What is Web Hosting? A Beginners Guide to Hosting Services

beginners guide to web hosting

As more people want to have their own websites and expand their online profiles beyond facebook and twitter, the need for web hosting services is increasing fast.  Fortunately, it has become extremely easy and inexpensive to own your own website and get everything up and running in a few hours. This article is an overview of web hosting services and designed to be for beginners with little to no experience in this field. After reading this article you should have a good understanding of the basics of web hosting and be better prepared to make an informed decision about which type to choose if you are looking to host your own site.

So, What is Web Hosting?

web hosting diagram

Web hosting is generally a company or public entity that allows websites to be stored on their servers or highly advanced computers.  This company will also permit other computers to access the files that comprise the website.  Therefore, in essence, you are “visiting” another computer every time you view a website.   These super computers or “servers” are housed in a facility known as a data center.  A data center could be anything from a personal home to a huge warehouse type space.

There are four main types of web hosting: shared, VPS or virtual private server, dedicated, and cloud.  All of these types are used to house websites, but they differ in the amount of storage capability, speed, control, and reliability.  Below you will find a description of each with both their positive and negative aspects.

Shared Server Hosting

This type of hosting is widely considered to be entry level and best if you are just starting out (it is the cheapest and the speed and data storage will be perfectly adequate for the majority of new websites).  Shared hosting consists of a single or group of servers that host multiple websites which all share the computers resources (like its CPU).  Many sites on the web are hosted in this fashion, and it is a good option for those with light to moderate traffic.  It is affordable and widely available.

We have written a more in depth guide to shared hosting here.

Some of the disadvantages of this type of hosting stem from the fact that you share bandwidth and RAM resources with other websites which you don’t control.  You will have limited ability to handle spikes in traffic, and traffic flow on other sites on the same server may occassionally adversely affect your site but this is becoming increasingly rare. As a general rule if you have less than 2000 visitors a day to your site you should be okay with shared hosting. You can expect to pay between $4-$15 per month depending on the company and the specification of the server. Many companies will give you tech support to get your site up and running fast so no technical expertise is needed.

Our top 5 shared hosting company recommendations are:  InMotion, WebHostingHub, GreenGeeks, SiteGround and A Small Orange

VPS (Virtual Private Server) Hosting


A Virtual Private Server hosts websites by taking a server and dividing it into several different virtual servers.  Each site on the server gets their own section of the server.  By have your own space within the server, your site is more secure and you have more control over how your site performs.  Many owners have root access via this server type.

This hosting type is good for those who higher than average traffic levels (i.e. > 2000 visitors per day or websites that have a lot of images or videos content) and those which experience traffic spikes and don’t want to risk overloading and less powerful shared server. They also give the website owner more control of the server by granting root access. VPS servers are a good option to progress to once you outgrow the resources of a shared server. You should expect to pay between $30-$200+ per month for a VPS server depending on the company and the package chosen.

Our recommended VPS hosts are: InMotion, LiquidWeb, Future Hosting, Knownhost and Singlehop

Dedicated Server Housing

Dedicated hosting is exactly what it sounds like.  It is where you rent an entire bare metal server in a data center. This is the way most high traffic websites are hosted and is only really required if you are an enterprise level user.  Some sites with lots of views (like Facebook or Amazon), will be hosted on their own multiple dedicated servers but many companies will have dedicated servers located in a datacenter owned by a hosting company.

We have written a more in depth guide to dedicated hosting here.

Choosing a dediated hosting option will give you maximum about of RAM, bandwidth, memory and security features. However, this will come at a price so this type is only recommended for those who need the ultimate in control over their sites. Expect to pay $90-$2500+ depending on the memory, processor, RAM, bandwidth, security, extras and company chosen.

