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Selecting a hosting service . . . .

The first and most important bit of advice I can give is that price is not the most important factor when it comes to choosing a hosting service.

There are hundreds of services to choose from, all offering something that is likely to meet your needs. What differentiates them is the help they offer when you need it. For instance if you are new to website design will the hosting company make life easy for you by setting up email accounts, error pages etc.

Here are some guidelines that will help.

How do I select a web hosting company

What facilities should you be looking for, well here's our list of the important things together with reasons why they are important.

What to look for in a hosting company

Why this is important

The amount of webspace which you get, measured in megabytes (Mb)
The more the better, typical small sites of a few pages will fit onto a floppy disk, but larger sites of hundreds of pages will of course need more space. We suggest a minimum of 100 Mb.
email pop boxes
So you can receive email on your webspace and pick it up using an email application. This will probably be separate from other email addresses which you have.
email redirection
So that you can redirect email arriving at your site to anywhere else. This is important if your operation is handled by different people who all have different email addresses, for example billing and sales could be different geographical locations, so all email for sales can be redirected to one person and sales to another
email autoresponders
These send an automatic response every time an email is received, it lets your correspondents know that their email has been received and that something is going to happen. This can be quite simple something like ' Thank you for your email, we'll get back to you with a definite answer within 24 hours' You should be able to set different automatic responses to each email address too.
email aliases
This allows you to receive mail to zzzzzzz@yourname.com, where zzzzzzz can be literally anything. It means that if people spell the first part of your email wrong then you will still get the message. You can also have as many email addresses as you want, for instance sales@yourname.com, fred, george, betty etc. Each will be received.
IP address

Do you need a dedicated IP address? Most people don't, unless they are going to have a security certificate for ecommerce. They can usually be added into your hosting package for a very low cost per month, typically $2 US.

Access to your space
You should have 24 hour access to your webspace so you can perform updates when it suits you. Also check that you don't have to be a dialup customer and dial in from a particular telephone number to be able to use your webspace. This can be an issue with some of the free providers.
Mailing lists
Can you operate mailing lists direct from your webspace, you should be able to, although in practice there will almost certainly be a limit on the maximum length of message which you can send. This is simply to keep the traffic from the site to reasonable proportions, and prevent spam.
Secure server access
You need this is you are going to handle traffic like credit card transactions so that your buyers feel comfortable about sending their credit card details for processing
Server side includes
This facility lets the server replace certain special codes which you put on your pages by real content. So for instance if all your pages have the same heading, you could have the server put it onto every page. The advantage is that if you make a change to that heading, you will only have to change the one file instead of every page on your site.
On-line manual
obvious, so you can read it anytime and print off any relevant sections for use later
ease of control of your website
How do you set up the facilities like email redirection, autoresponders etc. Some hosting companies expect you to do it all with text files which you have to download, edit and then replace, whereas more user friendly ones provide you with these facilities which you access via a password protected control panel. This makes maintenance very easy.
Use statistics for your webspace

You should expect access to two things, firstly the actual raw file access data, so that you can analyse it yourself if you want to. Second you should have an on-line graphical report showing what is happening on your site. This should be able to show you the number of accesses, times of day when they occurred, sites from which the accesses came and other details.

Also expect further analysis showing the directories on your site and the number of accesses to each individual file.

Some hosting services provide more than one graphical analysis of statistics.

