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.

Shared hosting

Shared hosting: how does it work?

Shared hosting is when your web hosting space resides on a server that is shared by other people. It is most often used to host websites, and one single server can hold hundreds of websites. That may sound a lot, but it works because most of the websites don't receive too many visitors, or use enough of the server's resources to cause problems.

That's why shared hosting packages tend to be cheap. Entry-level packages can start from as little as £2 - £3 a month, although these may have with significant space and bandwidth restrictions or limited support.

Typically, a shared hosting package gives you access to a certain amount of disk space on the server, as well as a certain amount of website traffic each month. Most packages will also include lots of other features, like:

  • A choice of Windows or Linux operating systems.
  • A set of applications that are easy to install. For instance, tools to help you create a blog, online store or cloud computing applications.
  • Scripting languages - also sometimes called programming languages - which are commonly used to create websites.
  • Databases, which are a central part of many websites, most often used to store a website's content or customer registration details.
  • Email addresses, which allow you to send and receive email. These often offer basic email features compared to a separate email service.
  • An analytics package (also sometimes called ‘website statistics'), to help you understand who's visiting your website and how they use it.

Shared hosting is generally regarded as the most basic form of web hosting. Many web hosting companies refer to their shared hosting services as ‘web hosting'.

Shared hosting: what's it good for?

Shared hosting is a cheap, basic service. It's mainly good for:

  • Publishing simple websites. If your company website is a simple brochure-style site, or a straightforward online shop, shared hosting should be adequate. Shop around to find reliable web hosting.
  • Starting an online shop. Many shared hosting packages come with tools that make it easier to create an online shop so you can start selling online.
  • Publishing a blog. Shared hosting packages are ideal if you're starting a business blog. Most come ready-to-go with popular blogging packages so you can get set up quickly.
  • Website design and development. If you're building a new website from scratch, maybe with a web designer or developer, a shared hosting package is a good place to create and develop your site.

It takes relatively little technical knowledge to start using shared hosting. Packages usually come ready-to-go for most common uses, and if you're hosting a website you simply need to follow the instructions to upload your files.

Shared hosting: what are the limitations?

Very cheap web hosting packages can be a false economy. In order to keep costs down, some shared hosting companies cram as many customers as possible onto each server, meaning your website can become slow or completely unavailable.

And although you may see shared hosting packages advertised as having unlimited capacity, in reality such services will be unable to cope with large traffic spikes.

Overall, shared hosting is less resilient than other forms of hosting, and therefore not usually appropriate for busy, complex websites or important applications. The very fact that your data sits on a server along with data from lots of other people gives you less control – and potentially makes things less secure.

It's better to purchase virtual server hosting, dedicated hosting or cloud hosting, as these services offer greater capacity and reliability – with better guarantees from the companies providing them.

Cloud hosting

How does cloud hosting work?

With many hosting services, your data sits on a single server, owned and managed by a web hosting company. But cloud hosting combines lots of servers into one huge hosting platform, sometimes called a 'grid'.

This means that as your website grows, or you need more capacity for your applications, the cloud hosting service simply draws on more of the grid's power. There's no need to upgrade or to buy extra hardware.

As long as your hosting company maintains enough capacity in its cloud hosting grid to service all its customers' needs, you'll have no problems:

  • Cloud hosting scales to fit your needs. Because you're not buying a predefined amount of computing power, cloud hosting grows as you need it - automatically.
  • You can access extra capacity instantly. You don't have to pick up the phone to upgrade your hosting package, or buy a new server. The power is there on tap.
  • It's cost-effective. With most cloud hosting services, you pay a flat fee for the basic service, then are charged extra if you go over it. It's a bit like being on the meter in a taxi.
  • It can be more reliable. In general, cloud hosting is reliable because it's decentralised. Even if part of the grid fails, your website shouldn't go down.

