Website Hosting Explained

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What is Web Hosting?

Web Hosting is the service that allows you to store files where they can be served up as web pages on the Internet. Typically, a server is used to store files, while web server software which is on that same server handles delivering those files to visitors when a request is made.

Simplistically, the website owner uses web hosting space to store their website files. When a visitor types in the address of the website into a web browser, that request is routed to the web server software which then delivers the information needed for the visitor to view the website.

Imagine this process multiplied by the millions in a massive network and you’ll have a basic idea of how the entire Internet works. Simply millions of people trying to access millions of websites on a large scale.

Resources Involved in Web Hosting

The definition of web hosting above is a little simplistic as it may lead to the (incorrect) assumption that web hosting service providers merely provide space for web files. IN fact, web hosting service providers are responsible not only for storing files but configuring servers to serve them as well as providing for the bandwidth necessary to serve the files.

The key resources involved in this process are CPU time/power, memory, storage space, and data bandwidth. Each of these resources has the potential to be a bottleneck in any web hosting account.

  • CPU time / power is the amount of processing resources can be used to run your web applications.
  • When programs are run, they are often loaded into memory for faster processing. If you run out of allocated memory, data is swapped in and out – delaying any processing work.
  • Storage space is where your files sit on the server. Today, many web hosts are switching to SSD drives which speeds up file processes.
  • Bandwidth bottlenecks can occur at many places – the individual server ports, the data center trunk or even on an international level.

What Web Hosting Service Providers Do?

Although web hosting service providers have their main business in selling web space, that isn’t the only business that they conduct. Most of these companies deal in almost anything that users need to build and operate websites. This can include anything from the sale and trading of domain names to facilitating the purchase of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates.

1. Offer Web Hosting

For web hosting, the service providers maintain large numbers of servers hosted in data centers. They typically do not maintain these data centers but rent space from them to make use of the infrastructure that data centers are built around. It is that infrastructure that is needed to allow files to travel to and from visitor computers via the Internet.

2. Sale of Domain Names

Most other services are provided as intermediary, meaning that they conduct those businesses on behalf of other companies. Take for example the sale of domain names. These sale and governance of these valuable commodities are overseen by central bodies such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

ICANN in turn, appoints or authorizes another group of companies to act as domain name registrars to handle the sale of domain names. A web hosting service provider can also be a domain name registrar, or simply sell domain names on behalf of an authorized registrar.

3. Backup and Cyber Security

Some web hosting services providers will also re-sell other products and services, for example Cloudflare Content Distribution Network (CDN) accounts or Sucuri web security services.

This list isn’t exhaustive but should give you an idea of what you can get from a typical web hosting services provider. One important thing that you, as a website owner, should note is that not all these services need to be purchased from your web hosting services provider.

For example, you can opt to buy your web hosting space and domain name from two different companies. The key here is modularity – you can buy what you need from different places and still integrate everything together.

Buying (or Renting) Web Hosting Space

Most people will typically buy web hosting space from a web hosting service provider, although there are other options available. Web hosting service providers normally specialize in selling almost anything that is needed for users to build and run websites.

When I use the term ‘buy’ it is sort of a misnomer, since web hosting companies don’t really ‘sell’ the space but rent it out for specified periods of time. Most standard web hosting packages are sold in blocks of one-year periods, although there are some hosts who will bill on a monthly basis.

For example: BlueHost offers varying billing cycles, ranging from a one-month trial to a three-year contract.

Once the contract period is over, you will need to either renew your billing cycle with the web hosting service provider or find a new place to host your website.

What to Look for in a Good Web Hosting Provider?

Web hosting companies are like any other and their products and vary in terms of quality and reputation. Some web hosts might have a massive spread of products available but suffer from poor reputation. Others may have great products but poor customer service.

The important thing is to do your due diligence along two paths. The first is the purpose of your website while the second is to read up on reputable reviews of good web hosting companies and services. Everything in life is a matter of give and take and web hosting isn’t any different. There is no such thing as the perfect solution – but you can choose the best fit for your needs.

There are basic outlines of what makes good hosting service providers include performance, scalability, pricing, customer service, as well as features.

For a more comprehensive idea of what to look for in a good web hosting provider, read our detailed guide here.

Remember that your goals are not necessarily to look for the greatest and best of everything, but to look for the best possible fit. As an example, if you’re running a website which offers time-sensitive information such as stock market data, you will likely place greater emphasis on performance. On the other hand, a small, free personal blog will be better off staying more focused on price.

Managing Your Web Hosting Account

Plesk Hosting
This is an example of what a Plesk control panel might look like.

The Control Panel

Almost all web hosting accounts today are using either Plesk, cPanel or a modified version of one of the two. Neither is particularly better in my opinion, although some people prefer the operating system that one or the other is based on. 

The control panel is the nerve system of your web hosting account and you can use to do almost anything you need, ranging from configuring how your website works to installing web applications and managing files.

Control panels offered by web hosting service providers are easy to use and work just like any other graphic user interface (GUI) driven systems.

Manage Files

Most control panels come with a file management system that allows you to not only move, copy or add and delete files, but also to edit them. I would advise you not to use the editor and do your file modifications offline instead. Always remember to keep a backup of any files you are changing!

Deal with Databases

If you’re using a web application like WordPress or Drupal, you will also need a database to store the information for those applications. In your control panel you will be able to access your database as well via a third-party application like phpMyAdmin.

Install Web Applications

If you are like so many others today and are planning to use a web application, most web hosting service provider will either help you install them, or you can do it yourself via a software installer on your control panel. The installation process is easy and not unlike installing an application on your own computer.

Conclusion: Plan Your Site in Advance

From what I have observed, it seems normal for many people to buy all the components they need to build a website and then start throwing them together to build a site in no order. While that may work for small websites, it is always better to have a longer-term plan.

Web hosting is only one of the components needed to host a website, but it is a critical one. By failing to consider your longer-term needs, you are potentially increasing your headache potential down the line. Migrating to a different host isn’t very difficult but it can be challenging if you’re inexperienced.

My advice would be to plan out your website on paper first before doing the research and selection of the different bits you need. This will help you factor in longer-term goals and have a better idea of what exactly you should be opting for in terms of web hosting.

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Article by Jerry Low

Jerry Low has immersed himself in web technologies for over a decade and has built many successful sites from scratch. He is a self-professed geek who has made it his life’s ambition to keep the web hosting industry honest. For latest personal updates and news, follow Jerry on Facebook and Twitter.
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