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HOW TO CHOOSE A WEB HOST
by Bob Brooke

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
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 Customer
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 hackers.

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.

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