In many ways, cloud hosting combines the best aspects of shared hosting - like ease-of-use and affordability, with much more flexibility. However, it does cost a bit more too - expect to pay a minimum of about £10 a month.

Cloud hosting: what's it good for?

Cloud hosting is easiest to understand if you view it as computing power on tap. It's not just storage space for a website - it's processing power to run applications.

That means cloud hosting most definitely isn't just about websites. You can use it to do almost any job that you could also do with a server on your premises. For instance:

  • Handling fast-growing websites. Use cloud hosting for your website and you shouldn't have to worry about dealing with the demands of extra visitors - the capacity simply expands to cope.
  • Running hosted applications and cloud computing services. From a customer relationship management system to your company intranet or accounting system, you can run almost anything with cloud hosting. You just log in over the internet to use it.
  • Replacing hardware in your business. Cloud hosting can be a central part of your IT infrastructure, if you want it to be. Quite simply, instead of running software on servers in your company, you run it in cloud hosting, and access it over the internet.

You can remotely access and control your cloud hosting over the internet, putting almost anything you like on it. Many cloud hosting services can work in the same way that a network server in your office would - you'll just never run out of room, and you don't have to buy or maintain the hardware.

Cloud hosting: what are the limitations?

Some cloud hosting services aren't really 'true' cloud hosting. They may have limited capacity, require you to set the capacity you need manually, or not operate on a true grid system. It's worth checking these aspects carefully: flexibility is the biggest advantage of cloud hosting, so you'll be missing out if you choose a service lacking in these areas.

It's also important to remember that a cloud hosting grid is shared between many different customers. Obviously, that's part of the reason the service is able to scale up and down so quickly, but it does mean there's a tiny chance that something another customer does could affect the service for you.

Virtual server hosting

How does virtual server hosting?

Virtual server hosting works a bit like shared hosting, in that your hosting space is on a server shared with other websites and applications. However, virtual server hosting offers more power and freedom.

This is because virtual server hosting uses a technology called virtualisation to split one physical server into several virtual servers.

Each virtual server behaves like a separate physical server. This means you get more flexibility to install the software and tools you need and can scale operations without purchasing or renting additional server hardware.

You can think of virtual server hosting like a cake that's been cut into pieces, (pictured). The whole cake is the physical computer server. You can't have it all (if you want it all, you need dedicated hosting), but you don't have to share your piece with anyone else. You can eat it (or use it) however you like.

Virtual server hosting packages usually give you access to certain amount of disk space on the server, as well as a specific volume of website traffic each month. You should also check for some other important features:

  • Administrator level access. This allows you to install anything you like on the server (within reason). It can be essential if you want to run applications you've developed yourself on your virtual server hosting. (If you're not sure about this, your web developer or IT supplier should be able to advise.)
  • Guaranteed resources. A good virtual server hosting package will guarantee you access to a certain proportion of the main server's computing capacity. This is important, because it means other customers sharing the same hardware will have no negative effect on the performance of your hosting.
  • A service level agreement (SLA). Some virtual server hosting packages include an SLA. This guarantees you a level of service, entitling you to compensation if the hosting fails to live up to what's promised. An SLA is important if you'll be running critical apps or websites from your virtual server hosting.

As with other web hosting services, you'll probably get a choice of packages. Expect to pay from £15 a month for a basic package, up to £50 or more for a top end service.

Virtual server hosting should also include a good range of programming languages and pre-installed applications. Expect lots of extras when compared with shared hosting packages too – like more storage space for emails, backup tools and stronger hacking protection.

What is virtual server hosting good for?

Virtual server hosting gives you much more freedom to configure and use your web space in any way you choose. This makes it an excellent choice if you're developing your own website or applications from scratch, or need somewhere for your software developer or web developer to carry out experiments and try new ideas.

The extra capacity also makes virtual server hosting a good step up if your website is starting to outgrow shared hosting. However, it's not your only option; cloud hosting may be more suitable if you think your website will continue to grow.

