How Hosting Works?
What to Look for in a Hosting
Types of Hosting Services
Choosing the Suitable Solution
Over to You!

How Hosting Works?

Every time you visit a website, there’s a hosting provider involved in the process. How does it work? Let’s start with the basics: a website is a collection of files that define its visual appearance and functionality, so it needs to be stored (hosted) somewhere with constant access to the Internet so that anyone can access these files at any time.

The function of keeping the website available to other network participants is carried out by a server – in essence a specialized computer. It is always on and constantly online, its architecture and software optimized for storing (hosting) and sending (serving) the files that constitute the website.

Individual people and organizations rarely own their own servers – instead they purchase the right to use them from specialized companies called hosting providers. In exchange for periodic payments, they give you the tools needed to host and manage your website, making it available to anyone on the Internet.

Most retail hosting providers come with a control panel – a user-friendly interface to perform various tasks related to your website, usually including:

  • File manager to directly create, modify, and delete the files on the server that belong to your website.
  • Database manager that allows creating, removing and modifying access rights for the databases used by your website (in case there are any).
  • Applications to quickly install the most popular content management systems, such as WordPress or Drupal.
  • Many providers also allow creating and managing email addresses associated with your domain, as well as setting email forwarding and auto-responders.
  • Analytics features such as server resource usage tracking tools as well as site usage statistics.
  • Domain settings that allow you to bind a domain name to your website’s files, making your site available using a human-readable internet address (called URL).

Speaking of which, many hosting providers also offer the possibility to register domain names, sometimes even offering a domain for free when you purchase a hosting plan subscription. The most prominent providers with such offers include Bluehost and GoDaddy. If you wish to learn more about what domains are and how to pick one quickly and efficiently, head over to our in-depth guide on domain names.

What to Look for In a Hosting

While there are several broad types of hosting services, we will talk about them in more detail in the next section – before that, let’s look at some of the important parameters that deserve attention regardless of the particular type:

Uptime – on the web, the standard of availability is “always available” – we’re not used to websites e.g. not working on weekends like some physical stores or offices might do. Since the primary purpose of a server is to make your website accessible to Internet users, one of the key requirements for any hosting provider is maximum uptime – i.e. the servers being up and running 24/7.

While it’s not reasonable to expect a strictly 100% figure (things do happen, even to highly specialized and well-maintained computers with optimized software), a decent hosting should keep each of its servers online at least 99.5% of the time.

Domain-related services – to recap, since a domain name only becomes accessible as a website’s primary web address when it’s bound with the server that hosts the website, it’s quite natural for many hosting providers to also offer domain registration services.

Buying a domain and hosting from the same company removes the necessity managing each item in a separate place and allows for easier billing and scaling. Moreover, you’ll be free of the hassle of setting up the domain name so that it binds with a third-party server, since a domain registered with the hosting provider will already have default settings that allow it to work with that hosting “out of the box”.

Hardware – the specific components used in the server actually does make a difference to your website’s loading speed. Key items to pay attention to are memory (RAM), the processor (CPU), and the permanent memory. RAM allows servicing multiple requests simultaneously, which means higher RAM will enable your website to handle higher traffic without being overwhelmed. The CPU correlates with website performance in a similar manner – the more powerful it is, the smoother your website runs; chances of dropping load speeds are also reduced in times of visitor traffic spikes.

As for permanent memory, the most important parameter is its type: while HDD (hard disk drive) used to be the standard for web hosting solutions, its new competitor, the solid-state drive (or SSD) allows for much faster data access, which also translates into higher loading speed for your website. It’s worth noting that hardware parameters may not always be disclosed in hosting offers, yet it is still useful to understand how physical components of your server can potentially affect your online project.

Physical location – even if we keep the server’s hardware configuration constant, visitors from different parts of the world will experience different loading speeds on your website simply because it takes longer for the signals to reach them when the server is “talking” to their device. It is thus important to keep in mind where your users are located and try to choose a hosting provider with servers physically located in the same geographic area.

The difference is speed might not be that much within the same country (e.g. a server in New York will load websites to users from San-Francisco without noticeable delays), but if your primary audience is e.g. in Australia, choosing a US-based hosting provider might not be the best idea since the delay might sum up to several seconds, which is a LOT of time on the web.

Control panel – before making a choice in favour of one or another hosting, it also wouldn’t hurt to find out whether you will have access to a hosting control panel, because if it’s not included into the offer, you will either have to work without it (rarely manageable unless you’re an experienced developer), pay additional money for it as an extra service, or install one yourself (which is almost always a hassle).

A control panel provides an easy, visual way manage your hosting: installing a website engine, accessing the website’s files directly, adjusting additional settings offered by the hosting provider. Some of the most commonly used hosting control panels include cPanel and Plesk.

Types of Hosting Services

As we’ve seen above, every hosting service is essentially a specialized computer that stores your website’s files and handles requests from visitors. This basic dish can come in several flavours, though, depending on how the server’s computing resources are allocated between the provider’s clients.

Before we continue, a disclosure: some links used here are affiliate links, which means we receive a small commission in case our visitors click them and purchase a hosting subscription. The good news is, the price you pay for hosting via our links is not any different from the standard price (it’s more about the hosting provider rewarding us with a part of their existing marketing budget) – so if you find the guide helpful, do use our links to buy hosting :)

It is important to distinguish between the types of hosting because each is specialized in solving a specific set of goals, with its own pricing. We’ll first summarize the most important differences in a table and then look closer at each type below.

