," said the author! Your choice list is shaped more like a bell. The best choice probably lies in the center of the list, and you get worse as you fall to the sides. Don't believe me, look at the facts....

The Mega Host is a cookie cutter outfit. They have thousands of accounts and all of them are fairly small. There is not much in the way of real computing happening, just serving a few pages and pictures. They are VERY rigid with the rules you must follow. Remember, it's a numbers game. They are trying to pack the most number of accounts they can onto a server, not provide you with a powerful tool. In many cases, they will not equip the client to run the most vital types of software. If your looking for a family web site and you have a few extra bucks - this is the way to go.

I wont even cover the Garbage Hosts. Keep reading the article and you will learn how to spot them.

So what about the Resellers? I bet your thinking that you would just want to avoid them. Well, that may not be the case. Many people are using a reseller as the primary point of contact and never even know it. They have the ability to handle most of the issues. What you are really paying for here is the relationship. Resellers will have a handful of clients and know them all by name. They will also understand your business needs and work harder for you. Remember, it IS a numbers game. If the reseller has 10 clients and you are upset, 10% of his clients are mad. At the mega host with 10,000 clients, how bothered are they with your problem? You represent .01% of the clients.

Well, if the reseller gets the packages from the Data Center, then why wouldn't I just go straight to the data center? You could. And you would probably get the same price. Cut out the middle man. Deal directly with the people that run the server. Well, I will say it one more time. It is a numbers game. You represent a very small amount of their business. They are interested in selling (or leasing) an entire server, not just an account. If you are interested in a server - YES! This is where you stop. Get a server and sell hosting :-) If you are looking for one or two accounts, read on.

The Dedicated Host is a pretty good bet (in most cases). They offer hosting as a logical extension of an existing service. Software, book store or whatever. It usually means that they are doing business on the same server that your account will be on. Yes, they are not in the data center with the server. But the server is in the data center! And your sales person is making money on the server itself. How interested is that person going to be in keeping the server on-line? This person also carries more weight at the data center because they purchased or leased one or more servers. You can build a relationship with a person, generally get pretty good business advice and rest in comfort knowing that the web host will make sure the server stays lean, fast and reliable. Remember, in most cases, these people are doing business on the servers they are selling.

Additionally, keep these points in mind.

1. Stay away from the mega-hosts. They tend to overload their servers and lock you out of the most basic functionality. As you grow your web site, it will become important to you that your host provide you with the following features:
* User Friendly Control Panel
* Full CGI Support (Perl, PHP, etc)
* MySQL Database
* Email to Script Forwarding
* Script Scheduling (within Control Panel preferred)
If your web host can't offer these features, it is time to start thinking about a new web host! Quality web hosting organizations should have a page describing all the features that come with your account. For an example, see (http://stoco.net/~stoco/cgi-bin/cart.cgi/web0002.html).

2. Beware of "Super Discounts" for web hosting. Take time to figure out what you really get! It does not cost a lot of money for a kid to put together a small server, plug it into his Cox cable modem and sell hosting for $2.95! Real hosting costs money. Find a quality host plugged into a high-speed data-center. Low cost is not always a greater value. You can usually get high quality hosting for under $20.00, depending on the level of service and content you will require.

3. Determine if you need a Windows or Unix host. In most cases, it wont matter. The Linux hosts are usually pretty good. Whatever you do - make sure they support Perl, PHP and CGI. If they tell you that you don't need them - look elsewhere. Most of your web-site growth will be done utilizing free tools developed in Perl or PHP. Keep this in mind though, you will find more free stuff for a Unix/Linux system then you will for a Windows system. The only time Bill gives things away is to put people out of business and charge your more money in the end. Also, make sure they offer support for FrontPage Extensions.

4. Email the hosting company and ask them questions. If they are not willing to take the time to talk to you, your support will be even worse. Don't get bent on the idea of 24/7 telephone support. In many cases these call centers are staffed by people with very little knowledge or power. Most problems will need to be solved by the "Admin." Trust me, you will not have access to the admin on telephone support. It can take days for the admin to respond to your problem. All 24/7 telephone support does is raise your monthly fee and lower your quality of service.

5. Go with a host that will allow you to grow. You don't want to get locked in and end up unhappy. Often hosts (especially the larger ones) will have great intro rates. But as soon as you start to grow in storage space or bandwidth, the costs go through the roof. Look for a host that has a reasonable growth plan with reasonable prices. In most cases, you should look for a transition plan into your own server! I am assuming, of course, that your business will be exploding and you will need your own server.

6. Ask for referrals! Can the host send you to people that are happy with the services they provide? If not - it should make you worry!

7. Check out the web-host site. Does it look like it was put together by someone that has little clue about how to design a site? If so - can they be trusted with your technical questions? Do they really understand what it means to create a successful web presence?

You have many options. In many cases, it's harder to go wrong than right. The bottom line is this: "Not all mega-hosts are bad, not all dedicated hosts are good." Do your homework, and try to work with someone you feel you can trust! There is nothing wrong with using someone that is reselling server space if you can trust them.

Follow these steps and you can't miss!

Follow these steps and you can't miss!

To your success,

John Stone
(http://stoco.net)
(http://pubmgr.stoco.net)

About the Author
John Stone is the founder of Stoco.net, a service based Internet site dedicated to delivering solutions for the small business owner. John has released several commercial software products and provides web hosting at discount prices. Software products include small utilities for organizations, automation and web site control including Publication Manager (an Email Autoresponder) and Ad Manager (a web page automation tool). John is also recognized as a Perl automation expert and offers advice to the Internet newbie through Stoco.net and MaxTrafficExchange.com.