Our 5 recommend dedicated hosting companies are: LiquidWebFuture HostingSinglehopInMotion and SiteGround

Cloud Hosting


This is the newest in hosting types and has been growing in popularity in recent years as website owners are able to get the reliability and speed of dedicated hosts at a cheaper price. A cloud host is essentially a network of servers that pool their resources.  This pool is used to prevent dips in reliability due to traffic spikes so if one server fails then the others in the pool are not effected and continue to provide hosting services as normal as shown in the image above. If one server gets overloaded, then another steps up to take some of the load, preventing a drop in speed.

Cloud hosting packages are generally chosen due to their extra reliability and ease in which you can scale up. They are normally more expensive than VPS or Shared housing but cheaper than dedicated hosts. This hosting type is best for sites that might have high traffic but do not need huge amounts of control or server access (they don’t provide root access).

Our recommended Cloud Hosts are: WP Engine (for wordpress sites), RackSpace, Singlehop, Servint and Site5.

How Do You Choose The Best Host?

With so many choices in providers, it can be a daunting challenge to pick the one that is best for you.  There are many things to take into consideration when choosing a host.  What is it that you need from your provider?  Sure you need server space, but what kind, and how much.  Is your site heavy with Flash and music, or is it simple text?  Knowing what your site will do can help you answer this question.

What kind of features does this host provide?  Can you add sub domains?  We have already established that this could be extremely important in the future.  You also need to know whether a specific host will allow for upgrading the server in the future.  If your site becomes very popular or grows quickly, you may need to upgrade to keep it performing.  You also should know the pricing structure for the host.  The cost of renewing your contract is just as important as upfront costs.

Email hosting and e-commerce support are other considerations.  If you are creating an e-commerce site, then having a shopping basket and check-out system is a top priority.  If a host does not offer these things, then they are obviously not the host for you.   Also, if you want people to be able to communicate with you through your site, email hosting is essential.  You want email to be bundled with your hosting package and not have to pay a la carte for every feature.

Probably the most important considerations involve the customer service your host will provide you.  Do they offer 24-7 live support?  What will cause your account to be suspended?  And, what if you do not like their service after trying it?  Do they have a refund policy?

Check out the 15 Point Checklist For Choosing The Right Web Host

It can seem like an uphill climb to build your own site, but most of the questions and considerations put forth here can be conquered in a solid afternoon of research.  The best thing you can do when setting up your site is to have a clear picture in your mind of what you want this site to do, and how you want it to look.  Get out an old fashioned piece of paper and write out an outline of what you want to accomplish.  Setting up a web site without a good plan is like starting a race without knowing which direction to go…. Pointless.  If you are creating a weblog, what will be your focus?   If you want to make a community forum, what is your cause?  If you are creating an e-commerce site, what will you sell?   Knowing what you want to accomplish is the only way to put a firm foundation under your website.

Now that you know the basics of web hosting, you are ready to start planning.  Research the companies you consider working with, and read reviews posted on independent sites.  Check out pages like yours, and contact successful owners to get tips.  And, above all know what you want to do.  That is the most important thing.  Now, go out and conquer the web.     

Web Hosting Bandwidth

Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data that can be transferred by your host in a specific amount of time.  It is usually measured in second.  Most hosting sites limit the amount of bandwidth your site can consume.  The more you pay the higher amount of bandwidth you receive.  If you are creating a blog or community forum, you probably will not need excessive amounts of bandwidth; however, if you are planning a movie download site, your bandwidth consumption will be very high.  It is important to have a good estimate of your bandwidth needs before shopping for a host.  You do not want to pay for more than you need.

You will also want to consider what FTP you would like to use.  An FTP is a File Transfer Protocol.  This is a program that lets you easily upload (and also download) content to your hosting server.  There are many different FTPs on the market.  FileZilla, CuteFTP, and SmartFTP, are a few good ones.  Some research into these programs will allow you to choose one that will suit you and your site best.  There are different features, like multiple uploads at a time, that will help you pick a solid program.

What is A Domain Name, and Why Do I Need One?

A domain name is simply the name you choose for your website.  It is an intangible string of characters that gives an identity to your website.  Before you can run a website, you have to choose and register a name or domain name for it.  There are many different sites where you can buy a domain name.  A few of the better known ones are godaddy.com, domain.com, and namecheap.com.

