Finding the perfect web host for you and your clients

Maitre D' Host

An unfortunate truth for any of us who buy web hosting is that there are a lot more bad hosts than there are good ones. Running a website can be a complicated affair at the best of times but when your site is down more often than it’s up, customer support takes days to respond to queries, and when they do they respond with a suspiciously East-European grasp of the English language, it can be excruciating.

I’ve been through more hosts than I care to count and most of them were rubbish. However, through my trials and tribulations I have stumbled across one or two good’uns so I feel I should share my story and pose one or two of the questions that you should ask yourself when searching for a
new host.

It’s not good to share

Anyone who has ever hosted a website will at some point have used a budget-priced shared hosting package of some sort. Priced from a few quid a month upwards, there are some amazing deals to be found. Unfortunately the shared arena is also the one most wrought with cowboys, bedroom hosts, and promises that simply can’t be delivered.

If one host is offering 1,500 GB of storage and 15,000 GB of bandwidth you can bet your bottom dollar there is another host offering even more. With some top of the range dedicated server packages offering only a fraction of that storage and bandwidth you have to ask how it all adds up? A typical shared host contends hundreds of customers on one server, so do the maths.

The fact is it doesn’t add up. The big flashy numbers are designed to sell, not provide. A shared host can not and will not ever provide that level of storage or bandwidth – ask anyone who’s ever suffered the Digg effect on their shared hosted blog!

In reality, if a shared hosting package is the most appropriate solution for you (and for the vast majority of people it is the most appropriate) then I would be very surprised if you needed 10 GB of storage, let alone 1,500 GB. And 50 GB of bandwidth is more than enough for most small to medium sized blogs.

When buying shared hosting don’t be suckered in by the unrealistic headline figures and remember the old truism “you get what you pay for” has rarely been truer. Sites like Webhost Magazine and Web Hosting Geeks provide users’ reviews from their hosting experiences, and whilst it must be remembered that people like to complain a lot more than they do compliment, these sites should help you avoid the worst of the bunch.

Out of the many shared hosts I’ve tried, I will only reserve a mention for one: Lunarpages. This site, miLienzo.com was with them all of last year and as far as I’m aware there was never any downtime and the site held up well under one very significant wave of traffic from a Stumbling and a Digg.

Virtual private servers

A virtual private server (VPS) is the next logical step for those who feel that maybe they’ve outgrown their basic shared host, or as is my case, you want to offer hosting as an added service to your clients.

A VPS is still essentially a shared environment. However, rather than being bundled in with the world and his dog, a VPS host generally contends from 4 to 16 customers on one server. What’s more is you also get many of the advanced features that a dedicated server provides: root SSH access, cron jobs, the ability to install custom applications.

Whilst it’s still possible to get a bad neighbour who abuses the server and affects the quality of your service, a good host will look out for this and move heavy users onto less contended machines to spread the load.

Prices for VPS hosts can range massively from £10 a month to £100 a month. As always, the more you pay the more you get in terms of storage, bandwidth and memory. The key with choosing a VPS lies in memory use. Generally you will be allocated a guaranteed memory limit and a non-guaranteed burstable limit. The theory is that your guaranteed memory is yours and yours only; the burstable limit is there if you need it but is shared amongst your follow customers so cannot be guaranteed.

It’s bad news if your memory usage is constantly above your guaranteed limit, which at entry level VPS plans is normally 256 MB. Unfortunately two or three WordPress blogs or Joomla sites can quickly eat into that so depending on how many sites you plan on hosting you may need to upgrade to a more expensive plan.

I made the move to VPS at the beginning of this year and I’m delighted with the move. Hopefully you will have noticed the massively improved speed of this site, and now I can resell hosting to my web design clients. After MUCH research I opted for Servint.net and I’m very happy with my decision. Their support is fantastic and very fast and I am yet to find anyone who has a bad word to say about them.

I completely unashamedly link to them using an affiliate link – something I never do – because I really do recommend them! Check out Servint.net for their range of VPS solutions.

Dedication is all you need…

… or so Roy Castle would have you believe. Because once you’ve got several dozen big clients on your books, or one of your sites is generating a million page views a month, it’s more than likely that you’ll have outgrown your VPS and need a dedicated server.

A dedicated server is exactly that – a server that sits in a rack in some data-centre that is all yours. But be warned, a dedicated server is not for the feint-hearted. Once your server is switched on it is up to you to log into your server using SSH, configure it and install whatever is necessary to make it do what you want it to. There are more expensive managed solutions available where some of responsibility of administering the system is taken off of your hands, but either way you still need to know what you’re doing.

Prices for dedicated hosts vary from the £30 a month range right up to eye-watering four figure fees. With a dedicated server the more you pay the more you get in terms of memory, CPU, storage, etc. It’s worth paying attention to your host’s connection to the Internet – I’ve seen some cheaper dedicated hosts offering a 10 MB connection to the Internet which is going to struggle under a Digg. Look for at least a 100 MB connection.

The other point to bare in mind is the quality of support. If you’re having difficulties getting your server up and running yourself (happens quite often with me) and you need to turn to support, what is the response going to be like? Are you going to have a friendly and helpful conversation or is it going to be excruciatingly long-winded where everything support suggests involves you paying them money to do some work?

One UK host I’ve been working with is Rapid Switch who boast the fastest network in the UK and one of the fastest in Europe. My experience of their support has not been fantastic but you can’t argue with their prices or the speed of their network.

Conclusions

Finding a host is not an easy business. The important thing is know what you need from a host, look to match those criteria, and then do your research. Find out what other people are saying about the host you have your eye on – is everyone complaining about their constant downtime and hideous customer service, or are loyal customers singing their praises?

Once you’ve made you choice, what guarantees have you got? A 99.9% up-time guarantee is an absolute minimum. Also, are you locking yourself into a twelve month contract or can you up sticks and move at any time. If the latter I suggest moving your sites over slowly so you can test and monitor the impact each site is having on your server’s performance.

What have your hosting experiences been like?

I’ve told you about some of the hosts I’ve had success with – what about you? Who would you recommend and why? What sort of things do you look out for when choosing a host?

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