What is web hosting?

A hand holding a transparent globe saying web hosting

'What is web hosting?' is a question that's become trickier to answer in the last few years. In the past, web hosting was simply a tool used to publish websites

However, the growth of cloud computing and web applications, plus the availability of fast internet connections means you can now use web hosting for a range of jobs that previously required a server.

As a result, there are many different types of web hosting available – meaning that for your business, the answer to 'what is web hosting?' has more scope than ever.

What is web hosting?

Web hosting refers to space on a server (usually called a 'web server') which you rent from another company. You can upload files, folders, databases and software to that space, if you wish.

This type of server isn't located on your premises. It's usually kept safely alongside lots of other servers in a special building called a data centre. And it's permanently connected to the internet, so you can login and access your data from anywhere, at any time.

It's easiest to think of web hosting as computing capacity on the internet which you rent. Any files or information you load into that space can then be accessed online.

What is web hosting used for?

Web hosting is 'always on, always connected', which means it's most often used to publish a website. Once you've uploaded your website files to your hosting service, and installed the appropriate web publishing package, the resulting website can be viewed by anyone else who's online.

However, the answer to "what is web hosting for?" doesn't end there. It's about far more than data storage. You can use it to actually do things – to perform useful tasks, or to replace IT hardware and software that you run and operate within the four walls of your own business.

That's why it's important to remember that web hosting is not just disk space which you're renting. You're also buying access to some of that server's computing power.

Publishing a website is still the most common use for web hosting services. But you can use them for many other things too. For instance:

  • Storing your business data. It's now commonplace for companies to store data online. This is usually more flexible than using a server on your premises, because you can login from anywhere.
  • Data backups. Web hosting is an easy way to take a backup copy of important data and store it off-site, where it'll be safe if there's a disaster (such as a fire) at your premises. You simply copy everything to your hosting, over the internet.
  • Running applications. Traditionally, companies have run central applications - like a customer database - from a network server on their premises. But why not run it on your web hosting instead? That way you can access the applications from virtually any device and location.
  • Company email. Email is another very common use for web hosting. Rather than having to maintain an email server to handle all incoming and outgoing mail, you can use web hosting space instead.
  • Hosting your intranet site. An intranet is a private website for people in your company. It's a good place to put company policies, documents and so on. You can upload it to your hosting and restrict access purely to people within your business.

These services are all forms of cloud computing, where you use hard drive space and computing power to perform tasks for your business. And web hosting is a crucial part of cloud computing, because it's where those resources live.

In fact, cloud computing apps and services that are paid for monthly already come with their own web hosting, so you don't need to worry about the hosting at all. But if you're developing your own applications, or looking to install software onto your hosting, then you need to check carefully the kind of hosting you need.

Types of web hosting

Choosing a web host can be tricky; there are hundreds of suppliers to pick from offering a wide array of hosting packages.

A good place to start is by deciding what type of web hosting you need. Here’s a summary of the main options:

  • Shared hosting is entry-level web hosting. It’s fine for hosting small websites or blogs – and with prices starting from less than £5 a month, it’s a cost-effective way to get your company website online.
  • Cloud hosting is a versatile and commonplace form of web hosting. The main attraction is that it scales up and down automatically to meet your needs. Like buying electricity, you only pay for what you use.
  • Virtual server hosting is mid-range hosting that costs from around £15 a month. It gives you much more flexibility and power than shared web hosting, making it good for sites that are growing, and for some web applications.
  • Dedicated hosting is a very powerful type of business web hosting. It’s mainly used for busy, high-traffic websites or to run business applications. You can also use dedicated hosting to replace a server on your company premises.
  • Managed hosting services refers to a type of web hosting where your hosting supplier carries out updates and maintenance to keep things running and provides consultation on the best setups for your requirements. Managed hosting should reduce the amount of time you spend maintaining your hosting.

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