It is important to understand the differences between domain names and web hosting.  This analogy is a good way to understand the difference.  A domain name is like the address to your house, while a host is the physical location of your house.  You use your domain name, or address, to give people specific directions to your location, whereas your host is where your house or site physically lies.  When you register your domain name, you are essentially purchasing a piece of the internet.  However, just because you purchased the land doesn’t mean you have a house.  The registering of your domain name is the first step in the construction of your new website.

Internet registration is governed by an entity known as ICANN or Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.  This body’s purpose is to regulate registrars, web hosts, and their clients.  ICANN requires that anyone registering a domain name give them contact information for themselves, their company, and, in some cases, their employers.  They also determine whether or not someone seeking country specific domain options (like co.uk or .au) actually resides in the country.

There are hundreds of different domain name suffixes like .com, .net, or .edu.  The majority of these extensions come with specific requirements for registration.  For instance, .org is reserved for organizations only, and .edu is meant specifically for educational institutions.  If you try to register a site under a suffix to which is does not belong, it could cause your domain name to be rejected and returned to the available pool of names.  The customer will then have to pick a top level name to which their site actually qualifies for.

Even though deciding on a domain name is one of the first things you must do when setting up a website, you need to have picked a web host first.  When registering your new domain name, you will have to provide DNS and MX record information for your server site.  This will link your domain name with the server you have chosen as host.  It also will affect how your email will be addressed, sent and received.  Inaccurate information will cause failures with your page loading.

Choose A Top Level Domain

All the websites with which you are familiar with have an extension at the end.  Examples of this extension would be amazon.com, lipscomb.edu, or noaa.gov.  These suffixes are collectively known as Top Level Domain or TDL for short.

Most TDLs are open for public registration, but there are some that are reserved for specific kinds of sites or locations.  There are country code TDLs for the citizens of specific countries.  Those include, but are not limited to: .US (United States), .CO.UK (United Kingdom), .AU (Australia), .MX (Mexico).  These TDLs can only be registered by citizens living in these specific countries.

Sub Domains

You probably have encountered an address with a sub domain.  An example of this would be mail.yahoo.com.  While there can only ever be one Yahoo.com, the owner of this domain name can add as many sub domains (ie. “mail”) as they desire, as long as their host allows for this.  Only main domain names must be registered with a domain agent, whereas the sub domain is the exclusive right of the owner of the main name.

A sub domain acts in the same way that sub folders act.  It is a way of better organizing the information, but most search engines treat sub domains as separate entities.  This can allow a site to get multiple hits from the same search engine.

The ability to add sub domains to your site should be a top priority when searching for a web host.  You should be able to add a sub domain to your site with a simple click of the mouse.  You should look into this before settling on a provider.  You do not want to be caught in the scenario of needing to add a sub, but finding out too late that your host does not allow for it.

What Is A Website?


website overview


I know this may seem like a silly question, I mean, after all you are reading this ON a website, but do you really know what makes all this work?  In a nutshell, a website is a collection of related web pages collected together under a specific domain name (we will discuss how to get a domain name later).  Web pages are plain text contained within a framework of Hypertext Markup Language or HTML.  Websites are hosted on at least single server which is accessible via a network such as the internet or a private local network.  Collectively, all publicly viewable websites compose the World Wide Web.

The Privacy of Your Information

All domain names have a public record that identifies the owner of the name, their contact information, and the date the name will expire.  This is called a Whols record.  ICANN requires that all domain owners provide their information to the Whols directory, where anyone can view the data.  A simple Whols search will provide anyone interested in that domain with the name and contact information of the owner.  This can be seen as a serious threat to the privacy of owners.  This information could potentially be used for nefarious purposes by scammers, hackers, or stalkers.  Companies also use the Whols database to determine when a domain will expire and try to wrest the name from the owners.  It has also been linked to solicitors and spammers sending out both email and snail mail.