Because virtual server hosting gives you more control than other kinds of hosting, you also need more technical knowledge to set up and use it properly. In particular, you need to watch for any security issues that could make it easier for hackers to access your data.

For this reason, it's usually a good idea to get a web developer or IT supplier to set up your virtual server hosting. Some virtual server hosting is managed for you, but this usually means sacrificing some flexibility.

Dedicated hosting: how it works

Dedicated hosting gives you access to a whole server, which isn't shared with anyone else. It's the most flexible form of web hosting, because you get complete control over everything, and the performance of your website won't be governed by others on the same server.

Dedicated hosting is not for all businesses. It's very powerful, but this means you need some technical knowledge to set up and use it. You can change every setting on the server, you can even wipe it clean and start again - so you need to know what you're doing.

You can think of dedicated hosting as being the same as having a network server in your office. The only real difference is that your server is located in a large data centre, run by your web hosting company. And instead of buying your server outright, you rent and pay for it monthly.

However, just because you can't see your server doesn't mean you can't use it for the kind of tasks normally reserved for an in-house server. You simply log in to it over the internet and manage the applications and services it provides your business. Dedicated hosting is a versatile, powerful tool, which can become an integral part of your company IT system.

Dedicated hosting

How it works

Dedicated hosting gives you access to a whole server, which isn't shared with anyone else. It's the most flexible form of web hosting, because you get complete control over everything, and the performance of your website won't be governed by others on the same server.

Dedicated hosting is not for all businesses. It's very powerful, but this means you need some technical knowledge to set up and use it. You can change every setting on the server, you can even wipe it clean and start again - so you need to know what you're doing.

You can think of dedicated hosting as being the same as having a network server in your office. The only real difference is that your server is located in a large data centre, run by your web hosting company. And instead of buying your server outright, you rent and pay for it monthly.

However, just because you can't see your server doesn't mean you can't use it for the kind of tasks normally reserved for an in-house server. You simply log in to it over the internet and manage the applications and services it provides your business. Dedicated hosting is a versatile, powerful tool, w

What's it good for?

Dedicated hosting is very flexible. It's certainly not just for websites - you can use it for all kinds of business tasks. For instance:

  • Hosting busy, complex websites. A single dedicated hosting package has enormous capacity. If you run a really popular online shop, a blog that gets heavy traffic or a custom-built website that uses a big database, dedicated hosting may be the only reliable way to get the capacity you need.
  • Running hosted applications. Dedicated hosting can do everything a server in your business can. So you can use it to run your business email, host your intranet, run your accounting system, handle your customer relationship management system - whatever you like!
  • Web and application development. If your business develops software or websites, a dedicated server gives you an environment where your software developers can work and test their projects securely. They'll know best what they need - it may be that virtual server hosting is good enough.

Dedicated hosting has become a much more viable option for smaller businesses with costs as low as £50 a month. Web hosting companies are also often willing to create custom dedicated hosting packages to fit your needs, building servers on request.

If you're unsure whether dedicated hosting is right for your business, consult your own IT supplier before making any purchase.

They can walk you through the options, recommend dedicated hosting which fits your requirements - and even help you get up and running.

Dedicated hosting: what are the limitations?

The main downside to dedicated hosting is the complexity. Compared to other types of hosting, dedicated hosting can be hard to set up without technical knowledge, although managed hosting services can help with this to some extent.

Managed hosting services: how do they work?

There are two main types of managed hosting services:

  • Managed dedicated servers. A service made incredibly popular by Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, this gives you one or more dedicated servers. However, instead of you taking responsibility for all aspects of the server, your hosting company will handle key areas.
  • Managed cloud hosting. A relatively new service but becoming more common, this gives you all the benefits of normal cloud hosting, but with some management tasks handled by the hosting company. These may extend to setting up and running applications for you and providing consultancy on the type of setup required.

