Tech Advice

Why do I need hosting for my website?

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If you want to run a website, you need hosting to store the files.  Every website that you visit is hosted somewhere, and there are many companies that offer different types of hosting, with different specifications, and at different prices.  Some will costs as little as a fiver a month, some with costs running into the hundreds per day, but their core role is the same – to host your website so that others can access it.

With so many services available, it can be confusing to decide which service you need for your site. Then you start to add in terms such as VPS, Dedicated Hosting, MySQL, Apache, VPN, SSL, FTP, BBC, PBS, and RSVP, you start wishing that everyone would just STFU and make it simple.  Why can’t hosting be the same?

Not to worry, weary traveller.  Your friendly neighbourhood web developer (no, not Spiderman) will explain everything you need to know about web hosting to help you work through the huge marketplace.

First things first:

What is a web server?

A web server is essentially a computer that is permanently connected to the Internet. It can be accessed by any computer connected to the Internet at any given time. This computer holds all of the files that allow your website or your web application to use a specific type of software to run the files properly.  The servers have been configured with certain settings that make it possible to run systems like WordPress with its databases, and set up with a control panel to help you manage the services easily.

Despite being connected to the Internet at all times, servers are often protected with additional software or even hardware that prevents anyone and everyone from just accessing the files. Sometimes, you’ll find certain areas are locked behind a password wall, or you can only access them if you have been given special privileges to access the server. Usernames and passwords are usually stored in a database, encrypted to make it harder for anyone trying to gain access without authorisation. Some hosts will also have security measures that will automatically log people out if they notice a change in your IP addresses while you are logged in.

Why are there so many different types of hosting?

To be honest, a big part of it is down to good marketing.  More than half of the web servers use either Apache (23.9%) or nginx (32.3%) as their operating software (like Windows on your computer, or iOS and Android on your mobile phone).  You won’t need to know that, but this software allows you to run most any PHP application, such as WordPress.  Most hosts like Kualo , Unlimited Web Hosting, GoDaddy, IONOS, and other major hosts will use that software unless there are specific reasons to do otherwise.

While it is good marketing that there are many different types of hosting available, it isn’t some kind of trick to get you to part with more money.  Hosting is expensive, especially when you are providing services for tens or even hundreds of thousands of websites.  Rather than offer everything to everyone, companies offer basic packages with enough capacity to run a small site for a few quid a month.  From there, it effectively follows the rule of “the more capacity you require, the more expensive the hosting is”.

Cheaper hosting packages would be fine for a new start-up or community group, but more visitors require more resources.  If you are running a blog, you might be content with 20 or 30GB of storage, but a community website might require closer to 50GB or even more.  Some providers offer unmetered or “unlimited” storage, but this also comes with limits.

Full disclosure (because, why not)

I use two hosts to run my websites: Kualo and Unlimited Web Hosting.  While I will not divulge what sites run where, I will tell you the packages I have.  With Kualo, I have their Performance Business hosting (at £14.99 plus VAT), which offers me 50GB of storage and substantial resources to keep my site up and running.  I also have Unlimited's Premium Web Hosting, which offers me uncapped storage and sufficient resources, but not the backup and caching facilities that Kualo has.

So let’s break down the types of hosting available, and see how each one would work.

Shared Web Hosting

Shared web hosting packages are usually the cheapest packages available.  You can usually get quite a lot of storage for not a lot of money.  Unlimited Web Hosting offers a cheaper shared hosting package for £3.75 per month plus VAT with uncapped storage.  It’s perfect for a beginner’s site and sounds like the ideal package for a large company.

That low price comes with limitations that would make it not suitable for larger sites, and it is why it is called “Shared hosting” – you are sharign the server with hundreds, maybe even thousands of other sites.  That means the hard drive space, the processor speeds, the memory, everything is shared between all of the accounts on the server.

That means, unfortunately, that my hugely powerful web application will use the same basic software and hardware that your new startup site will use, so if I use a lot of resources, I’m restricting what you can use for your site.  While you won’t see elements of my site on yours, your site may see a dip in performance if mine makes greater use of the hardware and processing power.

