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​How to choose a web hosting provider

CNET@Work: Picking a good hosting provider boils down to three S's -- speed, support and security. For good measure, scale may be another S-word to ponder.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.


What's important in a hosting provider?

"Great hosting boils down to the 3 S's: speed, support and security," said Adam Berry, digital director at Wingard Creative. Nasdaq's Simon Ball, head of digital media services at Nasdaq Corporate Solutions, said scalability is also critical. "You need the ability to rapidly scale your website as your target audience grows and the resiliency to handle sudden bursts of high traffic," said Ball.

Hosting services are available in a wide range of prices ranging from a few dollars a month to thousands of dollars. If you're a small business getting started, you can probably do quite well with a cloud, virtual private server, or managed service ranging from $10 to $100 (roughly £8 to £80 or AU$15 to AU$130) per month.

Here's a look at what experts recommend you consider when choosing a hosting provider and links to various CNET Commerce listings of services and discounts. CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of these products and services offered by our partners.

Decide how much hand-holding you'll need. Basic customer service provides access to email, ticket and phone support. Turnaround time on requests, however, will vary. Some service providers even offer 24-hour phone support. The limiting factor to non-managed service is that while a vendor may answer questions about basic configuration, it won't be your systems manager.

If you want to delegate the management of your site completely, then you want to consider managed service. Providers of managed service will make sure your system is configured properly for your load, keep an eye on security issues, patch your software as needed and manage backups among other tasks.

Estimate the amount of traffic you expect (and be honest with yourself). Hosting providers generally charge based on storage and bandwidth usage. Bandwidth is a measure of how many bytes you serve over a given period. If you expect only a few folks to visit your site, bandwidth will be low. But if you're suddenly featured at the top of Google or your product goes viral you can expect bandwidth requirements to surge.

As long as you're honest with yourself, there's not much of a risk. For example, if you plan to only serve a few pages to a few local customers, you'll never run afoul of any limits. But if you know that you're really building a site that will stress low-end shared servers, be sure to pick a dedicated or cloud-based server. That's next.

Understand server types. The very cheapest hosting is available on shared servers, where one box may run hundreds of websites. The performance of your site depends on the load all the other sites are putting on the host. Shared hosting also limits your access to the server's capabilities, generally limiting you to uploading files via FTP or SFTP, preventing shell access, restricting what programs you can run on the service and limiting the amount of database access your site can perform.

The next tier up is VPS (for virtual private server), which is a full instance of a virtual machine (a simulated computer) running on a box. Usually, hosting providers run many VPS instances on one box, but performance is almost always better than base-level shared services. If you use a VPS, you should be familiar with basic server maintenance and management.

If you don't want to share performance with other sites, consider a dedicated server, a physical box that's rented to you. It's the same as having a server sitting behind your desk, except it's located in a service provider's data center. Only those with system management skills need apply.

Cloud servers may be a better choice. They usually run on the giant public clouds, like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. Service providers can build whatever configuration suits the needs of their customers. The big benefit of cloud servers is that you can scale seamlessly. If you need to be able to handle that big traffic surge, just pay your provider more money. Nothing needs to be moved or rebuilt.

Be wary of unlimited offers. Some hosting providers offer so-called unlimited storage and bandwidth for a few dollars a month. This deal often isn't what it seems to be. If you pay three bucks a month for hosting, there will likely be something in your terms of service allowing your hosting provider to either throttle your performance or shut you down after a certain usage level.

Choose a portable content management system to avoid lock-in. Most hosts are pretty good, but times change. Management changes, acquisitions and technology shifts can alter your web hosting plans. Make sure your site isn't locked to any one host -- and that you have a backup practice in place.

For my business, I make sure I use an open source content management system. Many people use WordPress on top of PHP, which will run on just about anything. Do regular updates and site backups, so you always have access to your site's data, media and structure. This approach means all you need to do is load your backup on another provider's service and point your domain name to that provider.

Own your domain name. Nicholas Rubright, founder and CEO of streaming music service Dozmia, recommends that all fledgling businesses own their domains. "Make sure you own the domain. That way you can change providers if needed, and own any earned SEO benefits," said Rubright.

Now that you know how to get your site up onto the internet, you're all set to get started. Go forth and build something great. Check out our web hosting providers section to find a service that works for you.