Choosing a Good Web Host

I’ve encountered a lot of situations where clients are having trouble with their web host. Most often, it’s related to how slow their website is loading after adding a content management system to their previously static website.

Content Management Systems (CMS) such as Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, etc. tend to add a bit more load to a web server compared to static websites coded in strict HTML and CSS. This is because CMS sites have to interact with the web server with more frequency whereas HTML/CSS only sites rely on less communication with the server. In short, the more a website communicates with a server, the longer it takes to load the site.

Before we talk about choosing a web host, let’s identify some different hosting choices. I’m only going to list examples for the most likely options that a small business client might want to choose.

Free Hosting
I think most web designers these days started out sometime in the 90s with a free website that they had hosted somewhere like Geocities, Angelfire, Homestead. Most of these free hosting services are now obsolete. I still remember the day Geocities went down (October 26, 2009). New free hosts are available such as biz.ly, FreeHostia and Wix. If you’re running a business website, it’s probably a good idea not to use a free host as they are often limiting in spacing, bandwidth and sometimes have uptime issues and sometimes including advertisements on your web site in exchange for hosting. Free Hosting services almost always place your website on the same server as many other sites. This can cause your site to load slower.

Some free hosting solutions…

Biz.nf – Offers free hosting with no ads on your site. You can also get a WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc. CMS up. The catch is you’re only allowed 250MB of space and 5GB of bandwidth.

Wix.com – Free hosting with a very easy to use website builder. The amount of storage and bandwidth you’re allocated as a free user is not clear, but their first tier paid option gives you 500MB and 1GB of bandwidth so you can assume the free tier may be less than that.

FreeHostia.com – Gives you slightly more bandwidth than Biz.nf and includes support for content management systems as well. 250MB of space and 6GB of bandwidth. You must pay for and provide the domain yourself.

The above are just a small sample of free hosts. I always recommend clients move away from free options when they’re dealing with a business site. If the site is personal in nature, a free host might be all you need. But if you want your site to work for you, draw in potential customers and reflect professionalism, it’s best not to consider the free options.

Shared Hosting
One step up from Free Hosting is Shared Hosting. Shared Hosting costs money, though very often the fees are fairly low. This option places you on the same server as other websites too. Shared hosted sites are often sharing servers with hundreds and sometimes thousands of other sites. Most of the time, this arrangement doesn’t cause loading problems but if a host overloads their server or if one website uses a ton of resources, you may experience some loading issues as well. If you’re on a shared hosting plan, you can actually do a look up to see how many other sites (and who they are) are sharing your server. Check out Reverse IP on DomainTools to see how your website is doing. Generally speaking, the more sites that are on a server, the slower it will be–especially when it comes to using a CMS.

Update 1/4/2015 – I’ve recently had to amend my list of recommended Shared Hosts because I discovered a couple of them had been acquired by EIG, having spent some time hosting with EIG/having clients hosted on an EIG account or one of its owned companies, I can’t recommend their services. I’ve replaced two of the three recommendations as a result.

Hawk Hosting – $2.99/month for 10gb of space and unlimited bandwidth*. Hawk Hosting is speedy and reliable. I’ve had one client host with them and had no problems with their server or responsiveness.

LiquidWeb – $14.95/month for 5gb SSD space and 240gb bandwidth. LiquidWeb is upfront about what you pay for and what you’ll get, which is always a plus. They also offer their space on an SSD which provides a nice speed boost for load times on your site. Their customer service is also exceptional.

Dreamhost – $8.95/month for unlimited space and bandwidth*. Dreamhost boasts that it’s optimized for WordPress and largely has a decent reputation as a shared host. Reasonable uptime, server responsiveness and of course all the scripts you want.

*Now, a very common theme you’ll notice with some shared hosts is that they’ll say they offer “unlimited” space and bandwidth. While this might be true in theory, in actuality, what’s happening is the host is betting you won’t use a ridiculous amount of resources on the server. It’s not unheard of for a very popular website to consume thousands of GB of bandwidth every month and if a shared host finds someone is being greedy, they might try to throttle back the user either by slowing down their site or even just sending them a notice that their site is consuming absurd amounts of resources and that they should either upgrade or stop being greedy. So while “unlimited” might look like a great deal, keep in mind that it’s only unlimited up to a certain point.

