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Introduction to Web Hosting

The World Wide Web has become the single fastest growing scientific phenomenon in recorded human history. Like the Oklahoma Land Rush, everyone's racing to stake a claim out on the electronic frontier. According to the Internet Index Issue #27, ninety-eight percent of the words in Webster's English Dictionary have been registered as domain names. That's a lot of real estate. In 1899 all you had to do was put a stake in the ground. These days it's a little more complicated but we're here to help.

Registering a Domain Name

Instead of a stake in the ground, the territory of the web is marked by domain names. A simple analogy for how domain names work is your phone book. For computers to communicate with one another, they have to be directed to the correct "location" on the web, which is specified by a number like 128.241.197.251. Most of us can remember the phone numbers we call all the time but if someone asked us for the number of Microsoft so they could check on the latest Windows updates, we'd probably be lost.

Functioning like a phone directory, a name resolution service was developed that allows a name to be associated with the unique number that's assigned to a web site. It's easier for most of us to remember names than numbers. So when you register a domain name, a record is created for it. When your site is hosted, the hosting company assigns an address to your domain name. Your domain name record is updated with the unique number that corresponds to your new web hosting space and that allows other people to be able to find your site using your domain name instead of having to remember all those numbers. A web surfer simply types in the name and the domain resolution service takes over. A DNS server looks up your number and sends the visitor to see you, so to speak.

These days registration of a domain name is almost totally automated. You simply choose the name you wish to register, choose a registrar and sign up. You don't need a "home" for your name like you would have in the old days (say around 1995). Registrars will "park" your name for you until you need it. This allows you to come up with the perfect name and register it before someone else does, even though you may not be ready to actually host anything at the moment. As long as you are listed as the registrant in the domain name record, you own the domain name, even if there's no site there, and even if the registrar's tech support people are listed as contacts in the record.

Assessing Your Site Requirements

Once you've made the decision to launch a site, you are suddenly faced with a whole new set of decisions to make - what will the site do, who will manage it, will it be updated regularly, will you build it yourself, will you sell things, will you collect email addresses, do you want streaming media, will you provide downloadable files, do you like the color blue? The questions can seem endless and in some cases, senseless.

You owe it to yourself to educate yourself to the greatest extent possible about the technology that you feel your site may require. The jargon may be a little intimidating, and to be truthful, no one needs to know what CGI stands for. But knowing whether or not you need CGI scripts to operate your site is something you definitely have to learn.

In the old days (you guessed it - 1995), most of the web was static. That means you put something up on a web server in HTML and it stayed that way until you changed it. Under that arrangement, "webmasters" were in high demand, since you had to know how to manipulate HTML at least a little bit to get things to work. These days, technology exists that enables just about anyone with a browser to update a web site. Some of these technologies allow web content to be pulled from a database, so instead of editing a site, all the owner has to do is change the data in the database, which is usually easier than remembering to close your font tags. Other technologies allow interactive online catalogs, automatic credit card validation, continuously updating news, streaming music and video broadcasts and even ad banners that know your name.

Once you know enough about your project to know what technologies you need, you can narrow down your search for hosts who offer those technologies.

Assessing The Hosting Options

When it comes to hosting options, more is not necessarily better. Sometimes a hosting company who devotes their efforts to a niche market will have more tools of the type you need despite offering fewer overall options for site hosting. If you don't need database services, then a company who only offers simple Front Page site hosting may be perfect for you. Some hosts separate everything into individual "options." which are sold a la carte, as add-ons to a basic hosting plan. Other hosts offer all-inclusive packages that cover most of what the average web site needs, with options to add-on specific technology support as you need it. Still others seem to offer everything you could possibly want as part of every single account.

If you do need specific technologies, be sure to read all the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) files a host may provide online. Be sure you understand how the technologies you need actually work - it's not uncommon to see hosts touting "Flash support" as a hosting feature. There are no server components required for Flash movies to work on a site - the support is provided by the browser. This just gives the hosting company another "option" to make their list of features longer. But if you want to stream audio or video, you will need server-based software to assist you.

Contact tech support via email and ask about a specific technology - bring up a problem you may have had in the past and ask them if they've ever encountered it. See how long it takes before you get a real response (not an autoresponder). Call the tech support number and see if real people answer the phone. Time how long you sit on hold before you get a real person.

If you're shopping by price, remember that you get what you pay for. More often than not, you can get a discount for paying quarterly or yearly in advance. If this is an option, consider it carefully - how hard will it be for you to cancel (if you can) if you are not satisfied with the service? Will the company refund your money if you're not happy?

Check the fine print on transfer limits, storage limits and email services. Will the company notify you when you've maxed out your transfer limit or will they just start charging you by the megabyte for additional download traffic? Remember that every single "call" to a page on your site generates a download - a "hit." There's a hit for the page request and a hit for every separate element that comprises the page - all those nifty navigation buttons that change color when you mouse over them - if they're graphic-based, that's two hits for every button. All these downloads apply toward your transfer limit. If you plan to use 200 Mb of storage (most sites use nowhere near that amount of space), so people can download MP3s or graphics or some other kind of files from your site, you're going to have to be concerned with the transfer limits if you expect any measurable traffic.

The rules of good website building stipulate that any single web page should "weigh" no more than 30-35K. Using that as a guide, you can estimate the storage space you'll need for the pages themselves, plus any downloadable files you might want to share. A graphics-intensive site would have "heavier" pages than a text-based site, so take that into account when you're looking for hosting space.

Choose Your Weapon

In short, if you can carry out most of these steps and find a host whose answers and services fall into your personal comfort zone on these kinds of important issues, you'll have a short list of companies worth making additional inquiries about. You can check their client list, ask for references, look up testimonials and more simply by using your browser. Most reputable hosts keep a list of clients on their own web site specifically for this purpose. Don't be afraid to make a few phone calls if you're considering a large investment in hosting services, like collocation or dedicated servers. Send a few e-mails, ask friends about experiences they've had. By the time you're finished, you will have enough solid information to make your hosting choice with confidence.

About the Author:

Michelle Moore lives in Texas with her husband, two teenagers, and two Shih Tzus. She owned, operated and managed a rural area local ISP, owned and operated BBS systems since early 90's, and started developing community Web portals in 1997. Michelle currently develops interactive Web applications and consults for Internet projects of all types.
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Domain Names Explained
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Web Site Hosting - What to look for and what to avoid

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