Before you can evaluate a web hosting provider — whether shared, vps, or dedicated, it’s important to understand some basic web-hosting related terms. This article will review some of the basic web hosting terms so you can better understand what you are looking at when you evaluate a web hosting provider and web hosting plans. Note that there are some differences between Linux and Windows hosting platform offerings, and I will details below where those differences are.
Disk or Storage Space — usually measured in MB or GB (megabytes or gigabytes), this term represents the amount of disk space you have in your account. This is the same concept as the amount of storage space on your regular computer’s hard drive. The more files and data you have, the more disk space you will need. Usually a few hundred MB (e.g. 200-500MB) is a fine place to start for a basic site. Some hosting plans even offer unlimited disk space, which is great.,
Bandwidth – bandwidth is a measure of how much data, or transfer data you can use. For example, if you have a 5mb file, and one person downloads it, you have used 5mb of bandwidth. If 10 people download it, you’ve used 50mb of bandwidth. Generally speaking most websites do not have people downloading 5mb files and 1GB of bandwidth is usually more than enough for most basic websites. If you have a site where a lot of downloading or viewing of large files is expected, then you may need more bandwidth. It’s best to track your bandwidth usage and then try to predict how much more you will need. But for any site that’s not involved with downloading or viewing very large files, bandwidth is usually not a limitation.
Email Protocols and Accounts — most hosting providers allow POP3 access to your email. This means that you can use a program like Outlook or Thunderbird to view your emails, and that you don’t necessarily need to use a webmail client. For example, you are no longer to use Outlook to access your Hotmail email, and you must use www.hotmail.com to get to your Hotmail email messages. But like I said, most hosting companies allow you to have POP3 and webmail access and you can use whatever method you prefer. Some companies also allow IMAP access, and if you are like me, IMAP access is a critical selling point. To review the difference between POP3 and IMAP hosting, you can this post.
In terms of the number of actual email accounts, most basic hosting plans allow many, many accounts, so this factor is not usually a limiting one. Some basic plans even allow you to have hundreds of accounts — but if you are at the point where you have hundreds of people who need accounts, you may want to consider something other than basic web hosting to manage all of these email accounts.
Databases – most dynamic or “interactive” web sites need some kind of database to store the data. Hosting companies generally will offer two major types of database options: MySql for Linux hosting, and MSSQL for Windows (.NET) hosting. Some hosting companies will not offer databases until their “second” tier of hosting plans, while other companies will limit the number of databases that you can have based on the tier of your plan. For example, if a company offers a “bronze, silver, and a gold package”, they may not offer any databases until the silver package. And they may list that the Silver package can have 2 databases, while the gold package can have 10. With MySql hosting, almost every provider offers some number of databases even at the entry-level plan (e.g. the bronze).
SQL Server hosting is a little different, because due to licensing restrictions and expenses, only higher Windows hosting plans have some type of MSSQL hosting — and they usually limit you to one or two databases due to the aforementioned licensing reasons. Also note if remote access is allowed, though this is a more advanced feature that most casual users don’t need.
Programming Language Support – a big picture, Linux hosting supports PHP/MySql, whereas Windows hosting supports .NET/Sql Server. Check the requirements of any application you will be using before you make a hosting choice (for example WordPress needs Linux hosting because it uses PHP/MySql)
FTP access. Almost every company will allow some level of FTP access. FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol and using FTP is the easiest way to upload files to your website. Some providers also have an FTP-type program built into the hosting control panel so that you don’t have to use a free-standing FTP client. Usually the differences you will see in terms of FTP is the number of FTP accounts you are allowed to have. Generally speaking, you really don’t need more than one or two, because people should NOT be FTPing in and out of your site. FTP should be reserved for website file maintenance only.
Domains allowed – this measures the number of different website you may host on one web hosting account. Most companies allow you to host multiple sites. This means that on one account you may host www.somewebsite.com, www.anotherwebsite.com, www.yetanotherwebsite.com. You will usually see a number that tells you the maximum number of domains you may host with an account. In my opinion, DO NOT purchase your domain name directly from your web hosting provider as this can be problematic if you decide to change web hosts. See a more detailed explanation of my reasoning here.
Sub-Domains Allowed. A sub-domain is a domain that can be used as a subsection, or to separate different parts of a website. Most small websites don’t need to worry about subdomains. Examples of subdomains are: mail.mywebsite.com, store.mywebsite.com, clients.mywebsite.com. All three of these domains are sub-domains of the “mywebsite.com” main (or top-level) domain.
Backups – some web companies will tell you that they provide daily backups of your account data. That being said, even if your company does offer some kind of backup, it’s critical that you always have your own backup handy. Sometimes a company backup will fail, or will have a problem, and most companies will tell you that even that they do perform a backup, that you must have your own backup anyway.
Control Panel – a control panel is a piece of software that comes with your hosting account. It is the web- based software that you use to perform everyday tasks such as creating email accounts and databases. For a quick introduction to hosting control panels such a cPanel, you can read this post.
Other features — some hosting plans offer automatic install of common applications and scripts such as WordPress or phpBBS. Having these automatic installers makes the setup of applications very easy, as opposed to having to have to install these programs yourself. One of the most common installers is a program called Fantastico. You should also check for money-back guarantees, as well as your access to support. Some basic plans offer email-only support, and require that you have a higher plan to have phone access (though if this is the case, find another host). That being said, 99% of all of the hosting support I’ve ever needed was done successfully over email. I’ve only used phone support for hosting in extremely rare instances.
This list generally covers most of what you need to know to understand a web hosting company’s web hosting plans and offerings. If you see another feature that you don’t understand or have a question about, ask them — or ask right here. But I will say that a great test of a web hosting provider is how quickly and courteously they will respond to your request. If you have a hard time getting an answer for a pre-sales technical question, then imagine what kind of trouble you’d have if you had a real-life problem with your account.
Lastly, I’ve developed a helpful 10-point (really 11-point) checklist that you may want to read to help you evaluate and choose a web hosting company.
To learn about Virtual Private Servers (VPS), visit our other site, VPSNovice.com