5 things you need to know about web hosting before creating an account

Web hosting is perhaps the most underrated part of the internet. Everything you love about being online (podcasts, memes, articles, tweets, websites, online games, Netflix content) lives on a server that an individual or company pays to keep it running so that you can access it. In short, web hosting is an invisible and essential part of the online experience.

If, for example, you are planning to launch a website, there are several basic aspects of web hosting that you should familiarize yourself with before starting the project. While it’s relatively easy to sign up and use vendor-provided website builder software to quickly create an attractive and functional front end, there are many related terms and concepts to understand. As you will soon see, some of them are confusing, if not downright contradictory. Here’s what you need to know about web hosting before opening an account.

1. There is a big difference between the types of accommodation

If you’ve spent any time on a web host‘s website, you’ve probably seen terms like shared, VPS, dedicated, cloud, WordPress, and reseller. They represent the different types of web hosting, but not all hosts offer them all. In addition, the types of accommodation differ from each other significantly.

Almost all web hosts offer shared hosting, the cheapest form of web hosting. With shared hosting, your website shares a server and server resources with many other sites. If you want to limit your web hosting budget and don’t expect a lot of traffic, shared hosting is the way to go. You should expect to pay less than $10 per month for this type of web hosting. However, this level of hosting is really best suited for smaller sites that don’t need a huge amount of bandwidth. Since you’re sharing resources with other sites, you should be prepared for the occasional slowdown if one of your partners starts getting a lot of visitors. Free web hosting is available if your budget is tight, but it comes with its own caveats (usually ads and extremely low server specs).

Large businesses that expect heavy traffic to their sites should choose VPS or dedicated hosting, each offering increasingly powerful server specs. VPS hosting is like a powerful version of shared hosting, except far fewer websites are sharing a server’s resources, which are also a bit more separate. VPS hosting costs more than shared hosting, but you should pay less than $100 per month.

Dedicated hosting puts your site on a server all by itself, so it can harness the full power of a server. This is the most expensive type of accommodation; you could end up paying $100 a month or more for that raw power.

Reseller hosting lets you start your own branded web hosting business without worrying about building the infrastructure from scratch. WordPress hosting allows you to build a site in an environment that meets the world’s most popular content management system. What about cloud hosting? It’s an entirely different beast that lets you easily scale the power of the website across multiple servers, although not all web hosts offer it. Again. Prices for these levels of accommodation are all over the place, so shopping around is essential.

Consult our various explanatory articles (links to the paragraphs above) for a deeper dive into each type of accommodation.

Bandwidth vs Data Transfers

2. Bandwidth is not the same as data transfer

“Bandwidth” and “data transfer” are frequently used interchangeably to define the amount of data your website provides to visitors, but the terms don’t technically have the same definitions.

Bandwidth represents the total amount of data that can be transferred at one time while data transfer is the rate or the actual amount of information that can be used in a given period of time, usually a month. Think of it like this: a web host might have a maximum bandwidth of 5GB, but depending on your hosting plan, your site might only allow 1GB of data transfers per month.

Note: If your website exceeds its allotted monthly data transfers due to a Reddit hit, for example, a host may slow down your site’s data transfer speeds or charge you a fee as a penalty. It may even prompt you to upgrade to a higher web hosting tier. It’s good to be aware of your site’s data limitations before you find yourself in such situations.

3. Unlimited is not quite unlimited

Web hosts will entice you into signing up for their web hosting plans by tempting you with the promise of unlimited storage or monthly data transfers. It’s usually not a completely honest deal. Now, I won’t say that these web hosts are lying, but “unlimited” storage or data transfers almost always have limitations that vary by company. FatCow, for example, offers “tons” of disk space and says there’s no cap on a user’s content – as long as that person remains in full compliance with the company’s terms of service and uses storage “for the normal operation of your FatCow website.” It’s like the bottomless shrimp buffet: a restaurant will eventually cut you off, if it doesn’t run out of shrimp first.

Unlimited data storage and transfers are usually associated with shared or WordPress plans, and they let you go wild…within limits. If your blog receives a steady stream of reasonable traffic (whatever that means!), you’ll be in good standing. However, you shouldn’t expect to download or stream 50TB of data per day. The average Joe doesn’t do that, he’s likely indulging in questionable activities.

You should consult a host’s terms of service or customer service representative to find out exactly what you can and cannot do under your plan’s unlimited offer. For example, DreamHost states on its website that the company does not track “bandwidth or traffic, so you never have to worry about pesky overage charges.”

HDD vs. SSD

4. The compromise between HDD and SSD

If you’re looking to sign up for shared web hosting, you’ll likely receive real estate on a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) server. The advantage of a hard drive-based server is that it can offer large amounts of storage at a lower cost. As you move up the hosting ladder to more powerful offerings, such as VPS and Dedicated, web hosts will give you the option of building a site on a solid state drive (SSD).

SSD-based servers are super-fast storage units. SSD technology is still quite expensive, so your SSD-based servers typically carry much smaller storage totals than HDDs. You will rarely see 1TB SSD servers, which is a common number in the HDD business.

The discussion between SSD and HDD is long and well beyond the scope of this article. I recommend reading Tom Brant’s excellent SSD vs HDD: what’s the difference?

5. A Linux server will do…most of the time

Almost all web hosts offer Linux as the operating system that powers their servers. In fact, I don’t think I’ve reviewed a host that didn’t have the free and open source operating system. Even if you’re not familiar with Linux, you don’t need to do any special back-end work to build a website. Website builders make building sites easy.

That said, if your site needs the ASP or ASP.NET scripting frameworks, you’ll need to run with the Windows Server operating system. This is because the script you write and the web pages you produce will only work in a Windows environment.

There is an additional advantage: Microsoft applications, such as Office or Outlook, easily integrate them into the server. The wrong side? Windows servers are incompatible with Linux-based open source software unless you do some tweaking. Additionally, Windows servers cost about $10-20 more than their Linux counterparts, but if you need Microsoft’s tools, that’s a small premium. Linux vs Windows: How to Choose the Best Server Operating System for Your Website breaks down everything you need to know about these operating systems.

For more web hosting tips, check out The Best Courses to Learn How to Build Websites and 10 Simple But Powerful SEO Tips to Increase Traffic to Your Website.

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