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How Much Does it Cost: Web Hosting

An earlier Tip looked at the cost of registering websites. This time, we will look at the cost of actually renting space on the World Wide Web.

Often, your ISP (Internet Service Provider) provides you with a website, but the address will be something like http://hometown.aol.com/your_sitename_here/. While these might be fine to build a fan site for your favorite celebrity, it’s probably not the kind of image you want your company to project. Reviewed here are services provided by web hosting companies, sometimes called web presence providers (WPP).

There’s a lot of competition in this market, because geography is irrelevant. For instance, one organization for which I'm the webmaster, NABE, is headquartered in Washington, whose website is managed by this writer in Cleveland, from a web server located in Nashville. As long as your computer is connected to the Internet, managing a website one thousand miles away is no different than managing one hooked up on your LAN.

The Basics

Competition has pushed providers into offering packages clustered around three price points. Most companies have a low-end package that costs about $10 a month, an intermediate package that runs in the $20 to $30 range, and advanced packages that start at about $50 a month or more. As you pay more, you get more. But what is it you are getting? The services you get from a web host can be divided between the basic services and the extras.

The basics, in my view, are storage (how big your site can be), bandwidth (how busy the site can be), and email. To illustrate, here’s what you can get from the company that provides BJK Research's site, ICG Link in Nashville, Tenn. Its $10 a month plan gives you 10 MB of storage, 1 GB a month of bandwidth (data transfers), and 1 email account, with unlimited email alias and forwarding accounts. The intermediate package gives 100 MB of storage, 5 GB of monthly bandwidth, and 25 email accounts. ICG’s advanced plan has 300 MB of storage, 10 GB a month of bandwidth, 40 email accounts and a secure server (for credit card processing, etc.)

Another company where I host sites is Via.Networks in Atlanta. The low-end plan from them is $15, and gives 50 MB of disk space, 2.5 GB of bandwidth, and up to 50 email accounts. Via.Networks's intermediate plan is $25, gives 300 MB of disk space, 10 GB of bandwidth, and 100 email accounts. Their $50 plan gives 750 MB of disk space, 25 GB of bandwidth, and up to 200 email accounts, but a secure server is extra.

Some other companies that you might want to look at include FatCow.com, a company that has been around for many years. A newer name in the hosting business, 1and1.com, has been advertising quite heavily in computer magazines.

The extras

There are a number of other factors you also want to consider. It doesn’t matter how inexpensive your website is if it is hosted at a company that has a poor connection to the Internet. If your pages don’t load quickly, visitors will go elsewhere. Look for companies whose servers are at data centers with multiple backbone feeds (very high capacity connections to the Internet) for the best performance. A server sitting in an office building at the end of a T1 line (a T-1 line only transfers 1.5 Mbps, slower than many cable modems) is going to be a lot less reliable. (You also need to realize that the types of plans here normally call for many different websites sharing space on one computer.)

The next thing to look for is the platform that runs the website. The two leading choices are the open-source Apache web servers running on Linux/Unix, or Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) on Windows 2000 or 2003 servers. My personal preference is Apache/Linux; they are more stable (less crashes) and have fewer security problems. (BJKResearch.com uses this combination.) However, if you are going to be developing applications that are tied closely to Microsoft Office, you may be better off with a Microsoft solution. If you are designing your own site, and plan to use Microsoft FrontPage and its special features, make sure the company supports the FrontPage server extensions.

Some sites have static pages that don’t do anything. But once you start adding forms, interactivity, and databases, you will need something to support those. Most hosting companies have some basic Perl or JavaScript solutions to handle things like forms or simple calculations. However, if you are planning a data-driven web site, you will need application support. The basic choices are PHP or ColdFusion (what BJKResearch is starting to use) with MySQL as the backend database, or Microsoft.Net using Microsoft SQL Server. If you don’t know what you need, look for companies that support as many tools as possible, so your future options are open.

Other things: ask whether the provider has some provision for password-protected sites (not required, but then you will have to build the password protection into your pages); the ability to have a secure server (SSL) to conduct e-commerce solutions; the ability to offer WebMail interfaces, so that you can access your email from a browser (great when you are on the road.)

It didn’t take long to plunge into what seems to be a jungle of acronyms and technical terms on this topic. If you have questions, please let me know.

(An earlier version of this story ran in the March issue of NABE News.)