Look Before You Leap

It may seem simple, yet it is often overlooked. When choosing an Internet hosting provider for their websites, the majority of business owners or companies know very little about making the best Internet/web hosting decisions. For instance, what makes a good Internet/web hoster for a business website? What makes a bad one? How can the wrong Internet/web hoster help or harm your business? What are the different types of Internet/web hosting services? Which ones are best for which industries?

To make the most informed decision, a shrewd restaurateur will consider the following suggestions:

1 Understand the distinctions among shared, co-located, unmanaged dedicated and managed dedicated hosting so you choose the one that is right for your business.

It is crucial to understand the differences among the types of hosting offered. As the hosting industry has matured, hosting offers have split into a couple of distinct categories, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Shared hosting (sometimes called virtual hosting) means that you are sharing one server with a number of other clients of that company. The host manages the server almost completely (though you maintain your site and your account). The costs are probably lower, since many clients are paying for use of the server. But companies other than yours are using the resources of that server, which means heavy traffic to one of the other sites on the server can really hammer the performance of your site. Also, you are typically not able to install special software programs on these types of machines because the host will need to keep a stable environment for all clients using the server.

With co-located hosting, you purchase a server from a hardware vendor, such as Dell or HP, and you supply this server to the host. The host will then plug your server into its network and its redundant power systems. The host is responsible for making sure its network and you are responsible for all support maintenance of your server. Good hosters management contracts to their collocation clients you can outsource much of the support come to an arrangement similar to managed dedicated hosting. Most collocation hosts do not offer this service, however.

Unmanaged dedicated hosting is very similar to colocation, except that you lease a server from a host and do not actually own it yourself. Some very limited support (typically web-based only) is included, but the level of support varies widely from unmanaged dedicated host to unmanaged dedicated host. This type of server can be had for around $99/month. Support levels are typically only spelled out in general terms. Ask the host to go into specifics about what support will be provided (for example, will the host apply security patches to your server?) before signing up. This service is typically good for gaming servers (like Doom or Counterstrike servers) or hobbyist servers, but not for serious businesses that need responsive, expert-level assistance.

Managed dedicated hosting involves leasing a server from a host and having that company provide a robust level of support and maintenance on the server, backed by quality guarantees. This maintenance typically includes services such as server uptime monitoring, a hardware warranty, security patch updates and more. Insist that your managed dedicated host be specific about which managed services are included so that you can be sure the host is not disguising an unmanaged dedicated offering as a managed dedicated server.

2 Ask whether your potential host's network has blackholed IPs. Many hosts care little about who is actually hosting on their networks, so long as the clients pay their bill. That means many hosters will allow porn sites, spammers and servers that create security issues on their network for the sake of the dollar.

Even if you placed ethical issues aside, this has a negative impact on customers in general—for example, when a network gets blackholed. Black-holing means that other networks will refuse e-mail originated from blacklisted IPs. Some hosts have a number of entire class C (up to 256 IPs) networks blackholed and redis-tribute these tainted IPs to new clients. If your business relies on legitimate closed-loop opt-in e-mail marketing to drive business, being on such a network can severely cut response to your campaign because your e-mail may never get to its destination.

Check with any hosts you are considering to see if their networks are blackholed. A third-party source that tracks black-holed networks and lists them is http://www.spamhaus.org/ sbl/isp.lasso [4]. To understand what is labeled spam and what isn't, visit http://www.spamhaus.org/mailinglists.html [5].

3 Don't confuse size with stability. Just because a web hosting company is big does not mean it is stable and secure. In fact, many of the biggest have filed for bankruptcy protection or been saved by being sold to some other company, occasionally causing uncomfortable transitions in service for their clients. How do you protect yourself? Ask some key questions:

  • How long has the host been in business?
  • Is the current ownership the same as always?
  • Is the company profitable and generating a positive cash flow from operations?

4 Don't make price your only priority. The old saying "you get what you pay for" applies to most things in life, and hosting is certainly one of those things. When you overprioritize price, you run the risk of ending up with a host that will provide you with a connection to the Internet and little else in terms of support (and even that connection may be running at maximum capacity or have uptime issues).

5 Make sure your host has fully redundant data centers. When dealing with smaller vendors, make sure they have their own data centers and that those data centers are fully redundant in terms of power and connectivity. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • How many lines are coming into the facility?
  • What is the average utilization of connections? (Note: no matter how large the connection, it if is running at maximum capacity, it will be slow.)
  • Is there redundant power to the servers?
  • Is there a generator on-site?
  • How often is the generator tested?
  • What network security measures are in place?
  • What physical security is in effect?
  • What type of fire suppression systems are available?

6 Find out if the staff includes experienced systems administrators. When you call in for technical support, it can be a frustrating experience to be stuck talking with a nontechnical "customer service" representative when you really need to talk to a systems administrator who can resolve your issues. Find out the structure of the support department, how quickly you can get to an actual systems administrator when you need to and which systems administrators can help you when you need help.

7 Make sure the host is flexible. It is important that the host understands how important quality servers are to clients' businesses. Even most managed dedicated hosts will not go near supporting applications that are not part of their initial server setup. Find a host that has a vast amount of experience to support a wide variety of applications and can bring that expertise to you through its services.

8 What do former/current clients say about the host company? Can your prospective host provide you with success stories for clients with configurations similar to yours? What about references from clients who can tell you about their experience using that company?

9 Make sure the host's support doesn't include extra charges. Any host you consider should provide you with a comprehensive list outlining the support it offers so that you understand what is supported for free, what is supported at a fee and what is not supported. Many hosts will try to hide a substandard level of free support behind nonspecific statements of high quality support, so make them get specific to win your business.


Chris Kivlehan is the marketing manager for INetU Managed Hosting (www.inetu.net [6]). INetU is an Allentown, PA-based hosting provider that specializes in managed dedicated hosting for the online retailing, web development, e-learning, financial services and online marketing industries, as well as for governments, nonprofits and civic institutions. Phone Kivlehan at 610-266-7441 or [email protected] [7].