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What Is Web Hosting and How Does It Work?
September 18, 2020
Understanding web hosting is an important part of establishing your presence online. Whether your goal is to start building websites professionally, you are shopping for someone to build yours for you, or you simply want a better sense of how they work, answering the question “What is website hosting?” is an important first step.
These days building a website is easier and more accessible than ever, but it’s crucial that you know the fundamental principles at work.
To show how hosting works and illustrate what new users need to know before getting started, we put together this comprehensive guide to the basics of web hosting. First, let’s talk about how it works, followed by a look at some of the best web hosting services with notes on what you should expect from a provider.
What is web hosting?
Web hosting definition: It provides a secure place to store online content. The code, images, videos, and text that comprise a website all have to be stored somewhere. Without a stable digital repository, none of us could consistently access content on the web. That makes hosting one of the most critical parts of developing an online presence for anyone, from huge companies to small-scale personal accounts.
Web hosting allows users to store content offsite, reducing local storage costs and the associated physical footprint. It also makes it easier to build a genuinely durable web presence, with built-in advantages like back-ups for security and support.
Some web hosting happens locally via personal computers or servers, but cloud-based third-party providers are used more frequently. Once you start searching for a hosting service, you should be able to find a wide range of both free and paid options to consider.
How do I get started with a website?
To create a website, you’ll have to coordinate several of steps, and picking a web host provider is just one of them.
- Register a domain: You’ll buy this from a domain name registrar like Domain.com, Bluehost, HostGator, GoDaddy, or Google Domain, just to name a few. You pick a unique name to simplify people remembering your IP address (which is just a string of numbers). It’s much easier to remember “HP.com” than “184.108.40.206,” for example. The domain is the same no matter who you buy it from, but the pricing is different depending on services and add-ons.
- Nameservers (DNS): The nameserver is the middle man that points your website visitors toward the correct IP address. Many times the same company will provide both your registrar and DNS services, but you can choose to go with a different DNS if you want. Some common ones are CloudFlare, OpenDNS, CleanBrowsing, and Google Public DNS.
- Web hosting: The actual files that make up the website reside in a server maintained by your web hosting company. Again, this can be the same company as your registrar and DNS server, or you can use a different one for this part of the process. We've gone into detail on a couple of well-respected hosting companies below.
How does web hosting work?
Web hosting services work by maintaining stable and secure storage spaces. While web hosts provide more than just simple data storage, it’s a core part of their functionality. Hosts store data on hardware called web servers, which allows for easy maintenance and access by online users.
Without a large enough host capacity and proper maintenance, websites may behave erratically. That creates a more time-consuming process for your site’s visitors, in turn impacting your business’s sales and depriving your audience of information.
There are ways for you to create your own web servers with PC software, but the costs may actually be higher compared to a dedicated facility and provider. That’s why most users rely on a third-party service that can guarantee certain features and services on a 24/7 basis.
Enterprise companies may choose to host their own website to keep everything on site, with a significant investment in servers and manpower. This makes sense for large corporations. For small- to medium-sized business, though, third-party web-hosting providers are a much more budget-friendly route.
Benefits include continuous accessibility for users, more robust security against hackers, routine maintenance, and technical support for you when unexpected issues crop up.
Types of web hosting
Third-party hosting services shift the burden of setup and maintenance away from the user, and they do this in many different ways. Let’s quickly explore some of the different types of web hosting available.
1. Shared hosting
A common and economical option, shared hosting services manage multiple clients from the same server system. It’s a great option when your needs and budget are limited, but it comes with a trade-off. There’s more of an opportunity for disruption because the server’s resources are distributed between multiple users.
2. Virtual private servers
Virtual private server (VPS) hosting is similar to shared hosting, but your files are stored in a dedicated space with dedicated resources. The cost is typically higher as well, but this solution reduces the risk of sharing hardware with your provider’s other clients or subscribers.
3. Dedicated hosting
This provides a dedicated server, which cuts the security and performance risks associated with shared hosting. You can also gain substantial functionality, though this increases the need for regular management and maintenance, and will increase costs.
4. Managed hosting
You have access to a dedicated server, but you don’t have the same administrative options. Managed hosting leaves security and maintenance responsibilities with your provider, leaving you to manage content via FTP (File Transfer Protocol), the rules that networked computers use when they “talk” to each other.
5. Cloud hosting
Cloud hosting is a newer option that uses resource sharing and scale to drive down costs and reduce the risk of noticeable service disruptions. It can be more affordable compared to other options, but make sure you understand how your plan’s pricing works before committing to one.
While these are the 5 most commonly used options, there are other forms of web hosting available. These include home servers that you set up entirely on your own. But as with any DIY tech project, make sure you do plenty of research beforehand.
What are the best web hosting services?
