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Web Hosting Evaluation Guide

Get IT Done: Choosing a reliable Web hosting vendor

Your organization has decided to outsource your Web site to save money, speed your time to the Web, and to lift some of the work burden off of your IT staff. But how should you choose a Web host? What features and qualities should you look for in a vendor? Ask three different people and you’ll get three identical answers:

1. Reliability

2. Reliability

3. Reliability

Brett Error, Chief Technology Officer at MyComputer.com, which offers tracking and monitoring tools for small-business Web sites, says reliability is so important that he thinks of his Web host as a business partner. “They can make or break my business,” he said. “They can put me out of business. If your business is online, you need to be careful.”

Technical support

A crucial measure of reliability is the technical support provided by your Web host, said David Owen, business development manager at Clicksee Network, which offers online advertising services. Your host’s technical support team must be able to bring your site back up quickly if it goes down. This support is critical because downtime can disappoint customers and damage your reputation, as well as affect the company pocketbook. But reliability and technical support can be intangible qualities. Hosts often summarize their features in charts that look like alphabet soup (ASP, CGI, PHP, etc.), but technical support offered by the host is hard to quantify. To gauge the quality of support, Owen runs a simple test before committing to a host. “What I do is send an e-mail,” he said. “I ask a question, not too technically complicated, and see how long it takes them to reply.” If it takes an amount of time that you—a potential customer the host should aggressively pursue—feel is too long, mark that vendor off your list. Error depends on references. “Call Exodus [a hosting provider] and ask for their top five clients,” he said. “Then call those clients and ask how many times they’ve gone down as the result of something happening at the data center.” He also recommends doing a technical analysis to back up a host’s claims—to confirm for yourself that it really is multi-homed, for example: “You don’t want to find that both their lines are on the Sprint backbone.”

Besides reliability, Error, whose Utah-based company collocates with a host in California, suggests that organizations choose a host that provides room for a company to grow. “That means that they have adequate bandwidth now, as well as two to three times that [planned for] down the road. Will they have rack space available? You need to make sure the data center can scale with you.”

Transfer allowance

Another critical feature for Owen is transfer allowance—the amount of data traffic your site will be allowed to handle before extra fees kick in. This issue is critical for small businesses, because unprepared users could be blindsided with bandwidth overages that double or triple their monthly hosting fees. A small site that attracts about 2,000 visitors per month, for example, usually sees data transfers of no more than 1 gigabyte. The amount of bandwidth you need depends on the size of your business, the number of bandwidth-depleting graphics (or video and other media) you intend to use on your Web pages, and how popular you expect your site to be. Many Web hosts advertise unlimited bandwidth to potential customers, but Owen says there really is no such thing. “If you take too much of the bandwidth, they’ll ask you to get your own dedicated host,” he said. “It’s a marketing gimmick they use for small companies, who unrealistically think they’ll generate large traffic.” If you examine service agreements closely, you’ll usually find something that Owen calls a “courtesy clause,” which describes the bandwidth limitations.

Vendor reliability

Vendor reliability was the top item in a Forrester Research report on what users expect from Web hosts. The report, “Users’ Guide to Hosting,” by analyst Jeanne M. Schaaf, summarized the results from interviews with Internet decision makers at 65 Global 2,500 companies. When asked for the most important criteria when choosing a hosting provider, 69 percent of interviewees gave reliability top ranking. A publishing executive Forrester quoted said, “Downtime is unacceptable, especially with our competitors only a click away.”

Customer service came in second with 14 percent of the vote. Forrester recommends looking to a third party, such as Keynote Systems, to test your Web host’s performance. Keynote offers several benchmarking services designed to find the weak spots in your site. As a public service (and to satisfy your curiosity), it also posts benchmarks for popular sites like Yahoo, FedEx, and Charles Schwab. If your site has custom and complex requirements, Forrester recommends that you make a features checklist and “hit the road”—investigate the host’s facilities yourself, talk with the technicians and engineers, and negotiate money-back guarantees. “If you get wishy-washy responses, move on.”

Narrow your vendor list

But before racing off with your checklist, you’ll need to narrow down the list of Web hosts to whom you’ll be posing your tough questions. One way to do preliminary research on a Web host—particularly if yours is a small business—is to use a site like Clicksee Network’s HostSearch, a searchable directory of Web hosts. With it, you can target hosts by specifying a number of factors: platform, monthly fees, disk space limits, and other various features (databases, e-mail accounts, scripting languages supported, built-in shopping carts, etc.). And you can gather more information by reading reviews of hosts written by their current customers.

