How do I choose the right web host?

One of the questions that are constantly being asked is which web host to choose. There are tons of hosts available to choose from both internationally and in any local market. No hosting company is perfect for everyone and so the reply will be “it depends”. The goal of this article is to give you the knowledge and tools to be able to judge what is important to you and then be able to make an informed decision.

The business model of web hosting companies

To make weighing pros and cons possible you have to know a little bit about how the business model of web hosting companies actually work. Luckily, it is fairly simple and easy to understand.

Let’s look here ate a typical “shared hosting” provider, that is, no VPS or dedicated server, even though you could do the same reasoning for VPSs. Leaving support and other related infrastructure aside and just look at the server itself, it works out like this:

Everything you really need to be a web host is a server that you divide into smaller parts which you rent to customers. The server will cost you X amount of dollars per month and thus, the more customers you can place on the same server, the more money you are going to make. There’s an incentive.

All customers on a given server share its resources: Disk space, RAM memory, CPU, bandwidth and so on. The more customers on the same server, the less of these resources a given customer can use (slightly simplified). To that point we can fairly confidently conclude that the more customers a web host puts on the same server, the worse the performance will be for every customer.

In general, this simple relationship is shown in the price as well. A web host that packs more customers into their servers will have a cost per user and thus in general charge you a lower amount per month, and vice versa.

Overselling – Nothing is unlimited

If you look at a typical web hosting package and then compare it with a typical dedicated server you will quickly realize that this doesn’t quite add up.

Like all forms of business that have capacity constraints, web hosts work with what is called overselling. Simply put, they promise more than they can deliver under the premise that nobody will actually reach the theoretical package limits for the account. In the unlikely event that someone does, another resource limit that is regulated in the Terms of Services will likely have been reached first.

In short: Nothing is unlimited. This leads us to be able to form a decision making rule about choosing a web host. It isn’t generally relevant to compare a website with 10 GB of space with another one that gives unlimited of space and thus be saying that one is better than the other.

Why? First and foremost, it is highly unlikely that you, if you are a small or medium sized business, will even need 10 GB of space and secondly, the unlimited account also in practice has limitations. There is therefore no reason to benchmark towards some sort of theoretical maximum that you will never reach or not even be able to reach.

Business critical or side project?

One of the first things to consider when you choose a web hosting company is how important the site is. Can you deal with longer support wait times? How are your demands for uptime? Does it do you big damage if the site is down for a while?

All of these questions can be summarized into how business critical the site is. The more critical it is for you, the less viable a cheaper option should be, given that the price generally to some extent is a direct indicator of the quality.

What is your budget?

No good decisions are ever made without considering your budget. It is fully reasonable to choose a web host that isn’t as good if you need to because of your budget, as long as you are aware of the compromises that you generally have to do.

It should be said that we are not talking great sums of money for good hosts here. You will easily get a good shared host with great performance for even US$100-200/year. This cost should for a business not be very big.

For side projects or your personal site, this amount of money on the other hand can definitely be considerable. Choosing a web host that cost far less (US$50/year) is then completely reasonable as long as one is aware of the trade-offs and adjusts ones expectations thereafter.

How heavy is your site?

Performance is a critical aspect for your website. Here, it depends on what type of site you have. A small personal blog will not require as much server resources as a bigger site with lots of visitors, advanced functionality and similar technically taxing features.

Here it is reasonable to weigh whether a cheaper host might still work fine for you because the demands on the server isn’t as much, or if you will need to go for something more powerful because your site demands it.

Let us also clarify what is meant by advanced functionality. On one hand, some CMSs demand more in their base state than others, and on the other it depends on what additions you make.

From a WordPress perspective it could be added that a multilingual site with the great and popular plugin WPML, E-Commerce with WooCommerce and similar big, structurally changing plugins will require more server resources than your average standard WordPress install. These types of sites should thus be placed on better hosts.

Conclusion

In this article we have initially looked at how the business model for web hosts, in a somewhat simplified way, works and concluded that the price of web hosts in general reflects the performance that you get. Further, we concluded that all web hosts work with overselling to a varying degree, ie. they sell more than they have. As such, a clear difference between hosts is to what degree they use overselling, which again is most often reflected in the price.

To aid decision making, we have also looked at three main criteria for making an informed decision about which web host to choose. Ones budget is often a great factor, even though it for businesses is not a big cost. How business critical the website is might then be the most important question in relation to the demands that you can make. Finally, we conclude that of course matters a great deal what type of site it is and that a personal blogg in general does not require as much from the server as a bigger, more complex website does.

Image: Flickr/David Precious


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