Web hosting for small businesses explained
Choosing the right type of web hosting for your small business website can be a bit of a minefield and the wrong move could result in either overspending or a slow website. Here is our quick guide to the various types of web hosting.
What is web hosting?
Your website needs to be available to the public no matter what time of day or night. Put very simply, web hosting is in fact a computer (known as a server), or network of computers, that remains switched on 24/7 and connected to the internet. Anyone requesting to view your web pages will be downloading your website files and folders from that computer in order to view them as a website in their browser.
There are a number of options when it comes to web hosting for small businesses, each with their own pros and cons.
This type of hosting is usually for those businesses wanting to save some money and create a 'self-build' website or blog. Examples include;
These companies have their reputations staked on reliable hosting so you will find that they are usually very good in terms of availability. The downside to this approach is no real access to configure the hosting to your needs and you are usually tied to the supplier's 'drag and drop' website builder and pre-coded templates so very little is on offer in terms of design and code flexibility (the code generated by a lot of these builders would make our developers weep).
Although the quality of these websites will be nowhere near that offered by a professional web agency, they can be an option for a brand new startup business or sole trader with little budget to invest in their online presence in the early days. And, if you are happy to give it a go, you can create a basic website for your business pretty quickly.
Shared hosting is exactly as it sounds. You are allocated a small area of a much larger server which is shared with many (sometimes thousands) of other websites. If you don't want to be tied in to templated websites and feel confident enough to create your own or are employing the services of a web designer then shared hosting is the affordable option for you.
The pros of this approach are really flexibility in terms of website design and in some aspects of the web hosting set up. The cons are not really knowing who your 'neighbours' are (you could be sharing with anyone) and the fact that busy periods of the day or high demand may cause your website to slow down as all of the websites on the server are vying for resources.
There may also come a time when a website on your shared hosting is hacked or is used to send out spam email messages. Although this is rare with reputable shared web hosting providers it may have a negative effect on your website, either leaving it open to hacking or getting the web server blacklisted.
VPS (Virtual Private Server)
A VPS is a single, virtual machine, usually with the 'load' spread across a number of physical servers joined together. In essence it is your own server where you can get access to and update services such as account creation, security functions and software versions but there is no physical 'box' that you can identify as your own.
This is the entry level for those businesses who have grown enough or have enough traffic to justify their own dedicated web space where resources can be carefully monitored and adjusted to ensure websites are available and quick for visitors.
The pros of this approach are very reliable web hosting (if you choose a good provider of course). The cons are really around the price. You can easily end up paying a monthly cost which is the same as you would pay for a year's hosting on a shared server. You should also make sure that you are comfortable managing a server and may need to 'get your hands dirty' from time to time. Often, professional web design agencies will offer you hosting space on their own VPS where you can be assured that they will manage the service on your behalf and will only have their customers websites on the server.
Although this option may be cost prohibitive for a small business with a brochure website, if you are starting an e-commerce website then we would advise a VPS as a bare minimum. This is not only down to reliability and speed but also because you will need a dedicated 'static' IP address to install a SSL security certificate. A static IP may also be needed to maintain the communication channels with your payment gateway provider. For example, Sage Pay will check that your IP address is in its configuration before it will process a payment and you don't want to be updating this every month or so!
A dedicated server is a single, physical system which you essentially "rent" inside of a data center. Dedicated servers are probably the most expensive option out there right now. Dedicated servers will often be sold as 'bare bones' so you may need to purchase the software that is needed to make a server run. It will also take an advanced knowledge of server configuration and management to get your website up and running on a dedicated web hosting package.
Much like the VPS solution, the pros of dedicated servers are speed, reliability and flexibility and the cons are cost and the knowledge required to run it.
When considering either a VPS or dedicated server you can usually pay for management from the hosting company. This will reduce the need for server management knowledge but you may still want to get to grips with the basics so that you can do some of it yourself.
Tips for choosing a shared hosting supplier
If you are a small business looking at the cheaper shared hosting options (which most will when they start out) then there are some things that you should be aware of when choosing a provider. Here are some tips on what to look out for.
Don't be fooled by the top-level figures - We are not saying these are not important but beware of what 'lies beneath the headlines'. For example it is easy for a web hosting company to promise you 5GB (Gigabytes) worth of storage space because they know you are never going to use it all. This is pretty much a meaningless figure but can look like a great deal to the uninitiated. Other factors are more important.
Up-time guarantee - You will want your website to be available at all times to visitors and hosting companies will usually offer an up-time guarantee. Make sure this is a minimum of 99.5% and check how they will compensate you if this target is not hit.
Windows or Linux - It is quite tempting for small businesses to opt for Windows-based hosting as this is a name you will recognise. Windows hosting is very good but some websites may not work all that well on the platform. Linux is actually the more popular choice for an Operating System on web hosting so don't discount it because you don't recognise it!
Do you need a database? - CMS (Content Management System) based websites will need a database to store the information about the website and make it work. If you need one then make sure it is included in the package you choose.
Control panel - This will be the area where you will manage your web hosting. Many web hosts use the cPanel software which is very clear and user-friendly. Others don't and some even develop their own admin areas so ask what admin area your web hosts use and if there is a demo you can try to make sure it isn't too overwhelming.
Other software - As well as the operating system and control panel you may require other software to make your website work. This might be PHP or MySQL for instance. Make sure you select the correct software with your web hosting package.
UK based servers - If you are a UK businesses operating or selling mainly in the UK then make sure your website will be hosted in the UK. A few of the very cheap web hosting companies only have servers abroad so do check carefully.
Check reviews - As with buying any other service there are plenty of reviews for web hosting companies online. Be sure to check them and read as many of the comments as you can. Web hosts with poor customer service or too many technical issues will soon come to light.
We hope that this article has helped you to understand a little more about web hosting options for your small business website and that you have many years of hassle-free web hosting and happy visitors with your chosen supplier.