When planning a website, there are a few important things that should be considered in the process. Probably the most important consideration is your web host.
Your web hosting service is the backbone of your website. If you can’t already see why this would be important, consider this – if your website has problems coming up, people will have a hard time seeing your content. Even worse, they’ll leave your site. Your website’s performance can also effect your SEO rankings.
Chances are if you are a web developer or a designer, your IT skills are not quite up to enterprise level site management. That’s okay – you can find a service that will do this for you. But what kinds of things do you need to be looking for? How can you tell if a web hosting service is reputable?
The first thing you want to think about is what is your level of expertise? How much do you need the host just to handle for you? Sometimes it helps to be realistic about this as well. Just because I know how to trouble shoot doesn’t mean I want to or have time to. In addition to working full time, I do still host a handful of websites for clients. I have a dedicated virtual server from MediaTemple that I use to host multiple domains. If a client calls me with an issue with their web service, I can quickly look at the control panel to see if its something I can quickly do. For bigger problems I can put in a support ticket and usually within a few hours I have everything fixed. And note that in that “few hours” I simply open a support ticket and go back to what I was doing. This is the value you are paying for with a hosting service – the service part.
The classic problem with shared hosting
There are many web hosting companies out there – its a highly competitive market and pricing has gotten cheap. So is there a tradeoff to low costs? In most cases, yes and performance is that tradeoff. Most cheap hosting costs close to nothing thanks to a technique called “shared hosting”. What that means is this. Most websites don’t require all of the resources of a dedicated web server. They partition this server off to be “shared” by multiple websites. While in theory this seems like a good practice – it gets sticky in the real world. Hosting companies will typically pack these in – sometimes several hundred per machine. The performance is pretty slow in general and if one or two of those sites take off and get huge traffic spikes, it effects the performance of all of the other accounts on that server. This could still be responsibly managed to a degree, but most hosting companies honestly aren’t that good and don’t seem to care. Their goals are big numbers and not quality of service.
There are some new alternatives to traditional shared setups that offer better scalability and service and still keep the cost down. Cloud servers are the new hot trend. While they offer a very interesting solution, they often still require a level of IT support that makes them more expensive than the shared model. They also require a little more knowledge of what you’re doing.
MediaTemple has a very interesting offering that they’ve been working on for several years now called Grid Hosting. MediaTemple’s grid is literally a grid of clustered servers working together. Grids are made up of pools of clusters that are each dedicated for specific tasks. For instance, one pool is dedicated just to email. Another pool might be dedicated to databases, another to web serving, etc.
These clusters use what MediaTemple calls “Burstable Resources” – in other words resources are set to automatically scale to bursts of traffic and usage. This way if you get linked to Digg, Reddit or some other popular site, your service will auto scale and stay working normally without a drop in performance.
Another feature of their grid is that its modular so you can “add on” services that exceed your plan if you need them. These are called containers. If you want to run Ruby on your server you can add on a container. If you have multiple sites hosted and need another MySql database – you can add a container. These allow you to grow with a reasonable price increase. Also brilliant is that changes to your account are made in real time so you don’t have to wait for a new service add on or worse – move your stuff to a new location. It is all pretty much plug and play.
Also nice are what MediaTemple calls one click installs. Basically MediaTemple maintains a pool of applications that you can instantly install on your website. Want to add a blog? Need to add forums? You can install things like WordPress, Drupal, phpBB, Joomla, MediaWiki, osCommerce and hundreds of other applications instantly.
You can host unlimited websites on a basic grid plan. While this sounds theoretically perfect, there are some limitations to control you’ll be able to have when you do need to customize your server. If you’re clients and hosting needs get to this point you’ll likely outgrow the grid. You could open a new grid account and handle it that way, but if you need access to apache for some specific customization you’ll probably need to move up to their next product.
Dedicated Virtual Servers
Dedicated virtual servers work like shared hosting, but with much more care taken into how the sharing is set up. It is not an entire server to yourself, but they are shared much more conservatively so you can still have more control over your server. So instead of sharing hundreds of accounts for one machine they might group only 4. This allows you to set up virtual machines that share the physical hardware of only one machine. With virtual servers, you can get root access, make modifications and even reboot the server if you need it. You can install custom applications if you need them. I use this option and love it. They do cost more monthly than the grid, but if you are at this level you should be making money reselling from your clients. When I first got my dedicated virtual account is was a little expensive, but now days it pays for itself. Over the years, MediaTemple’s prices have come down as well. When you’re making money hosting your own clients – this service pays for itself.
If you know what you’re doing with server administration and don’t need the support layer, MediaTemple offers a “VE” server as well which is a little cheaper because they assume you don’t need the support level that more casual administrators might need.
MediaTemple is not the only hosting company that offers dedicated virtual plans – I just know them from being with them for over 10 years now and I trust them. I recommend them to people all the time because I’ve got confidence from my own experience.
As I’ve mentioned I am a happy MediaTemple customer and have been for years. If you’re curious – I’ve got a Dedicated Virtual account that hosts about 20 websites. I also have a Grid account that hosts 3 personal websites on. I use the grid for testing as well as I recommend it quite often. This site is hosted on my Grid account.
My first account was an old school shared service that they not longer offer. I signed up for a Grid account day one when they came out. I have to say the early days of the grid were rough. Lots of downtime and maintenance, but in the last 3 years MediaTemple have gotten this matured into an excellent hosting option.