There are many web hosting services available today, and these four are some of the best you can find when it comes to pricing, features, and customization.
Popular for its affordable pricing and comprehensive services, Namecheap is a widely used web hosting option. Its entry-level services are extremely affordable and pricing is dynamic compared to other services, particularly for domain registration and other incidentals.
Namecheap supports almost all of the hosting formats outlined above along with some others, including reseller hosting. It features many optional add-ons as well, such as security upgrades, additional app-based services, and even business support. Combined with affordable pricing and an ongoing slate of promotional offers, Namecheap is a great, flexible option for most users.
DreamHost is another widely used hosting service, and it offers varied pricing tiers and a strong foundation of basic services you can easily upgrade. Like Namecheap, it’s a great option for growth because there’s plenty of room to build and expand functionality as the need arises.
DreamHost also offers reliable cloud hosting plans with options for scaling as well as good developer support. There are free migration options for WordPress users, too, which is perfect if you’re looking to change hosts, and discounts for non-profit users. Plus, they have a 97-day money back guarantee, so there’s nothing to lose.
Combining a strong range of budget plans and great pro-support, HostGator offers fewer pricing options but still keeps the bar high for service. They offer an integrated web-builder plan that can help users create and customize their website, with a simple interface and the convenience of mobile support.
HostGator offers a particularly competitive starting rate on dedicated hosting, but they also offer a full range of format options including shared, VPS, cloud, and more. Though they can’t match DreamHost’s longer money-back guarantee period, they still offer a respectable 45-day period to try things out and back out with no commitments.
Hostwinds is a popular pick because of its versatile shared hosting plans with unlimited bandwidth. You can start out with just one domain and pay close to the typical price for a monthly plan (only a few dollars to start), but upgrading to unlimited domains adds only a fraction more to your costs. That’s ideal if you manage multiple websites and don’t want to fuss with the technical side of things.
You can also register at least one domain for free with any plan. In addition to a robust shared hosting system, Hostwinds offers other conventional options like VPS, cloud, dedicated hosting, and even reseller hosting.
Shop around to find the right option for you
If you’re not sure about any of the above options, that’s ok! Do some additional searching and compare services outside our list. There are plenty of web hosts out there. Read on for more guidance about the business side of web hosting.
What you should expect from your provider
Stability and security are most important for all users, but different projects and clients have their own unique needs. Some may only require static storage for a simple, primarily text-based website, while others require more dynamic functionality. You may also want access to custom email addresses or sub-domains, particularly if you’re running a small business or multi-faceted project.
Given the plethora of options available, it's important to compare costs and functionality when comparing different service providers and their subscription plans. If you don’t anticipate growing your site dramatically anytime soon, opt for the simplicity and lower costs of shared, cloud, and VPS solutions. They’re especially useful for low-maintenance websites and static pages that don’t require routine updates or heavy multimedia content.
Otherwise, look to providers that offer plenty of room for growth. Consider services that go beyond domain registration and hosting, even if you don’t think you’ll need them immediately. If you plan to manage large amounts of content or eCommerce activity, consider starting your search among the mid-range options and avoiding those that only cost a few dollars per month.
Reasons to use a third-party hosting service
For most users, a third-party hosting service helps you avoid the hassle and risk of a home server. Setting up your own hosting can be time-consuming, expensive, and leaves your work more vulnerable if you can’t maintain good security and upkeep.
Most hosting services offer their own comprehensive support via email or telephone after you report an error. They also streamline many of the incidental services you’d expect, including visitor metrics and interface support. Pro users may enjoy the control and manageability of a home setup, but it isn’t for everyone.
Typical costs associated with web hosting
These days, the costs associated with web hosting companies will vary across providers. Fortunately, most of the options we covered here have relatively similar pricing options. Hosting a small project on a basic plan can potentially cost as little as a few dollars a month.
VPS servers can be a little more costly, with dedicated plans typically charging between $80 and $160 per month for starter plans. Though cloud hosting can also be extremely affordable, most services price these plans differently based on activity. That means you do run the risk of seeing some unexpected charges on your bill now and then.
How to choose the best hosting provider
Given that there are so many hosting options to consider, it’s easy to get overwhelmed comparing them all. If your eyes start to glaze over while reading lists of features and checking pricing plans, switch gears and spend some time with user reviews. It’s often super-helpful to read through others’ experiences before signing up.
However, once you have a solid idea of the basics of web hosting, think about what format is most appealing: shared, dedicated, or otherwise. It’s also worth making a short checklist of key features so you can more quickly scan through text-heavy plan descriptions.
But if you are looking for a good starting place today, we recommend the different hosting packages offered by Namecheap and DreamHost as our top picks.
About the Author: Dwight Pavlovic is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Dwight is a music and technology writer based out of West Virginia.