How to Choose a Web Hosting Service
By: Scott Morris
We’ve got some clarity right here: Websites go from your computer to their online home through a process called web hosting. The good news is, building the website is where most of the heavy lifting takes place. Getting your site online through web hosting is a relatively easy and painless process. There are plenty of web hosting options—the key is finding one that best fits your level of technical know-how, scaling needs (the size and complexity of your website), and price flexibility. To help you get started, here’s a look at three types of web hosting and some pros and cons to each method.
1. Standard Web Hosting
For most people, standard web hosting is the only kind you’ll ever need. Standard web hosting services are companies that—for a fee—provide online storage for your website’s pages, images, and other assets, as well as services like domain name registration (the process of reserving the name—e.g. Skillcrush.com—that functions as your website’s user-friendly address).
Major web hosting companies like 1and1, Hostgator, Hostwinds, and GoDaddy all offer hosting for static websites (sites made up of web pages with fixed, HTML content), as well as hosting for apps and content management systems written in PHP (like WordPress). Some services also support apps written in additional languages like Ruby on Rails. These hosting services allow users to upload files through a file transfer protocol (FTP) client (a program you’ll need to have on your computer that ranges from free to paid) or through the hosting company’s own web interface. After uploading your website’s code to your hosting company’s server, your website will be live, online, and ready to be viewed and used.
Standard web hosting services charge around $15 for initial domain name registration, and one year of hosting generally costs about $70 (though can be lower or higher depending on the length of time you’re willing to commit to). Most standard web hosting companies also have customer support for those new to web hosting.
2. Platform as a Service Web Hosting
While standard web hosting services are fine for simple websites, as your web development chops improve, you’ll start working on projects that require a more complex hosting environment. Standard web hosting is pretty DIY when it comes to getting your content onto the host’s servers and managing it there—which is fine when you’re uploading simple content and walking away—but the more moving parts a project has, the less time you’ll want to spend managing servers.
Platform as a Service (PaaS) is a method of web hosting where companies like AppFog, Red Hat, Heroku, and Google Apps Engine are paid to provide the infrastructure—servers, storage, operating system, databases, etc.—necessary to launch and host your online website or app. PaaS providers offer features like HTTP Caching Servers (a method of boosting online application load times by loading static assets such as images and CSS files from a cache vs. processing them on the server), built-in version control (a tool used to track changes made in a website’s code over time), and automatic server setup and configuration (the platform provider manages elements like file transfers, security, and firewalls as part of this service).
PaaS is a pricier option than standard web hosting (pricing plans can range from $25 to $500+ a month based on usage), but it offers features well outside the realm of standard hosting. As your development projects get more dynamic and start to rely more heavily on languages outside of HTML and CSS, you might need to start looking in the direction of a PaaS provider.
3. Cloud Based Web Hosting
Cloud based web hosting operates on the same premise as other cloud based services you might use—think Google Apps, iCloud, or Dropbox—where instead of information being stored locally on one computer, it’s distributed among a network of servers in the cloud. While standard web hosting involves uploading your web assets to a specific server (where they share space with other people’s websites), cloud based web hosting services distribute those assets across several servers that work together to host your site.
Services like Amazon AWS and EC2, Microsoft Azure, and Rackspace can come in handy if your own site’s traffic starts to strain the resources on a shared server and you’re looking for a more robust hosting solution. Although it’s possible to move a website to its own dedicated server (one solely committed to hosting your site), dedicated servers can be pricey and require a certain level of IT know-how that might be outside of a developer’s wheelhouse. Using a cloud based service will take care of the traffic issue, but you won’t be responsible for providing your own server.
The other main benefit of cloud based web hosting is the flexibility it provides—particularly when it comes to scalability. When your site experiences a spike in traffic, cloud based hosting allows you to add more servers to your cloud, giving you more resources to handle visitors. When traffic dies down, you’re able cut some of these servers loose until they’re needed again. The pricing for cloud based hosting is typically based on the amount of resources used, so the cost is also scalable to what you’re actually using—you won’t be paying for resources you don’t need, and you can pay for more when you do need them. That said, pricing plans vary significantly depending on the provider and how much data you’ll be using.
Although cloud based hosting isn’t necessarily suited for beginners—the flip side of its flexibility is that the server environment doesn’t come set up to do much right out of the box—it’s a great solution for sites with serious web traffic. For example, major sites like Netflix, Adobe, and Kellogg’s use Amazon Web Services (a cloud based hosting service) to host their content.