Reseller Hosting
Getting hosting through a reseller is usually pretty similar to getting hosting through a shared host. The reseller will often have the same level of service as the shared hosting operators, but may provide different levels of support.

Virtual Dedicated Server or Virtual Private Server
Virtual Private Servers (VPS) load you up on a server with other sites but divides that server into virtual sections. VPS services tend to cost more than reseller or shared hosting plans. You aren’t technically getting your own server, but you are allocated a specific amount of server resources that no other site but yours can use. This solution will let your site load fast because it’s not sharing RAM or CPU with anybody else and are given root access to their virtual server allocation. Sometimes VPS setups require you to update and maintain your own server section unless the provider offers managed services.

Some VPS providers include…

Knownhost – Offering a VPS starting at $25/month for 25GB of space, 3000GB of bandwidth and 1024MB of RAM. Knownhost also offers managed services for their VPS customers. As with most VPS providers, sites load fast, you run what you want on your own space and you get root access.

Linode – Starts at $20/month for 48GB of space, 2TB of bandwidth and 1GB of RAM. You are responsible for maintaining, securing and updating your own VPS. Sites will load fast, you run what you want on your space, and you get root access.

BigScoots – $39.99/month for 40GB of space, 500GB of bandwidth and 512MB of guaranteed RAM. BigScoots also allows for a fully managed VPS. Once again, fast load times and you do what you want with your space.

One thing that makes initially causes some raised eyebrows is why a VPS costs so much more than shared hosting and doesn’t offer unlimited resources. Remember that the promises of “unlimited bandwidth, space, etc.” aren’t really unlimited and with a VPS you get guaranteed access to bandwidth, space and RAM on a server. This means you aren’t sharing with other sites which guarantees your site will be served up fast.

Dedicated Hosting
Dedicated Hosting will allocate you with your own web server with no one else on it. You still don’t technically own this server and are more likely just leasing it, but you will be the only customer using it. This ensures fast load times but also puts all responsibility for that server on you including maintenance and updates. Some dedicated hosting providers will also offer managed services for additional fees.

Colocation Hosting
Frequently the most expensive option. Colocation hosting means that you own a server but that a company is housing that server for you in a certain location. While the company is housing that server, you pay the company for your server’s use of their electricity, internet connection and sometimes maintenance. Sometimes colocation hosting doesn’t offer maintenance outside of your server being housed in a location and you will have to visit your server to perform maintenance yourself. Colocation is often fast, though all speed and reliability is up to you to maintain and determine.

Cloud Hosting
A relatively new addition to hosting options. Cloud hosting services let you put your site up on a provider’s cloud servers. This ensures that your site loads quickly and has the added bonus of ensuring your site’s up time is as good as possible since your site doesn’t have to rely on just one server. Cloud hosting is often billed on a ‘per use’ basis.

Some cloud hosting providers…

Amazon AWS – Amazon Web Services is a powerful cloud hosting solution. They bill per use and have a ton of different plans and options. They also have a free one year trial if you want to test things out. Like with all cloud hosted sites, you get lightning fast load times and redundancy. The catch with cloud hosting is that you have to figure it out first ;-).

Rackspace Cloud – Another powerful cloud hosting solution. They offer bill per use as well as a fully managed option that will run you $100/month on top of bill per use.

Joyent – Offering cloud hosting services that are bill per use. Lots of options to choose from too.

I typically don’t recommend cloud hosting to most clients as they tend to be start ups or small businesses whose websites don’t need the power of a cloud hosting solution. Cloud hosting is very powerful and will hopefully continue to grow to a point where the service becomes less expensive. Who knows? We might all be hosting in a cloud someday. 🙂

Private Hosting
Private, personal or home hosting solutions involve someone running a server out of their home. Sometimes this involves running a normal desktop computer or even a server rack out of a residence. The server or computer would draw electricity from the residence and use the residence’s internet connection. Maintenance and uptime depends solely on the individual running the server and the cost may vary.