It's perhaps easiest to think of managed hosting services as coming in two parts. There's the hosting itself, which is usually dedicated hosting. And then there are the management services, provided by your hosting company. These can include:

  • Initial setup. Your managed hosting company should be able to set up the hosting to fit your requirements.
  • Patches and updates. Most managed hosting services include software patches and updates, releasing you from this time-consuming yet essential task.
  • Consulting and advice. You will probably be allocated an account manager who can help you understand how to use your managed hosting service.
  • Backups. Some managed hosting services will include managed backups, so you don't have to worry about running data backups yourself.
  • Performance monitoring. Managed hosting services should watch how your hosting is performing, to spot any capacity problems.
  • Security. You may get a managed firewall (to keep hackers at bay) and managed security software, to guard against computer viruses and malware.
  • Telephone and online support. Nearly all managed hosting services will come with 24/7 support, backed by a solid service level agreement.

Some managed hosting services allow you to choose which aspects you'd like the hosting company to manage. This can be useful if you plan to run custom software or have unusual requirements, as you can share out the tasks most appropriately.

Managed hosting

What's it good for?

Managed hosting isn't for everyone. It sits towards the top end of the hosting spectrum, and is more expensive than most other kinds of hosting. There's a premium for the management services, so expect to pay at least £80 a month.

Managed hosting services are most appropriate when you need powerful hosting, without having to worry about the routine maintenance and management tasks that often come with it. It's well-suited to jobs like:

  • Running busy, custom-built websites. Complex websites often rely on a number of different technologies which can be difficult to maintain if you're not an expert. Managed hosting services can shoulder that burden for you.
  • Running hosted applications and cloud computing services. Managed hosting services tend to be more dependable than other kinds of hosting, so they're ideal for critical business systems, like your customer relationship management system or accounting system.
  • Replacing servers in your office. When you buy a managed hosting service, you're effectively buying one or more servers, just like those you may have in your office. So, you can use them for very similar tasks – the only difference being that you have to access them over the internet. It's another form of cloud computing.

What are the limitations?

The idea of managed hosting services is that you trade the freedom to change every aspect of your hosting for a lower management overhead. It can save you time setting up and maintaining your hosting, but it does mean you can't control every aspect of it.

In most cases, this isn't a problem. You still get much more freedom than you would with other forms of hosting. Just make sure you check very carefully which aspects of your managed hosting service you maintain control over. A good IT supplier may be able to help you understand what you need.

Choosing your managed hosting provider

Finding the right managed hosting provider is critical to your business. With so much at stake, it's vital to research managed hosting providers and packages thoroughly, and avoid the temptation to base a business critical decision on cost alone.

Although there is a plethora of managed hosting providers to choose from, not all are equal. There are no official standards or guidelines for managed hosting providers, each offers different packages at different prices, with differing levels of security and support.

To understand what level of support you can expect from your managed hosting provider, you need to know exactly where the support ends, so ask:

  • What support is offered?
  • In what form is the support delivered (i.e. telephone, online, email)?
  • Who takes responsibility for backups?
  • How will they respond if things go very wrong and you are faced with hardware failure, data breach or data loss.
  • What is their hardware replacement policy? (All managed hosting providers have one.) How long does it take to swap out hardware?
  • Will they provide support for the software you plan to use? If so, to what level?
  • Whose responsibility is it to reinstall all the software? (Not just the operating system and major programs.)
  • Who restores the data and gets the server up and running correctly?
  • How long will it take to restore your data? (Anything less than two hours for a complete restore should ring alarm bells.)

Managed hosting provider accreditations and qualifications

As there are no standards or guidelines specific to managed hosting providers, you need to look for industry and business related accreditations.

The major ones to ask for are:

  • ISO27001 Information Security Management
  • ISO20001 IT Service Management

In addition, ISO9001 Quality Management certification demonstrates quality throughout the business.

Depending on what you are looking for from your managed hosting provider, you may also want to seek out specific software and security qualifications or certifications, such as:

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