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Web hosting demystified

A fast, reliable and secure web host is vital!

Most people recognise the importance of having a well designed, functional website. But in our experience far less seem to appreciate the importance of good web hosting...

Furthermore not too many people seem to understand the different varieties of web hosting available and how they could benefit (or hurt) the performance of a website.

With this in mind we thought we’d take this opportunity to explain some different forms of web hosting using the simplest possible terms.

What is a web server?

Your PC at home is a computer with an operating system (i.e. Windows XP or Windows 7 etc.) which hosts the applications you install on it (i.e. Microsoft Office, Photoshop etc.) and runs them for you.

A web server is also a computer with an operating system, albeit one geared towards networking (i.e. Windows Server 2008, Windows 2000, Unix, Linux etc.), which hosts static website files and/or runs dynamic websites and associated applications. Of course the major difference is that a web server is networked and its primary function is to make these website files available to (or run these applications for) multiple users over the internet.

The most important thing to remember here is that the term “web server” ultimately refers to the computer with your website files on it.

Shared Hosting

The term “shared hosting” refers to the practise of hosting multiple websites on the same web server.

However, unlike VPS hosting (which we’ll get to in a moment), all of the websites on a shared host usually have to compete for the same system resources.

In some ways shared hosting is analogous to camping out in an open field with hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people. If someone decides to play a Metallica CD at 3am in the morning – everybody else camping in the field will have to listen to it as well...

In the same way, if one or two websites on a shared host server get huge volumes of web traffic they will potentially hog the server’s resources, slowing down access to all the other websites on the same server.

Shared Hosting – Pros

  • Relatively cheap.
  • Fully managed.

Shared Hosting - Cons

  • Your website has to compete for system resources with hundreds, sometimes thousands of other websites.
  • You have no control over the hosting environment.
  • You can’t alter the server’s configuration.
  • Your website is only as secure as the least secure website hosted in the same space.

Virtual Private Server (VPS)

A “virtual private server” (or VPS) refers to the practise of hosting a website within a partitioned, virtualised environment.

In other words one physical server is split up into separate partitions, each with its own operating system and allocated system resources. It’s really a more sophisticated variation of shared hosting.

Remember our shared hosting analogy where we compared shared hosting to camping in an open field with lots of other people? Well a VPS would be analogous to moving these people out of a field and into a block of units. Think of each VPS as a separate unit in the building.

With a VPS you have more control over the server configuration and more control over the environment. A VPS can also offer better performance because you are usually guaranteed a certain level of access to system resources like CPU usage, memory and bandwidth.

On the downside you need far more technical know-how to run and administer the server. Unless of course you opt for a fully managed VPS plan which will inevitably incur additional expense.

VPS – Pros

  • Far better performance than basic shared hosting.
  • More control of the server environment.
  • More control of the server’s configuration.
  • More secure than basic shared hosting.
  • Guaranteed access to system resources.

VPS – Cons

  • More expensive than basic shared hosting.
  • If unmanaged, requires a fair degree of technical know-how.
  • Vulnerable to “overselling” (where unscrupulous host providers put too many VPS partitions on one server, in the hope they don’t all eat up system resources at the same time which could lead to catastrophic system failure.)

Dedicated Hosting

A dedicated host server is fairly self-explanatory. It basically means that you have complete access to the web server with no other websites competing for system resources or bandwidth.

If we continue to use our previous analogies - a dedicated host server is like leasing or buying an entire building and moving in.

If you have a very large business servicing tens of thousands of customers or visitors each day, or you rely heavily on ecommerce or run resource intensive web applications then a dedicated server (or servers) is probably your best bet.

Like a VPS you need far more technical know-how to run and administer a dedicated server. Unless of course you opt for a fully managed plan which will inevitably incur additional expense.

Dedicated Hosting – Pros

  • Highest level of performance.
  • Total control over server environment.
  • Total control of the server’s configuration.
  • Potentially more secure than any forms of shared hosting.
  • Complete access to all system resources.

Dedicated Hosting – Cons

  • Usually a LOT more expensive than basic shared hosting or VPS hosting.
  • If unmanaged, requires a fair degree of technical know-how.

Other types of hosting

Cloud hosting is one of the newest trends in hosting and involves spreading a website’s files and functionality around multiple servers. It’s relatively new and we’ll save a more detailed explanation for another blog post.

Need help with Website Hosting?
 Contact Metro

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