Deciding what Web hosting options are necessary

An important aspect of a Web application is making it available to users; that is, installing it on a Web server connected to the Internet or an internal intranet. This week, I examine some of the issues you should consider when evaluating Web hosting options.

What do you need?

Before you search for a provider, it’s critical that you evaluate a Web application’s needs. This includes disk space, e-mail requirements, supported technologies, domain name, performance, and so forth. After all, the requirements for a basic, static site are drastically different than an e-commerce Web application featuring a MySQL backend. Here’s a closer look at some of the common requirements.

Cost

The overall cost of a hosting solution can be major factor in what you choose. You need to determine the setup costs, along with the recurring charges and any other extra fees that make up the overall pricing structure for a solution. Another cost may be incurred for setting up and registering a domain name or migrating from one solution to another.

Performance

The days of sitting and waiting for a page or application to load are long gone. Users expect reasonable application response times, as well as overall uptime. Given this requirement, the server hardware is just one aspect of analyzing a hosting provider. Network bandwidth and transfer rates greatly affect application performance.

System downtime does not discriminate as Flickr will attest, but hosting solutions should have uptime guarantees. It is important to carefully review these guarantees to ensure they meet or exceed your expectations. Look for offerings such as daily backups, redundant servers, firewalls, and uninterruptible power supplies. Another factor with uptime is support in terms of people available on-site, as well as the security of the hosting facility.

More support

In terms of support, you should be aware of a potential provider’s staffing policies. Do they offer 24/7/365 on-site technical support? Do they promise a certain turnaround time for all support inquiries? Are there different levels of support contracts? Who do you call when particular problems occur? E-mail Most hosting solutions provide one or more e-mail accounts as part of their hosting options. Based upon application needs, this may or may not be necessary. If needed, you should expect POP3 e-mail accounts, as well as unlimited aliases and auto-responders. In addition, mailing list features are often available for a nominal fee.

Supporting technologies

The technologies offered by a provider can be a critical factor depending upon application requirements. A Web application can often narrow down provider options simply through its technology requirements. That is, an application based upon ASP.NET technology requires the host to support ASP.NET. The same is true for applications using Java, PHP, and Perl to name a few. Additional application requirements include backend database connections (MySQL, SQL Server, PostGres, etc.), multimedia components like streaming audio or video, directory security, electronic commerce components, CGI scripts, and so forth.

Logging

The activity associated with a Web application can be used to measure its success (in terms of hits or user visits), as well as gauge what users are doing and what technology they are using. These logs contain valuable information on traffic, page views, referring sites, keywords, and time spent at your site by visitors and how they navigated it. With that said, logging is available with most hosting solutions, but some offer more powerful logging options via reports and analysis software.

Numerous options

A simple Google search yields an overwhelming number of hosting options currently available. Upon evaluating possible solutions, you may decide to go with a provider in your area since it provides local access, or you may opt to go with a national hosting company such as GoDaddy.com. Another option is actually hosting the application yourself. In this scenario, all aspects of support and the technical options fall on your organization. The responsibility can be overwhelming, which is why many organizations choose third-party companies to handle all aspects of hosting.

Up and running

Your Web application is developed and ready to go, but now you need to make sure it is up and running for your users. The number of hosting options available can be a bit overwhelming, so devising a plan before shopping around will help you determine which solution meets your needs. The plan should include what options you need, pricing limitations, technical support, and so forth.

Making Heads or Tails of Hosting Costs

Not so long ago, comparing costs among hosting providers was a relatively straightforward and painless process: A business would check out a few vendors, see what each offered in terms of bandwidth and disk space, consider a few other factors like setup costs and support, and sign the deal. No problem. But that was then, and this is now. These days, as hosting has splintered into several different submarkets, determining whether a provider is offering the best deal in terms of price and service quality has become a far more complex and confusing matter. To help your business cut through the clutter and find the deal that most closely matches its needs and budget, here is a rundown of the key factors to consider when researching various types of hosting providers.

Dedicated Hosting

What It Is: Under a dedicated-hosting arrangement, the vendor provides the customer with an exclusive server and full control over the machine.

How to Compare Costs: Your business should compare plans on the basis of bandwidth size and storage space. You’ll also want to examine the level of support supplied by each provider, as well as any additional fees.

Managed Hosting

What It Is: Managed hosting differs from dedicated hosting in that customers are not only supplied with an unshared, dedicated server but also with a full array of management services.

How to Compare Costs: Check out each plan’s amount of supplied bandwidth and storage space, as well as which management services are included in the contract and which are available at an additional cost.

Colocation Hosting

What It Is: Colocation hosting differs from dedicated- and managed-hosting plans in that customers install their own servers, networks and storage equipment inside of a facility, alongside hosting infrastructure from other customers.

