What does web hosting mean? Where do websites live? Who maintains the servers for your website?
These are all great questions and are fundamental pieces of information you should understand if you are venturing into the tech world.
Hosting, at its core, is a service that allows a user to house a website on the internet. Without a host, your website exists only on your computer or wherever you created it.
What is web hosting?
Imagine an office building. In essence, the company that owns the building is a hosting service. You want to work there, so you rent Suite 1212 to use as an office. Now that you have an address and an office, people can find you and address mail to you. If you don’t purchase a space to work, then nobody will know where you are and you will have no consistent place to conduct your business. The office number you purchased, Suite 1212, is your "domain." The domain allows people to search for you and find you, so you can tell them you're located in Suite 1212 in Building A rather than saying "I work in the big brown building, down the hallway to the right, after the third left, and in the office with a green door."
Websites are hosted on what is called a server, and the server is analogous to the building in the previous example. The server can hold multiple websites and is managed by the company that owns the server. Your domain is analogous to the suite number of your office, and is a unique name that allows people to find your website.
google.com is one such domain. In truth, Google has many, many servers that power their search engine, and when you go to google.com you're routed through the server closest to you. But the beauty of domains means you don't need to know the exact IP address of the server you want to access, all you have to do is type google.com into your browser, and the browser does the rest.
Below we'll touch on different types of web hosting before giving our recommendations on the best web hosting providers of 2020.
Different types of web hosting
There are a lot of hosting providers out there, and they provide different ranges of service. We'll cover some of the basic categories of web hosting, but this doesn't account for every hosting provider.
Managed hosting providers will handle pretty much all of the technical details of hosting your website including server setup, backups, maintenance, monitoring, migration, and technical support.
In the office building example, managed hosting would be analogous to having a building manager that cleaned your office for you every day, restocked all of your supplies, did your printing for you and even helps you with your computer when you need technical support.
These are complete packages that tend to be on the pricier side due to the high level of service, but are worth it for startups and small businesses looking to have peace of mind.
Shared hosting means your website is stored and served on a server that contains other websites. This means you share all resources with the other sites on that server. If one spikes in traffic or is compromised by attackers, it's highly likely your website will be affected. You can manage certain aspects of your shared server but you likely won't be able to fine tune too much. Most of the technical details will be handled by your hosting provider.
We generally don't recommend shared hosting unless you have very, very tiny amounts of traffic or are running a site for internal usage only.
In the office building example, shared hosting would be analogous to "hot desk" type arrangements, where you don't have an assigned seat and if there are a lot of people in the office that day, you might not get a seat at all.
Virtual Private Server (VPS)
Virtual private servers are a step up from shared hosting. You're still sharing a server with other websites, but your website has its own space in the server that won't be touched by other sites. You can directly manage more technical aspects of your server than with shared hosting. But since you're still sharing the server, there's a chance that a spike in traffic to another site on the server will affect your site too.
VPS's are a great option for startups and small businesses that don't expect too much traffic on their site but still want something more stable than shared hosting.
In the office building example, a virtual private server would be analogous to having your own office in the building, but with limited electricity. If 100 other offices have their lights on with the air conditioning on full blast, then your lights will cut out and you'll lose power, but for the most part you'll be fine and won't have to worry.
Dedicated server hosting
Dedicated server hosting is where you finally get your own server to yourself, with no shared resources and no other tenants to worry about. With dedicated server hosting, you will most likely manage most if not all aspects of your server, including setting things up, monitoring security, and deciding how much resources you allocate to your server.
Dedicated servers are a good option for startups and small businesses that have specific technical requirements for their site and want to be able to meet high traffic. If you're expecting high traffic or have a highly complex website that has specific technical requirements, you should consider dedicated server hosting.
In the office building example, a dedicated server would be analogous to renting an entire building. You can choose how many rooms and offices you want in the building. You'll also be able to manage many aspects of the facilities to meet your standards.
Cloud hosting is a little different from the other types of web hosting. It's a large umbrella term that refers to any hosting solution that is distributed across many servers and even many regions. Cloud hosting is not mutually exclusive with the other types of hosting we discussed, as some of the types of hosting we discussed can double as cloud hosting. For example, there are many managed cloud hosting providers out there.
The two main benefits of cloud hosting are the ability to scale up and down on demand, and the ability to distribute your infrastructure over many servers. This means you can handle large amounts of traffic, and even if one of your servers goes down you'll have the site running on other servers.
We highly recommend cloud hosting for startups and small businesses that want to be able to scale on demand. Some of the best cloud hosting providers do require some technical knowledge, but are usually easy to set up.
In the office building example, cloud hosting would be analogous to having your entire team work remotely instead of renting a central office space for everyone. You don't have to worry about maintaining an office, and you can double your workforce without having to worry about available space.
Top 5 web hosting services of 2020
It would be rude of us to explain what web hosting is and not give some suggestions of who to host with. Here are our top five web hosting services of 2020.
The beauty of AWS is that it is dynamic in pricing, meaning it only charges you for what you actually are using. Enterprise to small private sites, AWS is powerful and won’t let you down. Although, it can be complex to navigate sometimes.
They are highly competitive on a monthly charge and have incredible customer support. Bluehost is great for simple websites without complex requirements, and are great for getting started.
You get the power of Google Cloud backing you when you host through them. It’s powerful and a safe bet. The cost is not as competitive and flexible but it’s a shoo-in for sustainability and support.
With Azure’s flexible hosting options, you get the beauty of their expansive resources and the specialization to your needs.
You may not have heard the name, but they're worth looking up. Digital Ocean is not only technically sound and full of additional capabilities, it is also user friendly.
Web hosting: find a home for your website
While hosting is second nature to developers, it can be a bit confusing and a hard concept to grasp as you begin your journey into the software/website space. Long story short, your website needs a home, and that home is your host. We hope we were able to help you make a decision!
Still have questions? Feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org ☺️