Backups
your web hosting company should be backing up your site and every other site they host on a daily basis, and this should not interfere with the service in any way.
Front-page 2000 extensions
If you use Front-page 2000 you need the webspace set up with some extra files in place. Check this before you commit yourself.
CGI or CGI-bin
If you want to have more than very basic functionality on your pages then the ability to run CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts is essential. This is what makes pages interactive, with such things as forums, special forms and other features. It's the one thing that really sorts out the web hosting companies from the free space providers. In general the free providers give you access to just a counter to put on your pages plus a limited form processing script. True web hosting companies give you your own CGI-bin - somewhere to keep you scripts, and let you write your own.
Referrer logs
All web servers can tell where you visitors came from, at least giving you the numerical address of the previous page visited. You should have access to this, although you may have to pay a small extra charge to get it. It enables you to see which search engines are sending you visitors, or which of your links are active.
Chat rooms
Not essential, but useful if you want to include them. Not all servers allow you to run these because they use a lot of system resources, so you may have to use a particular one, and pay a small extra charge for it.
List servers - Majordomo or similar
Interactive newsletter/mailing lists which your visitors can subscribe/unsubscribe to, and send messages through. Again this can use a lit of system resources, so you may have to pay small extra charge for it.
PHP
PHP is a hypertext pre-processor that adds functionality to pages by performing specialised operations before the pages are served. Typically this will be for database access. Unless you are going to use databases you will not need it.
MySQL databases

If you are using PHP then you'll probably need on-line databases, normally they are provided using MySQL, an open-source database. Check how many databases you can put on your site.

Many packages use databases to hold information about things like photo albums and weblogs. So if you want to use one of them then it's likely that you'll need databases.

Script installer

If you want to use things like photo album packages and weblogs then the special programs or scripts need to be installed. This can be done manually but in most cases it does need specialised knowledge. Many of the better hosting packages that provide a control panel also provide a script installer like Fantastico. In practice this provides a list of available scripts, you pick the ones you want, click install and it does just that.

If databases are needed then Fantastico sets them up for you, it makes a difficult job as easy as clicking a button.

Cost

Is it reasonable? How long is the contract and what is the minimum period. How much notice do you need to give to cancel?

Can you upgrade your package if you need more space or traffic?

How fast is the connection between the server and the Internet backbone, ask for reference sites and do go and look at them. Try visiting them at different times of the day so that you can compare response times when the Internet is busy and quiet.

Where are the servers located physically? Are they close to the heart of the Internet or are they up some quiet backwater from where you data has to travel through restricted pathways? The best way to find out is simply to try the reference sites.

Traffic allowance
Every time a page is served it generates traffic from the server onto the Internet Servers record that traffic and add up the total amount of data which they have served from your site. How much should you be looking for varies, but at least 1,000 Mb per month and more if you can get it.

Top of page

What facilities should I look for in a hosting company

Look for everything in this list above which talks about what to look for in terms of webspace, and in addition ask about technical support - is it by telephone and if so what are the normal hours, is it included in the price or extra. How is it charged? Most of the 'free' providers make their money in three ways, firstly from the telephone calls to access the service, they get a percentage of the call costs. Secondly from the telephone calls to the help lines, which are charged 50p a minute or more in the UK, and finally from advertising revenues.

If you are likely to need to call the support line more than one or twice a year then will probably end up paying a very large telephone bill for support!

Take this simple test, read the following paragraph and then rate yourself:

Our computers are Pentium II Dual Pro 400 and 450 machines running Apache over Linux. You will be able to access and manage your website on our machines using Telnet and FTP or Fetch. With our cpanel Web Control you can perform most management functions using your web browser. Our servers are connected to the Internet backbone over multiple T3 connections, each of which has a capacity of 45 MBPS (million bits per second).

If you read the above paragraph and understood every word of it then you qualify as an advanced user. You don't need to worry about support calls, in fact the support staff at our competitors might learn a thing or two from you.

If you read the paragraph and understood some of it but not all, then you will probably want a reasonable level of support, so ask some questions about what support you will really get.

Finally, if you read the paragraph and found it to be total gibberish, then you will want support that is really going to help you. Ask the web hosting company whether or not they will actually do things for you if you get stuck. They will probably want to charge you an hourly rate based on work done, if the rate seems high what should you compare it to? I usually suggest you consider how much you paid for your last car service and the labour rate for car mechanics (for information it's about £35 per hour plus VAT in the UK). Should you expect to pay more or less for skilled Internet people?

And what do you do about car service? do you get your overalls on and do it yourself or simply take your car to a garage? so why should you treat your website differently?