Hosting Specifications

Before even considering a hosting company, you need to figure out what your website needs. Don't be taken in by the enormous amounts of webspace and data transfer these companies sell, because you'll likely never need any of it, and will end up paying extra for nothing. Below is a guide.

Storage Space
How many megabytes is your website? If you're using Windows, right click on the folder it's stored in on your computer and click "properties" to find out. That is how much web storage space you'll need at the moment, but be sure to get a package with more space than that, so that you'll have room to grow in the future. Remember that even if you do grow beyond what you originally signed up for, you can usually upgrade to a bigger package later. Many hosts sell anywhere between 20 megabytes to a gigabyte of storage space, but the average website uses less than 20 megabytes.

Data Transfer
This is a bit more important than webspace, because it's harder to determine how much you need, and it's a lot more expensive. Data transfer is sometimes (mistakenly) referred to as "bandwidth," and is the amount of data that can be transferred to or from your website over a month's time. The more popular your website is, the more data transfer you'll need.

To work out how much data transfer you need, multiply the size of your website by your number of monthly visitors. For example: if your website is 5 megabytes big, and you get 70 visitors to your website per month, you'll multiply 5 by 70, which is 350. So you'll need 350 megabytes of data transfer per month. Now, this is not exactly accurate, because each visitor won't see every single file your website consists of, and FTP and email usage is also counted, but it at least gives you an idea.

A word of caution. Many companies quote "unlimited" or "unmetered" data transfer allocations, but in the small print you will find that they have the right to remove your site without warning if you are using too much data transfer. Put simply, this means they have a limit but they are not prepared to tell you what it is. They need to have this clause because data transfer costs money. The telecom companies that provide internet connectivity charge for every megabyte of transfer on their networks, and many "unlimited companies" have found that they cannot sustain their service without regularly removing accounts.

Server Side Scripting
This includes (but is not limited to) CGI, ASP, PHP and SSI. Of these, CGI and PHP are the most useful, and you'll definitely want to use one or the other at some point, unless you want to outsource your scripts. With CGI and PHP you can set up guestbooks, mail forms, forums, chat rooms, counters and limitless other interactive goodies for your site. ASP is really only reliable if it's on a Windows server, which I don't recommend unless you really need it. SSI is handy, but usually not as necessary as the others. If you're lucky, you'll find a host who offers them all, just in case you ever want to broaden your horizons!

Operating System
I'm not going to get deep into the technical side of things, I'll just tell you what you need to know. The OS (Operating System) of the server has no relevance at all to the OS you use on your computer. The OS of the server determines how the websites on that server work. If all you'll be using is static HTML pages, then it doesn't matter. If you ever want to use a scripting language, then that's when it counts. Generally, CGI and PHP work best on a Unix/Linux server, while ASP works on Windows 2000/NT servers. As for databases, MySQL is better on Unix, and MSSQL/MS Access is better on Windows. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then go with Unix. Unix is the most widely used, and is generally more secure (less susceptible to bugs, hackers or viruses).

Subdomains
The availability of subdomains can be a deciding factor for a host when it comes to the personal domain. Why? Because owners of personal domains are generous, and want to share their good fortune with their friends by giving them their own webspace (or they want to show off ;)). Subdomains have the form of http://sub.domain.com, and come with their own FTP account. They're also useful for sectioning off your website into orderly parts. Similar to subdomains are seperate directories, or user directories, that also come with their own FTP accounts, which are just as good for hosting your friends.

Email Capabilities
POP3, SMTP, autoresponders, aliases, catch-alls... What do all those terms mean?

  • A POP3 account is an email account (you@yourdomain.com) that you can use with an email client like Outlook Express or Eudora. If you don't have access to one of those programs, check to see if the host offers Web-Based Email as an alternative, which works through the browser, like Hotmail.

  • SMTP is what enables you to send email from your POP3 account. Many hosts disable this as an option because spammers often take advantage of it. If your host doesn't offer SMTP, you'll have to send mail through your ISPs SMTP. If your ISP doesn't allow this, then web-based email may be your last option.

  • An auto-responder is exactly what it sounds like. When someone sends a message to an account you have an auto-responder set up on, they will get an immediate automatic reply. You can set that reply to be anything you wish, such as "Thanks for your mail! I'm on vacation at the moment, so I'll get back to you in a few weeks."

  • An alias is another name for the same email account. If bob@domain.com is your POP3 account, and bobsucks@domain.com is an alias for it, then any email sent to bobsucks will go straight to bob.

  • A catch-all account can be very handy. If someone ever mis-types your email address, or sends an email to an address at your domain that doesn't exist, it will go to your catch-all account instead, which is usually your main POP3 account.

  • Forwarders are fake email addresses, like URL redirects. Any email sent to a forwarder will be "forwarded" to any account you specify, even if it's at another domain.

Site Stats
When looking for a host, see if they offer something like "Web Site Statistics" or "Raw Access Logs." These will let you know who is visiting your site, when, what browser, OS and screen resolution they were using, how they got to your site and exactly what files they accessed while they were there. This can be invaluable for finding out which parts of your site are most popular, and how to improve upon things like navigation and loading times.

Control Panel
A web-based control panel can save you a lot of time. Instead of emailing your host asking them to set up things like email accounts, subdomains, databases and FTP accounts, waiting days for them to get around to it, you can do it all yourself in real-time. A definite advantage. Popular control panels are cPanel and Ensim.

Databases
If you're going to have a forum, or any other script that needs to store a lot of data, then you'll need a MySQL database or two. MySQL is not necessary, but it is faster than plain text scripts, and doesn't overload the servers processor like some CGI scripts do (*cough* UBB *ahem*). Databases are not hard to use, as they're almost always used with PHP scripts that will do everything for you.

Everything Else
Things like SSL/secure servers, shopping carts or merchant capabilities you'll only need to worry about if you're running a commercial business website. Most of the other things, like mailing lists or Frontpage extensions, are already self explanatory.