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Choosing a nonvirtual, virtual, dedicated, or co-located server


As you look at different Web hosting options, you’ll notice that there is a very large variety of ways to put a Web site online. In order of technical complexity (and price), these are nonvirtual hosting, virtual hosting, dedicated servers, and co-located servers.

Nonvirtual hosting

The first option is nonvirtual hosting, which means that you don’t have your own domain name. Instead, you either host your Web site on someone else’s server (as in http://www.theirdomain.com/ myspace), or you park your site on another domain (as in http://www.myspace.theirdomain.com). Sometimes these parked sites are also called subdomains. There are countless free Web space providers (such as Yahoo!, Geocities, Apple’s .Mac, Tripod, TheGlobe, and others), and these usually offer nonvirtual hosting only.

Many ISPs offer Web space to their customers at no additional charge, and most Web hosting companies let you park your site on their domain at no additional charge. Because you don’t have to pay for the domain name registration fees, the main advantage to this model is price. Sometimes domain availability is also a factor. If you can’t find a domain name that suits you, you might find a Web hosting company with something similar where you can park your site and still have an easy-to-remember name. But remember, free parking may have unintended consequences.

Virtual Web hosting

The second option is called virtual Web hosting, or using a virtual domain. Here, you keep your Web pages and files on someone else’s Web server, but you have your own domain name. People viewing your site don’t know that your server isn’t actually at your business or in a dedicated server. Depending on the size of your Web site, virtual hosting can cost anywhere from $5 per month to about $100 per month. If you have enough Web material that you need more space or bandwidth, you should consider a dedicated server.

Dedicated servers

Using a dedicated server involves leasing or providing your own Web server software and Internet connection, as well as the hard drive space. The hosting company maintains the Web server itself, so the hardware is maintained by someone else, and any software or technical problems are usually covered by the hosting company. These services generally cost $150 and up per month. They’re good if you have a lot of files, a database, or if you’re expecting a lot of hits to your site.

Co-located servers

Finally, you can purchase co-located servers for yourself. You own the hardware, the software, and everything in the box. You rent space on a rack in a specialized facility for computers. These facilities are generally climate-controlled for computers, have dry fire-suppression systems (so they won’t fry your machine), onsite security ranging from someone who checks passes to special, locked rooms with bulletproof walls. Co-location facilities often offer technical support options. The most basic is the ability to request a technician to physically restart your machine if you’re not able to go to the facility itself to fix a problem. If you choose to co-locate your server, you’ll probably need to knowa lot more about system administration than this article will cover, or hire someone who does.

Search for a co-location facility online at http://www.nyi.net/colocation.html. When you select a co-location facility, make sure that it’s close enough that you can reach it in an hour or so, in case of server trouble. Check their security and tech support options, and find out if they monitor their own network connection 24 hours a day. How quickly do they respond to network problems? Ask their current clients about their customer response and network response times. How fast is their network connection, and can they guarantee redundancy? Do they have more than one connection to the Internet in the building? Don’t neglect the physical space, too. Is the room cool when you walk in? Are the aisles between the racks neat and free of clutter? Do you detect any dust when you look at their facility? Do they have a fire-suppression system that uses dry materials (such as gas) to put out fires? Dust, heat, and water are computer killers, so be picky about what you will and won’t accept for these answers.

Balancing price-service ratios

As you can see, when it comes to Web space and service, you can get what you pay for, if you do a little research. Nonvirtual Web space should be free or included with your Internet service from your ISP. virtual Web space should cost from $5 per month to $100 per month, depending on how much bandwidth and storage space you get. A dedicated server is about $150 per month and up, and space in a co-location facility will cost anywhere from $300 per month to $1,000 per month and up.