Choosing a Web Host

There are a lot. And I mean a lot of different web hosts out there and many of them offer pretty similar services and prices. It really comes down to what you need in a web host.

Low on budget and just need a site up with reasonable uptime?
Go for a shared hosting package. I can recommend either Bluehost, HostGator or Dreamhost. All three are big companies, are likely to stick around for a while and offer reasonably good service. Bluehost is pretty good, has good uptime and offers a fairly competitive price for their service. HostGator and Dreamhost are also good options to consider for shared hosting.

Want to run WordPress/Drupal/Joomla etc.?
Any shared host worth their salt will offer you the ability to run a WordPress site. It’s almost a given that VPS options, dedicated servers, cloud hosts, and so on will let you run WordPress too. If you’re paying a web host and they don’t offer you the ability to install a CMS or run other common scripts, consider moving to a less restrictive host. If you’re paying for it, you should at least get some freedom for your buck.

Having problems with slow load times for your site?
If you’re on a shared host and you find your site is slow or just not performing the way you want it to, consider switching to another shared host. Unfortunately, when it comes to shared hosting, the speed your site loads is entirely up to the server, what other sites are doing on the server, how many visitors those other sites are getting, and the hardware of the server itself. If one shared hosting provider has been giving you absurdly slow loading times, maybe it’s time you considered other options. Before you move, check to see how many other sites are hosted on the same server as you: Reverse IP Lookup. I’ve had clients on servers with only a couple hundred other sites that were slow because of server issues, and clients on servers with up to twenty-five-thousand other sites which were slow because the server was just overloaded.

Need consistent load times and don’t want to share?
A VPS is good if shared hosting hasn’t been giving you what you want. Keep in mind that moving off of a shared host and onto VPS, Dedicated, or Cloud will increase your hosting fees per month and require you to know a little bit more about the administration of your server. Not all website owners find it necessary to get off of a shared host.

Is cheaper generally worse than more expensive?
When you’re dealing with hosts in a similar line of business ie. Shared Host, or VPS Provider, or Dedicated host, the differences in cost between one or the other isn’t necessarily indicative of their quality or level of service. For instance, you might find yourself paying two to three dollars more per month for a Shared Host that’s slow, unreliable and just generally not very good. Or you could just be spending $3/month for an excellent Shared Host. If you’re not happy with the way your host is treating you or the services they’re providing for what you’re paying them for, there is a huge amount of other hosts available. The market is big and open and the ultimate say is up to you.

Are well-known hosts better than lesser known hosts?
Reputation does count for a lot these days, but well-known hosts aren’t necessarily always better than lesser known ones. Some well-known hosts might not offer as many features as a lesser known one. Larger hosts might also have to deal with more customer sites and may have servers that are more frequently overloaded. Then again, sometimes a larger host offers something a smaller one doesn’t.

Should I get a cloud hosting account?
How knowledgeable are you in terms of cloud computing technologies? How much time do you have to dedicate to learning cloud computing? Does your website absolutely need that much power? And how many resources will your website actually consume? Cloud computing is excellent and a very exciting new option, but it may not be the right choice for everyone and someone completely new to the technology will take some time because it can be a pretty steep learning curve.

Ultimately, if your site is going to small at first and you don’t need it to run super resource heavy scripts or systems, a shared hosting account will probably be a good for for 90% of you. If you want more power, and more control, you can see that there’s plenty of choices and options available. The providers mentioned in this post are just a drop in the bucket.

Resources

Research as a Hobby, List of EIG Owned Companies
A handy list compiled by Research as a Hobby that lists all the companies owned by or run by EIG. Having run into them a few times, I cannot recommend any company under the EIG umbrella for the poor support and server uptime I’ve experienced with them. Maybe things will improve, but at the time of this writing, I cannot recommend their services or products.


2 comments on “Choosing a Good Web Host

    • Khanh on

      Hi John,

      I usually recommend WordPress for first time site owners, if they intend to use a ready-made theme for their website. Unless someone was familiar with web languages, I don’t recommend start off trying to develop a custom theme. WordPress has a lot of ready-made themes for free or a relatively small fee if you wish to purchase a theme with more features.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *