Web hosting is everything that goes into physically “hosting” your website so that people can visit it on the internet. While the internet can be accessed from any number of connected devices, the individual sites on the internet still have to “live” somewhere.
In other words, all the files that make up a website have to be hosted on a server or series of servers.
That means every website has a physical location that your device connects to every time you type in a web address. In other words, when someone types in your web address, their browser goes to the server where your website is hosted and the server shows them your site.
Bottom line: you can’t have a website without having web hosting.
Here is a breakdown of how web hosting works and what your options are for hosting a website.
Web Hosting Is A Permanent Address
Just like you get a mailing address when you move into a house or apartment, a web address is the outward-facing way visitors “find” and access your site.
What are they accessing exactly? It depends on the type of hosting and server you choose (more on that later), but in all cases, a web address connects a physical piece of hardware to the physical piece of hardware used to browse the internet. When that connection is made, your website is displayed to them.
That means that the smartphone, laptop, or tablet you’re reading this on is connected to an actual piece of equipment somewhere in the world to view the content on this web page.
Thanks to the incredible connectivity of the internet, all of this happens virtually instantaneously, no matter how near or far you are.
But What Exactly Is a Web Host Connecting To?
Web “hosts” do exactly what it sounds like–they host website files on their servers. These servers are large computer systems designed to host websites so they can be accessed from anywhere with a connection to the internet.
You can imagine the web host ecosystem the same way you might imagine office buildings for rent. Most companies benefit from renting the exact amount of space they need in a building. As time passes, they can potentially grow into more space.
They share essential utilities and amenities with every other company that offices in the same building, which allows them to pay one monthly fee to cover everything they need. Some small or niche companies benefit from smaller, more flexible office buildings, while extremely large ones sometimes end up buying or building their own office complexes to fit their specific needs.
Similarly, most websites will fit best on one of a number of potential shared hosts. There are a few different options for shared hosts, and each one has its own pros and cons. Let’s look at what those different hosting options are.
What Makes a Web Host Good?
First things first: Before you choose a web host, what characteristics should you be looking for?
The single most important quality of a good web host is uptime. That is, the amount of time that your website is online (like it sounds, uptime is the exact opposite of “downtime”).
Downtime falls into two categories–planned, which entails maintenance and backend updates–and unplanned, which is everything else, from crashes to connectivity issues to power outages.
While no web host can realistically offer 100% uptime, it is reasonable to expect roughly 99.9% uptime from any major web host.
Why is uptime so important? Because if your site is down, people can’t access it. If you’re a business owner, this can mean lost revenue for you.
In a way, this falls under the uptime umbrella, as hacking and breaches almost always incur unplanned downtime.
But it also extends beyond questions about uptime. Not only should you expect and demand comprehensive security measures from your web host provider, it is also wise to consider how easy they make it to secure your website using SSL.
Everything you put on your website, from blog posts to picture to videos, requires disk space. Just like saving things to your personal computer requires space, so does uploading things to your site.
Depending on the type of site you’ll be building, this may be an important factor. For example, if you’re going to be creating a news site where you’ll be uploading thousands of photos and videos per month, you’re going to fill up disk space very quickly. When choosing a web host, you want to ensure that you’re going to have enough disk space for your site.
Bandwidth is simply the amount of data used by your site. Every time a visitor accesses your site and photos, videos, and articles have to load, bandwidth is used. When you upload something to your site, bandwidth is used. If visitors are downloading things from your site, bandwidth is used with every download.
If your site will be getting a high volume of traffic, you want to ensure that your host can handle the bandwidth and evaluate how they charge for using extra bandwidth.
This is especially important if you have aggressive plans to grow your website. As your site grows and traffic increases, does your host have plans that will suit your needs? What if your site really takes off and starts getting hundreds of thousands of visitors every month. Can they accommodate that?
It’s important to know where you plan on taking your site when you choose a web host. Otherwise, you may find yourself scrambling to find a new host when you outgrow your initial one.
Now that you know what to look for in a host, let’s dive into the nitty gritty of the various types of hosting available.
Traditional Shared Hosting
This is the most common form of web hosting. Large web hosting companies (GoDaddy, Bluehost, etc.) have massive physical banks of servers. In this scenario, you essentially ‘rent’ space on a server just the same way you would rent space in a shared office building.
An advantage is that you have one company/person who oversees utilities, security, the integrity of the hardware, and general IT oversight. However, just like a neighbor in an office or apartment building can occasionally use all of the hot water, it is possible that you can either be a beneficiary or victim of this system.
Sometimes your site will receive heavy traffic and slow others down as you use the majority of the server’s bandwidth. Other times, another site sharing the same hosting may receive heavy web activity which has the potential to slow yours down.
You don’t need to be too worried though. If it’s a large hosting company with a respected reputation, they’re probably pouring loads of resources into server speed, security measures, uptime, and hardware improvements to remain competitive against other host services.
As long as you don’t need extremely customizable hosting or unusually massive amounts of data transfer (e.g. heavy traffic) at any given time, this is usually the best option for most people.
Just like other uses of the cloud that you might be familiar with, cloud web hosting creates a digital ‘cloud’, placing your data on multiple servers instead of a single one. So, it essentially “lives” in the digital sphere, instead of on a given server network.
This has plenty of benefits, just like a membership at a coworking space with multiple locations might. In many ways, it can be more secure, more flexible, and more secure. Because it is built on a network of hardware rather than a single server, it’s immune to individual downtime or attacks. If something goes wrong or bandwidth is getting slow, your site can bounce to a different server.
However, just as you can imagine drawbacks to not having a consistent office, there are limitations to the customization and security of cloud hosting for some applications. And while many hosting services are working to make cloud hosting as easy as other forms of web hosting, on average, it still requires a bit more technical knowledge and work to set up and maintain a cloud-based website.
Virtual Private Server (VPS) Hosting
This distinction is sort of like the difference between an apartment and a condo, or a leased versus owned office space.
Though you still share utilities and walls with your neighbors, you have a bit more control over things, which can be beneficial provided you’re open to the responsibilities and costs that come along with it.
In practice, VPS service is essentially the same as shared hosting, but with higher payments which guarantee customers a certain amount of server space. This means that even if a neighbor is generating extremely high web traffic, there’s a minimum amount of bandwidth which you own and are guaranteed. And when nobody is using massive amounts of data, the overall hosting system is shared to provide higher performance to sites as demand dictates it.
You’re also insulated from mistakes of other websites, which is not always the case with shared hosting.
Virtual private servers are the best option for websites with ambitious growth targets, frequently-updated content, or routine traffic spikes.
Dedicated Hosting and Server
Many businesses have their own servers for internal computing needs like email and local file storage. A much smaller group use their own dedicated web hosting.
As you can imagine, it offers the same benefits as owning your own office building: maximum customization, control of resources and every aspect of security, configuration, and performance.
However, it also offers similar drawbacks: the highest cost, the most technical knowledge and resources required to operate successfully, and the most use of personnel for every aspect of website operations.
This option typically only makes sense for websites with the absolute highest traffic or security requirements, but it is without a doubt the best option for those who need and can afford it.
How to Choose?
How do you know which type of hosting service is right for you? Hopefully the comparisons to different office locations make it somewhat clearer which option is best for your website.
Here’s a simple way to break it down:
- Shared Hosting: Perfect for “normal” websites that will be getting an average amount of traffic. If you’re just getting started with building a website, this is probably the right choice.
- Cloud Hosting: A step up from shared hosting. A good solution if you need increased security options and assurances of constant uptime and bandwidth.
- Virtual Private Hosting: If you want increased control and are anticipating significant traffic growth, you’re going to want to move this direction.
- Dedicated Hosting: The choice for those with the biggest needs in terms of security, reliability, and bandwidth.
Web Hosting Providers
Now that you have a better understanding of what web hosting is, take a quick look at the most popular web hosting providers.
I’ve mostly used Bluehost for web hosting and domain registration, both for myself and my web development clients. I even wrote a guide on how to sign up with Bluehost.
They’re really affordable, have good customer service, and are perfect for both beginners and enterprises alike — but there are many quality web hosting companies that offer hosting plans for relatively low costs:
For most websites and businesses, the popular choice is get set up with one of the above web hosting service providers and start developing your site.
The main exceptions would be if you’re thinking about choosing a website builder, or if you’re setting up an eCommerce store and don’t code (you’ll probably want an eCommerce site builder like Shopify or BigCommerce).
As you consider web hosting options, remember that if you build your website the right way, it is possible to change where you host it as your needs change. So, just as you consider where and how to host your website, consider how you build your website and why that matters, too.