All Web hosts ultimately provide the same service.
An individual or a business places a page on the hostís server and people
all over the world can access that page from their Web browser. But that,
unfortunately, isnít all there is to it.
"A Web siteís performance depends on the bandwidth,
server resources and infrastructure of the hosting provider," said Ken
Gavranovic. president and CEO of Interland, Inc. of Atlanta, Georgia, host
to over 50,000 Web sites and recently ranked #1 Web Hosting Provider by Windows
NT Magazine and Networking Computing Magazine. "Hosting
comes in many forms--shared hosting, dedicated hosting and co-location, plus
hundreds of variations of each."
Shared hosting means placing multiple accounts on the same server, which the
hosting company manages. Dedicated hosting means placing one customer on
their own private server, on which they can host multiple domains. The
customer leases the server from the hosting company, and manages it
remotely. And co-located hosting means the customer purchases their own
server on which they can host multiple domains and sends it to the hosting
company to house for them. While the customer relies on the hosting company
for high-speed connectivity, network interoperability, etc., the customer
manages its server remotely.
When choosing a Web host, a Web site developer should look
for size, speed, and diversity of dedicated Internet connections, as well as
what hardware and software the host uses. Reliability is very important. Is
there more uptime than downtime? Also important are a hostís response
times. The quality and standard of back-up power is also important, as is
security. But one of the most important issues a developer faces when
choosing a host is the quality and level of customer service.
Twenty-four-hour customer service means next to nothing
unless the persons fielding calls are qualified computer professionals. What
about the skill level of the technical representative at 4 a.m.? How
accessible is an engineer during "non-business" hours? Can the
engineer on call be notified via pager that thereís a problem? This isnít
a problem if a site is simple but can be if itís more complex.
Response time is important. When sending a message out
into the great unknown, it's nice to get a response back within a an hour or
two. This is something a developer can test before signing on with a
service. After sending the hostís support department a question, how long
does it take for them to respond? Also, how helpful is the response? If a
host has extensive online FAQs, then its customer support team should
respond faster to queries and respond in more detail than if they were
bogged down all day telling 500 people how to upload a page.
Size and speed indicate the Web hostís total bandwidth
to the Internet and, therefore, directly relate to the speed of a siteís
delivery and the traffic it can support. One of the most overlooked issues
is diversity of a hostís Internet connections. To ensure maximum uptime,
it should have connections to several national backbones. This ensures that
it will have at least one active connection even if one of the national
backbones goes down.
Many hosts claim they have "unlimited
bandwidth." This simply can't be true, as no one has unlimited
bandwidth, and someone eventually has to pay for it. If a developer sets up
a site which chokes a hostís Internet connection, the host will either
make the developer pay more or simply shut off the site.
Power Means Everything
How is the host setup powered? What hardware is being used, what operating
systems and Web servers are being run, and whatís its internal networking
structure like? After obtaining this information from several different
hosts, a developer will be able to sift out those with weaker setups.
What about the physical platforms that are used to host
sites and connect to the Internet? What about router platforms? Are they
redundant and diverse? At what capacity do they implement upgrades? Are the
platforms made up of industry standard vendors such as Cisco Systems, Sun
Microsystems, etc., or does the host use lesser-known vendors or possibly
other proprietary methods? Also, is the host Y2K compliant? All of these
capabilities ensure interoperability, especially between client and vendor
in private business applications where employees have access to databases
through the company Web site.
Every time that someone goes to a Web site, he or she
downloads the images off of its hostís server and onto a PC. This transfer
causes data to be sent over the hostís internet connection, which is only
of a finite size. Too much data can cause the connection to become clogged.
But figuring out a siteís requirements is easy. If the homepage has two 5K
images on it and receives 100 visitors, that means that each visitor would
download 10K of information over the host's Internet connection or 10K x 100
or 1000K, which equals 1MB. One to two gigabytes of traffic is ample for 99
percent of the sites on the Internet.
Reliability Can Be Tough
Reliability can be a tough issue. Servers crashĖthatís simply a fact of
life. Everyone has seen the dreaded "Server not responding..."
message. For a host to admit to downtime is an admission of failure.
However, a responsible host should understand that crashes are a part of
running a server and be open about any major interruptions of service. A
site should be reachable 98 percent of the time.
What about backup? Is the hostís equipment backed up by
battery or generator? If the host relies on battery backup, how and when is
power routed to the batteries in case of an outage? "If backup power
kicks in only after primary power goes down," said Gavranovic, "a
site may be down for the period of time while power is restored and the
servers are rebooted. At Interland, each server box is connected to a
battery source or UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply), which is connected to
a power outlet. A generator is connected to that same power outlet and to a
switch that immediately sends a signal if a power outage occurs and the
battery source begins to deploy power to that server. The generator would
then replace the battery as the continuous power supply directly to the
server, until the power outage problem is resolved. This system is designed
to prevent any Web sites from experiencing down time."
Most developers donít ask what floor the hosting
facility is located on until thereís a flood. Business people and Web
developers often donít look at the Internet as something physical. But the
virtual world exists on physical facilities, and competitive pricing is only
one of the critical elements to consider. " Our Technical Operations
Department performs a series of drills to prepare for emergencies of any
kind," added Gavranovic, "so the staff is fully aware of the
protocol, should problems arise."
A Secure Network Means a Satisfied
Even more important is the security of the network. What is the hostís
security policy and configuration? Do they have a firewall? Is there a
security expert on staff? Hosts with weak network security are vulnerable to
A host may be extraordinarily well connected to the
Internet, but if a 386 serves a site, it's not going to make any difference.
The best test of this is to see how quickly a hostís sites load at various
times of day. If they have a client listing available online, some of those
sites should be tested as well.
Lastly, how prepared is the host to grow their setup as
their business grows? Will the added strain of some new accounts be too much
and leave them dead in the water? "Weíre committed to making the Web
work for our customers," Gavranovic said. "We simplify Web
technology for them and offer the tools and services they need to create,
design and publish high-quality Web sites."
After checking off the above items, a Web developer should
contact some of the hostís current customers to see how satisfied they are
with its service.