But what does that $5 or $100 or $1,000 include? We’ve created a little table to help you understand what services are typically included or available in a virtual Web hosting package. Nonvirtual Web hosting companies usually offer the same services, unless they provide Web space for free. Free Web space companies offer a minimum of services, but you just can’t beat the price. Because dedicated and co-location models put you in control of what’s available on your server, we left those out of the table, too. Typically, a Web hosting company offers two or three packages for your Web hosting needs. They might be called Silver, Gold, Platinum or Personal, Business, Executive, but they’re basically three levels of Web services. Not all Web hosting companies offer the same package deals, of course, but the information from HostingMatters, Inc., shown in Table 14-1, gives you a quick look at what you might find in a typical package.

Ultimately, you want to have enough storage space, a reliable network connection, and enough user accounts to handle however many people will be working on your Web site or using your domain for e-mail or Web space. If you’re the only one who will be working on the site, then you only need one FTP or telnet account. If you’re one person on a ten-person team, you’ll need more accounts. You may also wish to look at such sites as 1and1.com or Brinkster.net for inexpensive, reliable hosting services.

If you’re looking for a way to give accounts to Web users, ensure that you have CGI scripting, PHP, ASP.NET, Java, or a server module such as FrontPage or Expression Web available to create that kind of online community. Web user accounts aren’t the same as Telnet, FTP, or e-mail accounts; they’re a function of the Web site programming, not the server.

Investigating Web space providers

The best way to research Web space providers is to look at what you already have (through ISPs, work, school, or for free) and then hit the Internet. You want to look at as many Web hosting companies as possible before you make your final decision. One great resource for finding low-cost virtual and nonvirtual hosting companies is http://www.budgetweb.com/budgetweb. Run a query to find a Web service provider that offers what you want for the price you’re willing to pay, and look into them until you narrow your search down to two or three that offer similar packages at a good price.

Obtaining customer service

The second thing you want to test is the customer service. If the Web hosting company doesn’t have a phone number listed on its Web site, go with another company. If it does list one and it claims to offer 24-hour customer service, call the company at 1:00 in the morning to see if it’s real. If you get voicemail or an answering service, you can expect that network problems won’t be solved until the next morning, something you might not be able to afford. Also be sure to call during a peak time, around 5:00 in the evening. Time how long it takes to get connected to a live person. If you get a prerecorded message telling you to visit the company’s Web site, hang up and walk away. If customer service is only available online, and a problem takes down their network, how are you supposed to ask them about it? On the other hand you shouldn’t expect network problems to be fixed immediately if you’re paying very little. The level of service goes up with the type of service you have, which is somewhat directly related to the amount of money you pay.

Many Web hosting companies start out just fine in terms of customer service. They’re fast, they answer the phone right away, and they provide continuous network connection on a very reliable basis. Alas, this kind of service does not usually last. As more people learn about the great customer service, new customers flock to the Web hosting company. Eventually, the company outgrows its customer service department. If they don’t have a large enough customer base to justify a larger department, the quality of service suffers and so do the customers. It’s an unfortunate fact online that few high-tech companies recognize the importance of customer satisfaction in making or breaking their businesses. In a matter of months, these companies may fail, simply because they did not help their customers in times of difficulty. Although it’s okay to try out a newly established Web hosting company, be aware that in 9 to 12 months, the company may experience customer service growing pains. Watch for these, and jump ship if it starts adversely affecting your Web service.

Assessing technical support

Finally, call the company’s technical support line to ask for help with installing a script or otherwise setting up your site. Ask them how much help they’re willing to offer with these types of problems, and whether or not you’ll have to pay for their technical expertise. In general, tech support should be willing to help you with questions directly relating to your account and setup, such as which e-mail servers to use when setting up your e-mail account. However, programming help and installing unsupported programs will probably cost a small fee, if it’s available at all. If you think you’ll be installing a lot of custom scripts, and you aren’t a programmer yet, try to find a Web hosting company that offers that type of technical support, even for a fee. You’ll have a much more positive experience with your Web service if technical support is available to you when you need it.

Sunday, Oct 25th, 2009