Hosting is the service that puts your website online and makes it available to people all around the world.


You may well have heard of a "server" but have never known what it meant. A server is basically just a computer - but one that is connected to the Internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (with back up generators incase of a power cut!). The files that make up your website are then "hosted" on this server - just meaning your files are sat on this computer - so that it can "serve" people the content they are looking for. When people click to visit your website, your domain name calls to your server and your server "serves" up your website. Every website needs hosting to be accessible on the web.

You won't generally get your own server - your site will be one of many on a big machine; this is called "shared hosting". If you do have your own server - a "dedicated server" - then it's because your site is big and busy and you'll pay quite a lot of money for it each month (compared to cheap shared hosting packages).

Whilst shared hosting is very much the norm for small businesses, you can run into problems if other sites on your server get hacked or hit spikes in traffic - their problems can be your problems sometimes. But that works both ways.

You'll find techies refer to servers as a "box" or a "machine" - this is because whilst they're computers, on mass in data centres they're just rows and rows of boxes on shelves or "racks".


The first thing you need to know when buying hosting is whether you need a Linux or Windows server - some websites can run on either but it's best you get the right sort because both are widely available and similarly priced so you're just making work for your web developer (and hassle and expense for yourself) if you get the wrong sort. As a rule of thumb, if your website is built on opensource technologies such as PHP, you'll need a Linux server. If it's built on, you'll need a Windows server. If you're using WordPress - as lots of people do - opt for Linux with a MySQL database.

Next, specification. You know when you go into Currys or PC World and you see all the different specs on the laptops there? 16GB RAM and 1TB Hard drive? Well servers are just the same. Similarly, when you fill your laptop with lots of software and try to have 14 different programmes open at once and the whole thing crashes - servers can be just the same in that regard too. Therefore if you have a busy site, you'll need to work with your web developer and hosting company to make sure you pay for hosting which suits your requirements - you need a server which can handle what you site needs to do and how much traffic you have.

Meanwhile, whilst some computers have a webcam and some don't - some servers have things that others don't. Rather than cameras though, here we're talking about scripts / libraries / software - the ability to do some things. So again, take your web developers advice on what you might need. If you have a site developed on a "staging server" - a test environment where you can see it and use it before it goes live - test it thoroughly once it goes to it's live hosting incase that hosting is different in some way. Sometimes different features of servers aren't obvious until you find you can't upload an image to your website, or emails aren't being sent through contact forms. 

Ask your web developer

There are so many different hosting packages available that it's a complete minefield to know what to choose. So ask your web developer what you need before buying anything. Many domain registrars will ask you at the point of checkout "do you want hosting with that? You can have our fab deal for 1p a year with a free website building tool on it!" and you might think that sounds great and buy it. But then when you speak to your web developer and tell them what you need your website to do , they might advise you that what you've got isn't suitable for the type of site you're planning. Databases are a key factor here – many hosting packages I see that look like a bargain, don't include databases – meaning you can't have any kind of database managed content management system (so you won't be able to update the site yourself without coding).

Many web developers will have a preferred hosting company that they like to work with – and it's worth taking their advice because they work with these companies every day. Or they might offer their own hosting or be a reseller of a big hosting company's services, where they hire a bulk load of services and then sell you just what you need. Whilst "middle men" aren't always a great thing in life, a web developer who's a reseller of another company's hosting can prove useful because hosting companies are often literally that – hosting companies. They'll create you an account, give you an IP address, username and password, fix it if it actually goes wrong, and invoice you once a month/once a year. Which means if you have a question / need something changed on the account, you'll need to have a conversation that's likely to be a bit technical – whereas the alternative is just getting your web developer to sort it/talk to the hosting company on your behalf. 

If you're going to host a website with your web developer, ask them how it works – do they use their own servers? Are they a reseller? Do they just literally resell the same account you could buy directly or do they hire an entire server, meaning they have more access to the machine's settings that a regular customer (meaning they can monitor the server and make any configuration changes more easily)? How much do they get their hands dirty? – some web designers just have a "reseller" package and basically only have access to the same as you would directly but are happy to just relay messages between you and their hosting provider. Meanwhile some developers hire whole servers with a higher level of access than you'd get on a small account, do their own monitoring and just generally don't need to speak to their provider so often to get things done. The company I work for resell hosting services and the greater access priviledges we get mean that very often, if there's an issue with the server, we don't need to sit on hold to a call centre or wait for an email support ticket to be answered - we can just jump straight in and sort it out ourselves.

If your web developer has their own server, this can also reduce the risks associated with shared hosting because they may be able to keep a closer eye on who you're sharing a server with and what's happening with those other sites.


With hosting – it's often a case of "you get what you pay for" – cheap packages often don't include features that other packages come with as standard, and you won't know about this until you want to do a tiny thing like password protect your site before it goes live and you find the "cheap" hosting wants to charge you £10 to do it, whereas the slightly more expensive option includes it for no extra cost.

You also need to consider support, because bargain web hosting isn't worth the hassle of being on the phone to a call centre for 45 minutes every time you need to ask a quick question. This is why it's worth asking your web developer about what you need and what they'd recommend – as if they're going to have to spend time adding features to your hosting or sitting on the phone on your behalf then you're likely to end up paying more for their time than you would have done if you'd just got decent hosting in the first place.