When you’re starting up, or of you just have a simple website, shared hosting can often be enough, especially when it helps keep your initial costs down.

Semi-dedicated Web Hosting

“Semi-dedicated” Web Hosting is ostensibly shared hosting with fewer accounts on one server.  This not only means that accounts have greater access to resources, but it also allows you to dedicate certain hardware to accounts.  Unlimited’s premium hosting and Kualo’s business hosting is considered “semi-dedicated”, as it assigns specific processing cores and RAM to each account.

Because you have resources dedicated to your account, you get improved performance for your site or application as you would with true Dedicated Hosting, but with the cost benefits of shared hosting.

Reseller Web Hosting

Reseller hosting packages are essentially shared hosting packages with a few extra tools.  Reseller hosting allows companies or developers like myself to provide branded hosting services, as though they were a hosting company.  It allows us to create a dedicate account for your hosting, while taking care of the wider maintenance issues on your behalf.

Reseller hosting is usually on shared hosting servers, and as a result each individual client that you set up is likely only going to be given access to basic shared hosting facilities.  It is also more expensive than the same individual hosting, but you get to set your own prices to charge customers, and this usually covers your costs in next to no time.

As an example ...

Unlimited Web Hosting offers reseller hosting from £15.99 per month plus VAT.  At the time of writing this, VAT is 20% so that makes the total cost £19.19 per month including VAT.  It allows you to create 50 different accounts per hosting package, each being on their basic hosting plan.  If you decided to get them yourself, it would cost £3.75 per month plus VAT from Unlimited, or £4.50 including VAT.  Following so far?

If you undercut these prices by half (say you charge £1.85 per month before VAT), you would need to sell just 11 accounts each month to meet your financial obligations for the hosting including VAT.  That's only 22% of all your available accounts, or less than a quarter of them, and you've paid for your hosting.  Anything you sold after that would be pure profit for you.

Obviously, reseller hosting is only going to be of use to you if you are looking to sell hosting to other users.  If you’re not, you’re better off sticking with a standard hosting plan.

Virtual Private Server (VPS)

A Virtual Private Server is a step above semi-dedicated hosting.  With shared and semi-dedicated hosting, everyone shares the same setup – not just the hardware but the same operating system, the same database server, the same mail server, the same firewall, everything.  Your account is given access to certain settings within the software, which you can use to configure your account.

With a VPS, you share the same hardware as other customers, but you have your own instance of the software.  That means you use your own operating system, your own web server, your own database server, and so on.  Like with semi-dedicated hosting, you have a dedicated section of the hardware pool for your host, so it feels and works as though it was your own server.

Dedicated Web Server

Dedicated web servers are the pinnacle of web hosting (short of actually owning your own server setup).  Your server is dedicated to you and your site or application.  The processor, the hard drive, the memory, the software, everything on that server is there for the sole purpose of running your site or application.

Because this hardware is only for your site, it also tends to be one of the most expensive services you can lease from a hosting company.  This tends to be the type of hosting larger companies use as it offers them the most flexibility and performance power.

How do I choose the right server?

Unfortunately, the answer to which hosting you should use is the same as what domain you should have.  There are four questions you need to ask:

  1. What are you doing with the site or application?
  2. How many visitors do you predict you will get each month for the first year?
  3. What is your budget for hosting?
  4. Which hosting do you prefer?

Unlike a domain, it’s wise to ask these questions regularly, as the answers can often change.  When you start, you may find that your situation will change after a few months, and that’s ok.  It’s worth it to keep an eye on your situation and what’s available, and review it every few month or so.  I recommend every six months, unless you note any major shift in your needs.

And there we have it.

There is your beginner’s guide to hosting and what to think about when choosing your package.  Got any more questions?  Want to discuss your own setup?  Looking for advice on upgrading or downgrading your setup?  Head down to the comments and let’s discuss.

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