How to Compare Costs: Although your business supplies most of the technology in a colocation arrangement, there is still a variety of expenses to consider. With each plan, examine bandwidth size, space-rental fee, rack size, physical-access restrictions, physical-security support and any additional fees.

Clustered Hosting

What It Is: Clustered hosting “virtualizes” resources beyond the limits of a single server. By spreading system-protection, load-balancing and site resources across multiple machines, clustering aims to enhance security, availability and scalability. Customers may purchase as much computing power as they need from a shared server pool.

How to Compare Costs: Other than examining bandwidth, storage and support levels, buyers should look at the cost of, and any restrictions on, scaling computing power. It also pays to look at each provider’s promised levels of availability, as well as security guarantees (if any).

Rich-Media Hosting

What It Is: Rich-media-hosting service providers specialize in the distribution of video and other high-bandwidth content formats.

How to Compare Costs: Look for the usual rate tiers related to bandwidth, storage and support levels. With rich-media hosting, your company will also need to compare the number and location of each provider’s “points of presence” to make sure that content will be efficiently distributed to all users.

Cloud Hosting

What It Is: Cloud hosting runs Web applications on a “cloud” — a collection of external, virtual servers interconnected either on a corporate network or via the public Internet. The idea behind cloud hosting is to provide a resource that’s highly scalable, reliable and available, with little or no regard to the system’s underlying technology or physical location.

How to Compare Costs: Cloud hosting is an emerging technology, so providers are trying a variety of different models, including subscription-based and pay-per-use services. In either case, key cost-comparison factors include bandwidth size, storage capacity, scalability, flexibility and availability rates. Some providers also charge a “per-compute cycle” fee, a benchmark that’s used to measure how much processing time a customer’s applications require on the cloud.

The Bottom Line

As the hosting market becomes increasingly stratified, the most important step is to decide which service approach to adopt. Only then will it be possible to fairly and accurately compare prices and plans among different providers.

Hosting’s Culture Shift

“One size fits all,” an approach that has achieved only limited success in the fashion industry, is also rapidly falling out of favor with hosting providers. Hosting customers not only come in different sizes, but they have varying needs, expectations and budgets. That’s why a growing number of hosting providers are differentiating themselves from the competition by targeting specific types of customers, then “superserving” them with a set of tightly focused services. Here’s a look at some of the ways that hosting providers are transforming themselves by tailoring their offerings.

By Price

Hosting providers have long competed against each other on price, offering customers various levels of service with specific rate tiers. But the market is now segmenting into so many different kinds of services — managed hosting, dedicated hosting, virtual hosting, clustered hosting, colocation and so on — that many providers have begun specializing in just a few types of services (or even only a single service) rather than attempting to do everything.

By Support

Let’s face it: Some customers need more hand-holding than others. Taking a cue from the airline industry, a variety of hosting providers now offer stripped-down service plans that provide only a bare minimum of support — perhaps an FAQ page and maybe some automated troubleshooting help. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it’s possible to buy a hosting package that includes 24/7 live-agent consultations, with the cost bundled into the plan.

By Need

As the Web becomes increasingly diverse, a growing number of hosting firms now target customers that have specific types of hosting needs. As a result, providers are now aiming for customers that need to host general-purpose Web sites, SaaS (software as a service) applications, rich-media content (such as streaming audio and video), and a variety of other specific services.

By Geographic Location

Not so long ago, a hosting provider’s location was more or less irrelevant. But more customers are now paying attention to datacenter placement. Some businesses don’t want to be served by a facility that’s located in an area that is vulnerable to hurricanes or earthquakes, while other companies need to coordinate datacenter locations in order to cut down on database-transaction latency or to provide optimal rich-media-content delivery to a widely dispersed audience.

By Size

Most hosting providers are happy to serve any customer — ranging from a self-employed mitten knitter to a global conglomerate — as long as the business signs a service contract and makes its payments on time. But some providers now believe that they can ramp up revenue by serving a handful of major enterprises rather than a collection of small and large businesses. While big clients demand and consume more resources, they also tend to run up big bills, which allows a hosting company to cut costs by tailoring its infrastructure and operations to serve a specific type of customer.

By Social Goals

Numerous hosting companies are transforming themselves into “green” providers, targeting businesses that are concerned by climate change and related ecological issues. These providers offer standard hosting services but promise to provide them using earth-friendly resources and practices. Customer specialization is a sign that the hosting market is maturing. Look at it this way: A growing number of hosting firms have decided to become very good at a few things rather than trying to be mediocre (or worse) at many things. That’s great news for providers, customers and the entire hosting industry.

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