However – there are economies of scale in hosting and so not all cheap hosting is bad. Meanwhile, not all expensive hosting is good! But as long as you've found a good web developer to work with and you discuss it with them you should be OK.

Whatever decision you make isn't necessarily for life – if your site is new, you won't perhaps need as much hosting space or bandwidth as you will in 5 years time when it's got more news articles on it, or is getting thousands more visitors. So keep level headed – if your site is small you don't need to go overboard on having the best that money can buy right now.

Also consider back ups – how often will your site be backed up? If your site is static – eg. you don't have a content management system to make changes then regular back ups aren't so important because the core files aren't changing. But if you update text on your site, or have people create accounts, or upload files, or make frequent changes to the site in any way, then you want the database and files backed up as often as possible (by that I mean daily or weekly rather than monthly). Also you need to know how easy it is to get to those back ups should something go wrong and you need to put the site back up.

Most hosting packages now a days come with unlimited bandwidth because that's not really the expensive comodity in hosting. Neither is disk space, so you can get a lot of storage fairly cheaply. The cost comes in when you start wanting your server to be faster and able to handle more visitors carrying out lots of tasks at once.

Bandwidth, by the way, refers to the amount of data the server is asked to display in a fixed time bracket (per month, is usual). Every element of your website - every file (by which I mean, page of code, rather than word docs and PDFs - although I do also mean those too!), every image - has a size and it's the serving up of these files and sending them to your visitor which equals your bandwidth. So if your webpage is 24KB and your logo is 40KB, for someone to view your page with your logo on it uses up 64KB of bandwidth.

Traditionally, US hosting was cheaper than UK based hosting because America just has so much more room! Acres and acres of solar powered or wind turbine powered hosting data centres allows for cheaper prices, but there are now some good UK options around. 

If you are UK based, consider if you need to host your site in the UK due to privacy / user information laws - some organisations aren't allowed to let their user's info out of the UK, which includes storing it on a box in Texas. Hosting in the UK, if your visitors are mostly UK based, also has potential latency benefits - if a server is a long way away from a visitor there can be more of a delay in the page loading (latency) by the time the message is bounced all around the Internet.

You usually pay for hosting monthly or annually (or by the minute if you get very technical with some cloud solutions!) - generally it's cheaper for an annual package. If you wish to cancel your hosting contract, you need to tell your hosts and you will usually have to continue to pay for the designated notice period. If you just stop using the hosting, or point your domain name to another host, your hosting account will still be open with the first hosts and you'll still be racking up charges - so you need to close your account properly should you wish to.

Cloud hosting

Whilst really all hosted solutions (any online service you use) are "cloud based", cloud hosting tends to refer to very large, scalable hosting solutions. These options can take a bit more setting up than normal shared hosting accounts and whilst they can be extremely cost effective for busy sites, they're often overkill for small businesses.

Cloud hosting can though result in even cheaper mass storage costs - ideal for photo sharing websites or systems where lots needs to be kept on file but not all accessed all of the time.

AWS - Amazon's large cloud hosting offering - allows you to choose where in the world your servers are based, so that you can meet any privacy laws in your country and help with any latency issues (delays caused in a page loading due to the server being so very far away from the visitor).

Redundancy servers

If you're really big and busy - and I mean the BBC big and busy - you may wish to look into redundancy servers. I'm only mentioning them here because clients do tend to ask me about them because they hear the expression and wonder if it's something they should consider.

A redundancy server kicks in if your main server fails. A very clever set up means that your domain name will change which server it points to if one server goes down, meaning your visitors can carry on viewing your site whilst the original server is repaired.

This is expensive, of course, because not only is it clever, but you're always running 2 servers just incase 1 should go down. 

Secure certificates (SSL)

If you are handling sensitive data, for example if you're taking credit card payments and accepting the card details on your site (rather than using a 3rd party like PayPal to handle the transaction) then you'll need to have an SSL certificate / a secure connection. In the case of handling card details, you'll also need to be PCI compliant

Having a secure certificate installed on your server basically means that when someone fills their sensitive information in on a form and clicks send/submit/pay etc. their data is encrypted for the tiny fraction of a second it wings it's way through cyberspace before being received by your database. The database itself - if you're storing sensitive data - is no more secure than if you didn't have a secure connection. If someone intercepts the data being sent from the user's computer to your server and it's not encrypted - then they've got a whole bunch of new card details. If it is encrypted then, hopefully, it's of no use to them because they can't unencrypt it to know what the card details really are.

A secure connection is shown by having a s after the http in the address bar - so your web address starts with https:// . There are lots of different levels of SSL certificates, some more secure than others, and some may turn the address bar green and show a padlock icon in the address bar (this will also depend on your browser). If you're getting a certificate for PCI compliance, then you'll need to speak to your web developer about the level of security you need. The higher the level of security, the more hoops you have to jump through - quite often the company issuing the certificate (which you can generally buy through your hosting company or domain provider) will need to check your company details independently of just asking you, and then ring you to confirm you are who you say you are.


You will need hosting for your email as well as for your website, but these services don't necessarily need to be supplied by the same company. Increasingly over the years, email has become vital to businesses and so more and more are turning to a professional, reliably dedicated email provider rather than just use email services which are tied into a basic hosting package. We'll talk more about email in other articles as it's a vast topic!



Further Reading

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