Have you ever considered how a web page works? When you use a web browser to obtain information, you interact with a remote computer system. The internet carries requests from your browser to web server software on that system, as specified by its IP address. The web server processes your requests and formulates responses, which are sent back for processing and display in your browser.
That remote system, which could be anything from a simple website to a complex business application on several hardware servers, has to be installed and managed by its owner, either on the owner’s servers or on a third-party web host’s infrastructure. This is known as web hosting.
What is web hosting?
Broadly speaking, web hosting is the operation of internet-facing hardware and software that provides web services to end users. Many organizations have made the decision to outsource the ownership and operation of their web infrastructure. Why pay for data center space, servers, software, and management when they can easily be rented and remotely managed? Commercial web hosting companies apply levels of expertise and economies of scale to this task that most organizations, and particularly small-to-medium businesses, cannot touch. A hosting account with a web hosting provider allows you to remotely manage your website on the provider’s infrastructure.
At its most basic, web hosting involves secure internet interfaces and communications, computer server hardware and storage, web server software, and content (text, images, audio/video). But most web hosting solutions also often involve hosting database servers, content management systems, ecommerce tools, security and authentication, and other applications that the websites rely on to function, as well as cyber-attack detection and prevention.
While the client organization retains responsibility for the website content and operations, the web hosting company provides the internet interfaces, computer servers, and core software; manages the server operations, such as software updates and backups; and provides technical support.
Website hosting has become a huge and growing business, totaling over $75 billion in 2020 and expected to exceed $267 billion by 2028.
Types of hosting plans
There are several different types of web hosting options available, usually trading off costs for increases in resources such as compute performance, bandwidth, storage, security, and flexibility. Types of hosting include:
- Shared hosting. This approach involves several client websites residing together on the same server and sharing resources, much like roommates sharing an apartment. This approach is often used by individuals and small businesses, and works well when the sites do not require an entire server of their own. The client buys a plan, usually with a monthly quota for storage space and bandwidth use, and hopes the other clients do not consume too many resources. Shopify operates as shared hosting.
- WordPress hosting. This approach is for website owners publishing blogs or other content on WordPress, a popular content management system. The hosting provider maintains the core server infrastructure along with the requisite WordPress software platform. Most general web hosting providers will also support WordPress software, but some specialize in the platform, to the advantage of their clients. Dedicated WordPress hosts are also closer to the technical and security issues faced by that platform, which can be important.
- Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting. Virtualization is a computer technology that allows for the creation of one or more “virtual computers” (i.e., a software emulation of an entire computer) running on a single server. VPS hosting allows for the economic advantages of shared hosting but with better performance and enhanced privacy, as each client’s virtual server is better protected from other clients. A2 Hosting and Bluehost are two companies that provide VPS services.
- Dedicated hosting. In contrast to shared hosting, this approach involves one or more whole physical servers dedicated to a client. This allows for greater control and security, and helps ensure better and more predictable performance. The downside of this dedicated server approach is higher cost and greater responsibility for server control and management. Dreamhost offers dedicated hosting.
- Cloud hosting. This approach uses virtualization, highly scaled hardware infrastructure, and sophisticated management software to enable hosting services for high availability and varying performance applications. It enables greater performance flexibility by migrating virtual servers rapidly between real servers, adding or subtracting resources as needed. Cloud hosting is also great when you need to plan for growth. Cloudways offers strong cloud hosting.
What to consider when choosing a hosting provider
There are many factors that will affect the success of your website and your satisfaction with your web hosting provider. Just as your needs are different from another person’s, there is no one web host that is right for everyone. Here is a list of things you need to consider before choosing a hosting provider:
- Hosting model. The hosting models discussed above are your first decision—which works best for you?
- Storage space and bandwidth. These are hard costs that the hosting provider measures and charges for, often in tiered hosting packages. Many hosting providers promise “unlimited space and bandwidth,” but it is worth reading the fine print of the contract if you plan to rely on that. More professional dedicated and cloud web hosting packages will call out maximums, or just charge a quoted rate for storage per week or month as your usage goes up and down.
- Performance. Until you get up into the dedicated and cloud hosting models, it is difficult to obtain commitments on specific server resources and performance. Higher-end packages may include specifications of dedicated central processing unit (CPU) cores (or their virtual equivalents), page load times, and other performance-related metrics.
- Domains and subdomains. You need multiple websites, or multiple domain names which redirect to the same site or sites. Web hosting providers are generally happy to support this at a small cost.
- Email services. Most if not all web hosting arrangements include some amount of email hosting capability. You may or may not need this, depending on your other arrangements and desires. Variables here include the number of email accounts allowed, space quota, and mail service interfaces support.
- Software tools supported. This is one of the most important areas of differentiation. Many hosting packages include a website builder, an online tool that helps you design the structure and appearance of your website. Some packages include software like WordPress, PHP, ASP.net, and others. Some include database servers, either open source like MySQL or commercial products like Microsoft SQL Server. Some, like Shopify, offer a variety of ecommerce tools and credit card processing services. Most hosting packages include some amount of malware and spam protection.
- Administrative interface. There are many technical considerations to configuring and managing a web server (and all the things that go along with it). Make sure your technical team previews this interface to ensure it offers the control you need, and make sure you understand your system backup options.
Web hosting is hardly a one-size-fits-all situation. Different sites seek to achieve different aims, and each one will attract different numbers and types of people. Hosting is the technical foundation that makes the site work, so the hosting package specs should be chosen around how basic or advanced a site’s functionality is. Hosting costs vary, usually according to capabilities: You might pay $10 a month for a simple billboard-style site to advertise a business online, or you could pay much more if you’re running a busy ecommerce shop with a hundred thousand customers.
You only need to know your goals and know how to translate them into hosting needs in order to successfully choose web hosting that works for you.