Shared VPS Cloud Dedicated
Resource allocation Split between clients Allocated per client Distributed across servers Entire server for client
Degree of control Pre-defined features, via control panel Almost like having your own server Full control over your setup Full control over server’s software
Clients per server Many Few Few One
Ease of use Easy Easy / medium Medium / hard Hard
Scalability Medium / low High / medium High Low
Pricing group $ – $$ $ – $$ $$ – $$$ $$$
Notable examples Bluehost Host1Plus Digital Ocean Rackspace

Shared hosting is the most popular and widely used type, its name making clear that each physical machine (server) is used to store and handle websites for many clients at the same time; in other words, dozens of hosted websites compete for the server’s storage capacity and processing power, as well as bandwidth.

This means shared hosting is not a powerful and flexible as having an entire server just for yourself – yet the thing is that in most cases you don’t need that; the vast majority of websites require modest computing resources to run well, and the pricing advantage of shared hosting makes it really smart idea, as long-run savings from each month’s payments can quickly stack up to significant sums of money.

Another attractive side of shared hosting is ease of use: most large providers include a control panel and various additional features into their shared hosting offers, making it by far the most hassle-free type of hosting for the clients to set up and maintain.

One sub-type of shared hosting has gotten quite popular nowadays – the so-called WordPress hosting. Its key value proposition is reduced maintenance for those who are sure from the start that they’ll only use WP for their online project’s needs. Such offers typically include pre-installed WP, regular automatic updates, backups, and security monitoring. The pricing is also higher than classical shared hosting though.

Virtual Private Hosting or VPS is similar to shared hosting in that each client gets a part of server’s resources allocated to their needs, but in this case the allocation is very specific and can be upgraded/downgraded easily.

Another key difference can be derived from the name itself: “private” means you get a part of the server “walled off” specifically for you, and you can do anything with it as if it were your own server. “Virtual” means that it’s still not a physical delimitation, though – which means there are hard limits to the degree to which you can scale, imposed by the performance of the underlying physical server.

Cloud hosting is often confused with VPS, possibly because both are about detaching from the more “traditional” relationship between a server and its users, yet there’s an important difference in the basic idea: with cloud hosting, resources are pooled from many networked servers and allocated to clients as needed.

In other words, instead of partitioning a part of a physical server for a single client, cloud hosting spreads client’s resources across multiple machines, achieving much higher resilience and scalability. This means that you only pay for the actual resources you use and have much higher degree of flexibility in your setup, but it also means higher pricing (you’re effectively renting out a part of a whole bunch of servers). Another thing to bear in mind is the expertise and skills required for managing cloud hosting.

Dedicated hosting is, as its name suggests, about giving a single client full access to their very own physical server. This literally means that you are being allocated a specific computer which you can manage remotely in any way you like.

All resources of that machine are yours to make use of, which means not having to share bandwidth, memory or processing power with any other website. As one might expect, this comes at a price: dedicated hosting almost always costs significantly more and requires professional setup and maintenance.

You might also encounter the term “managed hosting” which has no clear-cut definition, but is typically used to imply a dedicated server plus the setup and maintenance mentioned above – in other words, an offer combining the performance of dedicated hosting with an almost hands-free experience of shared hosting. Must we mention that it’s also the most expensive type?

Now that we’re familiar with the general hosting features and the various kinds of hosting that exist, we can make a better choice between the available options.

Choosing the Suitable Hosting Solution

In order to approach this issue in a consistent and systematic fashion, let’s break down the process of choosing a hosting provider into several simple steps:

  1. Understand your needs. The first step is to have a clear idea of what your online project will need in terms of performance, flexibility and features. Some of the valid questions to ask yourself are as follows: What are you building – a website, an online store, a community, an application, a digital product? What will the expected visitor traffic be and how fast will it grow? What technologies and functionality to make it work? How much money can you spend on this?
  2. Decide on the hosting type. At this point it is already possible to narrow down the choice to a specific type of hosting services based on such requirements as scalability, speed, price, control and features – which you’ve pinpointed in the previous step. You can use the table in the section about hosting types above to help you.
  3. Check for needed features. Once you’ve picked the hosting type, you can continue by looking at several companies which offer respective services: again, using the information from step 1, you can now examine each offer for the presence of features you’ll need, like bundled content management systems, domain or email management, database access, security features such as SSL certificates and domain privacy, available computing resources, physical location, etc.
  4. Study upgrade options. Another aspect that is worth a look is the possibility of upgrading the particular hosting plan to higher resource allocations and additional features – this might be useful to know in advance so that when your online project grows, you won’t face the need to switch to another hosting provider just because you’ve outgrown your existing one.
  5. Investigate the pricing. Finally, make sure that the price tag on your chosen hosting plan fits your budget and doesn’t look uncompetitive compared to other similar offers (which you’ve seen in step 3, for example). One more thing to check in case of promotional pricing is how much the hosting will cost after your initial billing period is over – it has become popular among providers to offer considerable discounts on the first year of use, thus it’s useful to keep in mind how much you’ll actually be paying afterwards.

Based on these five steps it is possible to narrow down your choice to a couple of specific offers by specific hosting companies – i.e. from 100s of potential candidates to 1-2. In addition to that, going through web hosting reviews can help gather additional insights that will finally allow you to find the best option for your situation.

Over to You!

Still struggling to make the final choice in favour of a specific hosting provider? Having general questions about hosting? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below, let’s discuss!

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