Factors to Consider Before Buying a Hosting Service

As touched upon on our shared / vps / dedicated comparison, you'll want to consider a number of things before taking the leap and choosing a particular hosting provider.

Here we'll cover the various factors of what to consider with regards to the level of service to expect, and the kind of hardware requirements you'll need.

It's worth remembering that even if you choose a host that is below your expectations, having a competent person migrate your site to another host can end the pain quickly. Moving between hosts can be a painless experience.

Nonetheless, finding the right host sooner rather than later has obvious benefits. Here we look at the facets of a hosting service that you'll want to consider before making your purchase. The list is generally split between hardware requirements and personal requirements and in no particular order. Some points are more important than others, but the main points are covered...

1. The Location of Your Hosting Provider and the Location of Your Target Market

There are three solid reasons for choosing a hosting provider that is near your target market. Two of them are highly correlated.

There's (almost?) nothing more pleasing than using a website that loads quicker than other websites, it leaves a good impression.

2. The Level and Quality of Customer Support

A knowledgeable provider who can communicate with you promptly, clearly and professionally and will make your hosting experience much less painful. Regardless of who you choose as a provider there are physical and knowledge facets that are out of your control.

For instance, if a provider has network connectivity issues where your site cannot be reached, you will want the provider to communicate this to you and indicate an estimated time where the issue will be resolved.

If you need to ask your provider a question about their service, like “how many add-on domains can I use in my shared hosting account”, “What kind of virtualisation does my VPS use” or “Does your network support Ipv6”, you'll want to have a knowledgeable reply.

At the very least, you'll want e-mail support and expect the hardware and network to be performant enough to satisfy your needs, within fair use. For everyhing else, see below.

You may also prefer a provider that is in a country that speaks your native language, or at least has support that is dedicated to languages you know. As admirable as it is to have multilingual skills, sometimes specific details and the communication of them can be essential to you.

3. Managed or Unmanaged Service

This is dependent on whether you have the knowledge or time to use an unmanaged service, and if you have either in abundance then you'll simply expect the hosting provider to provide you with good network and hardware availability to let you get on with things.

If you opt for a managed service, you will want to review other people's experience of using the managed service. The quality of service here is pretty much dependent on the experience and professionalism of the staff providing the service, so there's no facts and figures to offer as empirical evidence except perhaps “how long they took to make things right for me”.

You should expect to pay at least an extra $20-30 a month (and likely more) when opting for a managed service, otherwise it would be uneconomical for the host to devote human resources to your problems, ergo it is unsustainable for them long-term.

4. Backups

Many hosting packages will offer backups as part of their hosting plan. Speaking from experience, whatever backup system is in place, you should also have your own backup plan. Never trust a provider to have your latest backup. If you value your data, backup your data. Ask yourself what position you would be in if your hosting provider went offline tomorrow, and you had no way to access their servers.

If you lack the technical know-how to maintain a reliable backup system, consider the value you would get from having someone do it for you, it may be more cost-effective in the long run than losing data.

5. Quality of Network and Route to Customers

The Internet is a collection of (connected) separate networks, and the connection between your hosting provider and your end users involves the exchange of data across those network, through carriers. At its most simplest, providers pay carriers for the bandwidth they consume on their network.

Your hosting provider will peer with one or more of these carriers, who can transfer the data back and forth. The peers used greatly determine the physical route that traffic takes between the provider and end-user.

Normally this isn't a huge factor to consider, as generally you're OK with having a provider that's close to your customer base. Often though, you could take two different providers in the same city and notice an appreciable difference in latency between the two.


6. Bandwidth Availability

Your provider has a set amount of bandwidth available, depending on how big its network pipes are to the rest of the Internet. Your hosting plan may also have a specific upper limit on how much bandwidth you are able to use.

Some plans will offer you a dedicated minimum and/or maximum bandwidth allocation, and also perhaps a ‘burstable' amount that can be allocated to you, when it is available.

More often than not you are sharing a 1Gb or 10Gb pipe with other customers, and the amount of bandwidth available to you depends on how many other customers are sharing the pipe and how much bandwidth they consume.

At the very least, you will want a minimum amount of bandwidth that'll be able to serve requests to your site promptly, at any time of day.

6. Quality of Hardware, Availability of Hardware Resources

When using a dedicated server, this is a non-issue as the plan you buy often gives great detail about what hardware you are given.

On shared and VPS plans though, you are sharing resources and the quality of hardware and how many people you are sharing the hardware with come into play. Another factor is the provider's ability to detect misuse of their hardware. Think of a misbehaving customer who is consuming most of the CPU cycles, starving other users of the resources they need. Is the provider capable enough to resolve these issues?

