Web Hosting 101, part 3: Hosting Services & Plans

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on web hosting. See author Patrick McNeil’s previous two articles:

What is a Web Host?

A web host is a service that provides access to a server to store the documents that make up your website. The web host stores these files and delivers them to your site visitors as they request them. Naturally, you pay a web host to be up and available all the time—which is why it’s preferable to pay for such a service instead of managing it yourself.

There are four key types of web hosts: shared hosting, virtual private, dedicated and cloud-based.

Shared Web Hosting

When you sign up for a shared hosting plan, you’re paying for a small slice (like, a wafer-thin slice) of a server. Your website will be hosted on a server that most likely contains hundreds and perhaps thousands of other websites. This type of plan is easy to spot due to the price: A hosting plan for $2.99 a month is a shared hosting plan. Imagine if you stick 1,000 customers on a server for $2.99 per month: Not bad revenue when you think about it. Particularly since web servers typically used for shared hosting are super cheap.

Which brings us to the most critical point to make about shared hosting plans: As with so many things in life, you get what you pay for. If you pay $2.99 a month for hosting, your site won’t be housed on a rocket ship of a server. This isn’t necessarily bad;  it is just a matter of facts. I’ve frequently used inexpensive shared web hosting plans, and they’re an extremely valuable option. It all comes down to business needs. And sometimes the site you need to host isn’t a business site, but rather a hobby. In such cases a cheap hosting plan is just what you need.

Virtual Private Hosting

Virtual private hosting seems to be fading in popularity, as cloud-based options are typically far better. With a virtual private server, you get full access to log into the server at the administrative level. Typically you can remote in using a remote desktop as though you’re logging into the actual server. This is often done in situations where you need total control over the server, but can’t afford a fully dedicated one.

The “gotcha” with a virtual private server is that, although your operating system is dedicated, your hardware is not. Typically, a host offering a service like this will have some hefty servers capable of running many virtual servers inside them. In this way your host looks like a dedicated computer, but it’s really just a virtual slice of one. Imagine, for example, one huge server running 100 installs of Windows at the same time, each controlled by a different client. That’s virtual private hosting.

Dedicated Web Hosting

Dedicated hosting is by far the most expensive option, and with it comes the most flexibility. When you sign up for dedicated hosting, you get your own physical server just for you. No other customers will be on this box. Often, you get total control and can install anything you want or need on the box. Given the expense of such an approach, dedicated web hosting is reserved for high-end projects with hefty budgets.

Cloud-Based Hosting

No doubt you’ve heard the term “cloud-based” when it comes to computing, but perhaps you don’t really know what it means. A cloud-based host is one that has dozens, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of computers all connected together in such a way that they act as a single computer. What this means is that they can add more computers (or take them away) as the needs change. If the host adds more customers, they can just add more servers to the cloud to accommodate them.

The beauty of this is twofold: First, your site is distributed across a network of computers. If any one of these computers dies, it has zero impact on your site. The level of reliability is extremely high.

Second, it can accommodate for peaks in usage. One of the biggest problems with all other types of hosting plans is adjusting for huge spikes in traffic. This is often referred to as the Digg Effect. Imagine your site is like Digg, or some other huge site, and all of a sudden there are 100,000 people trying to visit it. A shared host would die under such a load, while a cloud-based plan would hum along with no problem at all.

Pricing is another key area where cloud plans differ. By comparison, you may find shared hosting plans that allow you to host multiple sites. That’s not the case with cloud plans. Most inexpensive cloud plans allow for a single website. More expensive ones allow for multiple sites, but with strict of usage limits. In short, cloud-based web hosting it isn’t as cheap as shared hosting, but is almost always less expensive then virtual or dedicated hosting.

See Lifehacker’s list of the top 5 web hosting services to begin your search for the right provider.

Want to learn more about web hosting? Check out the previous two installments in this series for web designers:

More Technical Resources for Web Designers