Summary of the session: Every hosting company paints a rosy picture to lure customers. What is your hosting company not telling you about their offering? Have you explored your website to find answers such as where is the server hosting your website located? What do you need to take care of (which your hosting company will not)?
This session was for non-technical stakeholders of websites - specifically small and medium publishing and marketing websites - to understand what goes under the hood of hosting. The discussion is summarized below:
A website is a software. Like every other software, websites need to run on a computer hardware. For a website to be accessible on the internet, the computer should be connected to the internet using a public IP address. Web hosting is a service offered by companies who manage large data-centres with thousands of physical computers (known as servers). They offer servers (and basic system softwares) on rent/subscription.
Many web hosting companies employ marketing and communication strategies that mislead this target segment - non-technical stakeholders. It is easy to fall prey to buzzwords, and sign up for a service without a clear understanding of the consequences. Let us see how people typically buy hosting:
Imagine yourself in a parallel universe where you don’t understand transportation services. You want to reach your office and start searching for a service that will transport you to your workplace. You find many transport providers offering a range of prices - ₹100, ₹30, ₹500, etc. The ₹30 option looks great: air-conditioned travel, spacious vehicles, great customer service, thousands of satisfied customers, etc. You opt for it, and you’re delivered metro ticket.
In reality you may have been better off taking a cab. But with limited understanding, your choice wasn’t an informed one.
Back to hosting, content websites are typically hosted on two types of hosting - Shared and VPS. Shared hosting is similar to different customers using different user accounts on a single operating system. Everyone shares a common hardware pool and a single IP address. Since there are many customers on a single operating system, everyone has restricted access. The hosting company administers the system and decides what software can/cannot be installed on this system. Shared hosting is like sharing a metro ride.
In VPS - Virtual Private Server - hosting, a single computer runs multiple Operating System (OS) instances. Each instance is allocated a limited amount of hardware, and are better isolated from each other. Each customer gets access to one full OS instance with a unique IP address. Usually VPS extends full admin access inside your OS and you can install anything you like. It puts you in the driver’s seat - think of self-driven car rental. Some also offer a managed VPS where the hosting company takes care of the server software (like a chauffeured cab).
Beyond VPS are dedicated hosting where a customer rents an entire server (no sharing of any form). Severs are powerful computers. Ordinarily, website owners do not need a dedicated hardware. Hosting services are sold under many names. None of the above labels - shared, VPS or dedicated - should be taken at face-value, since hosting companies frequently use them to mean slightly different things. The devil lies in the details. One example is Cloud Hosting. Many hosting providers use it to mean different things. Usually, it refers to renting specific computation resources on-the-fly. You pick/drop storage, memory and computation services a-la-carte instead of renting a traditional server.
To summarise, shared hosting is used by small websites but you may be exposed to the vulnerabilities of other customers. You don’t get the flexibility to install software programs of your choice. In VPS, you get better isolation but it needs more technical oversight.
Let us look at a few other factors starting with unmanaged vs managed hosting. In an unmanaged hosting environment, the hosting company offers the hardware without any software support. The customer needs to take charge of the server software updates, configuration and maintenance. In a managed hosting environment, the service provider manages the system software on your behalf e.g. updating the software, fixing software issues, etc. At times the admin privileges are retained by the hosting company. All shared hosting are managed services.
Another factor is the location of the data centre. Your server should be close to the users for better performance. You should also be mindful of the data/IT laws in your country and the host country. However, not all hosting companies let you pick a data centre location.
Lastly, look out for hidden costs. Many hosting providers quote a low cost that increases in the second year. Sometimes, you’re restricted to host a limited number of websites (or domains) even though the hardware can support more sites.
The world of hosting has become fairly complex in the last decade. It is no longer just a server hardware decision. Beyond the hardware, one needs to carefully consider other aspects such as backups, content delivery networks, SSL, server architecture, caching, etc.
If you do not have a technical background you may want to consider a hosted CMS (such as WordPress.com, Squarespace, etc.). Their monthly fee includes not just the hosting costs; they also take away the overhead of managing a server and related infrastructure.
This tweet thread is compiled by Souvik Dasgupta.
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About Content Web freewheeling chats: This space is all about the good ol’ websites that we’ve been designing and publishing for decades. Online publishing, marketing websites and the likes have always been on the rise. And so have the supporting tools, technologies and techniques for website publishing and content management. The practices of web design, development and content publishing have grown in complexity much faster than the spaces available to discuss them (esp. if you don’t want to get sucked into the constant buzz around JS frameworks, web applications or product development). In this space we plan to stay focussed on content publishing, web design, web development and the business around it.