Web Development

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Who hosts you?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about hosting.

Hosting is a vital part of your site’s infrastructure. In simple terms, hosting refers to where your website “lives” – the physical computer it’s stored on. In order for your website to be available to your customers when they need it, you need hosting which is reliable, which can meet the demands of your web technology, and which has enough capacity to serve all the visitors you’ll get.

There are lots of options for hosting, and I’ve worked with most of them:

  1. You can (but probably shouldn’t) host your site yourself. With a decent internet connection – a very decent internet connection, the sort only big enterprises will have – and with enough physical and knowledge infrastructure, it’s possible to host your site yourself. It’s even technically possible to host your own website on a £30 Raspberry Pi and a standard BT fibre internet connection, but that kind of setup isn’t going to be able to serve many customers. Unless you have a large IT team (and you’re a company of the size to need a big IT team) this probably isn’t for you – and even then there are risks with data management, data protection and so on.
  2. Your web developer can set up and manage hosting for you. They’ll probably work as a reseller, buying a server then sharing out space on it to their clients. For a lot of developers, this is a great solution: it means we know exactly what setup we’re working with, all our sites are in one place to manage easily, and we can take a small cut to manage the hosting. However, not all developers are happy to manage servers: server management is not a skill all developers have, want to have, or even need.
  3. You can buy and manage your own hosting and your developer will work with it. You get control – particularly over costs – and you’ll always know that you can do what you want to your site without needing to rely on a developer who might not be looking after you as a client longer term. You do need to make sure your hosting will hold up to the demands, though, and there’s sometimes a risk that your setup won’t work seamlessly with what your developer is doing. Talk! Ask questions!

For most small to medium clients, number 2 is the best approach, as long as you know your developer and trust that they’re going to be around – or that they’ll pass you on to their hosting supplier if things change. If your developer freelances on the side, and there are many great developers who do, then you need to make sure that you’ll be able to take control of your site back should they stop doing this. If your developer is a limited company with a long term plan, then you’re in a better position here.

If you know what you’re doing – or if you’ve had an established site for a while and you’re changing developers but not hosting – number 3 is more appropriate. Keeping things separate gives you more administrative overheads, but it gives you an element of protection and a lot of control. You won’t get sold things you don’t want and you’ll know you won’t be charged markup. Be sure that both your hosting provider and your developer are OK with the separation of build and hosting, and make sure they can talk direct – you might need to add your developer as a named contact on your hosting account. Be sure, also, that there’s adequate provision in your hosting for your site to be tested on the live server in some way before your go-live date. This might mean a slight overlap in hosting packages if you’re moving from one to the other, but it’s worth the cost to rule out any surprise bugs.

How we work

Most of our hosting is done under arrangement 2. We work with Cloud Artisans – who we’ve known for a long time – and we’re more than happy for our clients to approach them direct if they want to move to option 3 and take more control.

Cloudy buzzwordy clouds: everybody loves the cloud

There’s a big change in hosting at the moment, however, and it’s the increasing use of “cloud”, or “pay as you go” hosting. A prime example of this is Amazon’s EC2 setup.

The premise is simple: you pay for space on a server, and that server reacts to your demands – and you pay for that reaction. You get cheap, simple hosting, and if you get a lot more visitors you pay a bit more – but you’re not paying to have server space sitting “idle”. You’ll generally pay for processor time and/or bandwidth being used by your site. As well as hosting websites, this kind of deal can be used when you sometimes need really powerful processors but don’t want to buy an actual supercomputer: you pay for CPU cycles as you use them to render video or fold proteins or whatever, and you don’t pay for them when everyone’s gone home from work.

It’s a great idea, and if you have a big budget and big requirements it works really well. It causes a few issues for agencies like us trying to give accurate quotes for hosting, though – unless we know how many visitors and how big your site is going to get, it can be pretty tough to estimate! It’s better to budget for more than you need, and any left over hosting budget can be rolled in to developing new features for your site.

Where we’ve found it can fall down, however, is on smaller sites. The lower tiers of cloud hosting are often free but next to useless when real visitors start appearing. The next step up starts to rapidly get pretty pricey when your site is quiet and only pays off when you get massive visitor numbers – and there might be better solutions to this like caching, CDNs (content delivery networks) or load balancing.

To conclude: I can’t think of server puns

In summary, hosting is a lot like any tool you use to promote your business: you get what you pay for, but beware paying too much or too little! Really cheap hosting is a false economy, but hosting doesn’t need to break the bank if you have a small, brochure site or don’t expect many visitors. Don’t forget that visitor numbers aren’t necessarily a measure of your site’s success – it’s conversions from your site, and if you’re a high-tech startup, agency or enterprise software company you might only need one or two good conversions every month – from a limited pool of visitors.

If you’re running a big site which is business critical and potentially server-intensive: e-commerce, for example, or a transactional site where you’re expecting tens of thousands of visitors at a time, then spending more on something more powerful is absolutely key. The right server set-up can give you huge speed benefits on your site so it’s worth taking the time to explore options and to discuss your requirements with the company providing your hosting. Separating database and web servers, using content delivery networks and load balancing can all keep your site running fast under heavy load but will have both cost and development implications: the key is to make sure your hosting and development teams can talk.

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