Also, some providers are guilty of overselling their hardware, meaning that the availability of the hardware to do the tasks you ask of it isn't always available, resulting in a slow or even unresponsive request to your server.

Regardless of whether you go for shared, VPS or dedicated hosting, if you're serving something that requires minimal resources and requests to your site are slow, your hosting provider is likely oversold and your website's user experience will be poor.

Also evaluate what resources are offered to you and what is guaranteed. (See OTHER PAGE) for more detail on hardware requirements.

7. Software Availability, Hosting Management

When using a shared hosting package, you'll want to be able to install a thing or two, for instance a content management system like Wordpress or Drupal. Ensure that your provider is willing and able to do this.

For VPS or dedicated hosting, you'll want to ensure you have the choice of your preferred operating system and a means of recovering your container when you cannot login via SSH.

More often than not, hosting packages come with industry standard management tools like cPanel, Plesk or SolusVM, that allow you to perform

If you're used to a particular software like cPanel, you may want to stick with a provider that offers the same.

7. The Terms of Service of the Provider

We all do it... we want something and blindly agree to the terms of service without reading a single word of it, implicitly trusting that you've not just sold your soul.

You should though, at least, read a few terms of service of hosting providers to get a general gist of what is expected of you and what is expected of them (see SLA for more on that)

Generally you have to abide with the laws of the land where the hosting provider is located.

Additionally, the provider may have stipulations about fair use of their hardware and network, and/or stipulations about what kind of data you can store and serve from their servers.

File sharing? Check the terms of service. As an example, this is one area where you'll find 50% of hosts are OK with it, and the other half are not.

One observation you can make, is that if a hosting provider is quite tolerant of what they host, e.g. torrenting, will it affect the availability of the network and hardware for you? This entirely depends on the quality of the provider.

Another observation, if a host is lacking in a terms of service or lacking detail in a terms of service, expect other customers to let them find out the hard way by pointing out loopholes in what's allowed, and for that to impact the quality of service.

8. SLA (Service Level Agreement) / Site Uptime

This mostly applies to the higher end of the market where you're paying more for your hosting. The provider may offer a service level agreement, which typically means that they will guarantee a lower bound of availability of service, otherwise they will compensate you.

For example, a provider may give you a 99.9% SLA for site uptime over the course of a month. If your hosting is unresponsive for an hour, they will compensate you for that downtime.

An SLA doesn't mean that your hosting is guaranteed to be available for their quoted amount of time, it just means that their business model is built around the idea of providing you the quality that a good host should provide.

Generally, the existence of an SLA for a provider is a sign of quality.

9. The History of the Provider, Reputation and Previous Customer Experiences

Some hosting providers have been around since the 90's, and from that you can at least infer that they have a sustainable business model. Of those, many have had good reputations that have slowly turned to bad, so it's not a definitive measurement of quality.

Many, many new hosts appear every month, every year. A good number of them will not manage to make it until the year end, realising that hosting is a very crowded market and unable to turn a profit or acquire a customer base. Often new hosts will attempt to populate their servers with a tempting cheap deal to provide a baseline of customers.

Generally I'd advise to avoid hosts that have not been around for 24 months. There are so many that come and go, and the barrier to becoming a hosting provider is actually very low. Having a PayPal account, buying a domain, a server and using licensed billing and server management software is just about all that's needed. That in hand, I'd generally recommend established providers. Google their brand name and see what people are saying about the host. Are there particularly nefarious substantiated comments about the quality of the host? Use other people's experiences to help make a judgement for yourself. Bear in mind that other people's comments can be unsubstantiated, though.

10. Price

Pricing is a difficult metric to gauge. Cheaper seems better, but you have to take all other factors into consideration before deciding whether you're getting value.

If you find a provider on the lower end of the pricing scale, ask yourself what kind of quality you expect, and what other people have already experienced with the service they received. Providers need to pay for hardware, bandwidth, technical staff, administrative staff and support staff, and hope to turn a profit after all that. If your host is not making a profit or its staff are not renumerated well, you have an unhappy provider and the quality you get will suffer :(

Sometimes cheaper hosts work fine and you'll be happy with the experience. On the other hand, you may find that over the longer term that any cost savings from hosting were drowned out by additional time consumed by managing the service.

Conclusion

We have covered the major areas of consideration you should think about before acquiring hosting.

Are you ready to choose?

Check out our hardware requirements page that elaborates on the components of a hosting service and why you need them, or check out our HOSTING SEARCH to find a host matching your requirements.