Free or paid?
When you start looking for a place to host your site, your first decision will be whether you will need a free or paid web host. Well, there are lots of free webhosts out there. The pros are that they are free, the cons are that usually you will have forced banners/popups and/or any other kind of advertisements on your site. These help the free webhosts to stay free. Usually, you do not have much resources or features included in a free webhost package. In our opinion only the simplest and less popular sites should consider being hosted by free hosts. Some major differences between the free and the paid hosts are: the number of features offered by paid hosts (like more disk space, access to multiple programming languages, databases, SSL servers, regular backup, guaranteed uptime, access to server configuration files like .htaccess and to raw logs and statistics), better financial stability of paid companies, and the availability of technical support. So if you expect to spend more than couple of hours making your web site, and you expect to get profits from it we recommend paying for your hosting. Furthermore the prices of the web hosting services are falling down to very affordable levels – for even $5 a month you can get a paid host with more than enough features, webspace and transfer.
Windows vs. Unix?
The next thing you should decide would be whether to look for a Windows or Unix based hosting. You may wish to check our “Unix vs. Windows host” article. In general you need to choose the operating system that best matches your site requirements. If your site is going to be simple HTML and some graphics, it does not really matter which one you will need. Usually, Unix plans are cheaper than Windows. This does not mean that they provide lower quality of service. Simnply Unix is distributed for free, while Microsoft products cost a lot of money, hence the main price difference. However, If you are already using IIS, ASP, ASP.NET, Microsoft SQL Server, or Visual InterDev, and you don’t want or have the time to learn Unix-based solutions, you should go with a Windows based host.
Linux based operating systems and Apache Web servers are most common among web hosting companies because of their stability and great performance and because they are free. Your choice of a webhost should not be determined by what operating system you have running on your computer. For example there should be no problem to use Linux or BSD web hosting services if you use Windows XP on your home computer. The same goes for MAC.
How much space and transfer?
Next you need to decide how much space and transfer your site is going to need. As a general guide, 25Mb of disk space will be enough for around 500 typical web pages and generally you won’t need as much disk space as you think you will. However have in mind that most webhosts will count the space taken by your email messages towards the total web space available on your hosting account. In most cases the space taken by database files is also counted towards the webspace allotment. So in our opinion 100-200 MB of webspace is more than enough for starting sites.
Your next estimate should be how much bandwidth/data transfer your site will need. You can get very close estimate by looking at your average page size (please count in the size of the images loaded). Then multiply the average page size by the number of hits/views you expect to have per month. For example with an average page size of 40 KB, and around 3000 page views per day, you will need an average of 3-4 GB per month. With these estimates you should be looking for a plan with 5GB or more. If your calculations or your previous experience show that you can expect over 50 GB in transfer per month, you should consider getting a dedicated or managed server.
There are some plans out there that are being advertised as unlimited and/or unmetered. This is just a trick. As all of the webhosts are paying for bandwidth their servers use you cannot expect them to host your site if they are losing money doing it. So, if your site generates too much traffic or uses too much space, most probably they will ask you to upgrade or will find a reason to close your hosting account. Almost all hosts that have “unlimited” plans, specify in their Use Policies that no site can use an “excessive” amount of resources.
What programming languages and database your site will need?
Dynamic sites such as online shops, message boards, even a simple guestbook or feedback form need server-side languages and a probably an access to a database. There is no need for you to know how to program as there are a lot of ready-to-use programs and applications out there. Some are free to use while others are paid. Perl, PHP and ASP are among the most popular scripting languages, but others like Python, Ruby, Cold Fusion are quickly gaining popularity. Windows web hosting plans usually offer support for ASP (Active Server Pages), ASP.NET and Cold fusion. Most of them also support PHP and Perl. Unix plans offer Perl, PHP, Python, TCL, C/C++, Ruby, Miva.
All of the above programming languages are used for generating web content on the fly. Usually they interact with a database. They retrieve the information requested and then display the requested page to the user. So having a scripting support without access to a database is not much of a use. In other words to create a dynamic website you will need both programming languages support and access to a database. The good thing is that the web hosts offer both of these in their packages. Most Windows based hosting plans will have support for Microsoft Access or Microsoft SQL Server, while most Unix hosting plans will offer, MySQL and/or PostgreSQL.
If you are not experienced webmaster you may need assistance from your webhost from time to time. You may also need to contact them if there are problems and issues using their service. Almost all problems can be resolved by email or by live chat or using some support message board, or ticketing system. However you should always check if the webhost offers phone support. Sometimes the phone may be the only way to reach your web hosting company. 24/7 support is a must these days.
Some important features that you may need:
- HTTPS (SSL) access to your hosting account. SSL is used for secure communication between the user browser and the server. The information is encrypted and secure. SSL is usually used for eCommerce sites and sites that require submission of other sensible information like usernames and passwords. To have an SSL on your site you can use the shared SSL certificate provided by your hosting company or you can purchase an SSL certificate for your site and ask the host to install it.
- Shell (telnet or SSH) access to your account. SSH is used for secure access to your account. SSH is usually offered on Unix hosting plans. You can zip, unzip files, change permissions of files, run certain programs on the server. However in general you may not need SSH at all.
- Access to raw logs and stats for figuring out who the visitors to your site are. Most web hosts have graphical online usage stats available. However if you have your own program to analyze your website traffic you may need access to your website raw access logs.
- Email accounts so your users can contact email@example.com
- The fees for extra transfer and web space so you don’t have to pay a fortune in case your site go over your web hosting account plan’s limits,
- Sub-domains for creating sub-sections to your site without having to use directories in URLs
- Control panel for graphical access to your account settings. Most web host companies have Control Panel that have quite a lot of functions there. You can manage your site files, create mailboxes, manage your database, see usage stats, install scripts, etc. So a Control Panel is a great plus. Most hosting companies have a demo of their Control Panel, so make sure you always check that demo to see what is included there.
- Guaranteed uptime. No host stays up 100% of the time so a reasonable guarantee is good to have.
- A money back guarantee. If you are not happy with the service or your plans changed, it is always good to have your money back. Most hosts offer 30 days unconditional money back guarantee.