Webhosting and Web Servers
A Guide for Businesses
Our consumer culture is obsessed with hunting down 'lowest price' deals. How can your business assess genuine value in webhosting?
Apart from the general protections offered by consumer and business law, it's Buyer Beware in an area where the sellers are well aware that their customers understand little.
Some of the webhosting 'features' touted to unsuspecting customers mean little, or are standard to every webhosting environment.
Reviews by popular computing magazines don't always help for business webhosting.
Web Server Basics
A computer specially set up to host websites is called a web server.
- Your website's web server can be anywhere in the world, even if your business is solely in Australia.
- The server needs to run - and have fast, reliable connection to the worldwide web - 24 hours a day, every day.
- A web server can be 'visited' by 1000s of computers every day.
- Web servers simultaneously transfer data to and from 100's or 1000's of computers around the world.
A web server is no ordinary desktop computer. It has:
- the capacity to run continuously, without overheating or failing
- capacity for very fast, accurate data transfer
- specialised software.
A web server needs to be very secure from:
- power failures
- hardware failure (damage, dust, wear and tear)
- software faults (bugs, security weaknesses).
Web servers have different levels of security, speed, storage and guaranteed 'uptime'. Webhosting services offer different levels of client support.
- This impacts the price of webhosting.
- It can be hard to find out, or to understand, the quality of webhosting services on offer.
- Most small - medium businesses need managed webhosting with email hosting on your own domain.
- We believe the best place for a business website to be hosted, is on a secure, scalable cloud server. (Find out more.)
Servers are computers. Of course, they live inside buildings. Even a cloud server is made up of 3D computers that live inside buildings; but with a cloud server, there are more servers and more buildings involved.
The building which contains your website's server needs:
- high physical security
- protocols on staff access
- consistent temperature, humidity and dust control
- excellent telecommunications connections.
Specialists look after servers. They need to provide fast, reliable and secure services all day, every day. Server software is updated often, to ensure better security from hackers, better management, and fast Internet service. Server support staff should be rostered 24/7/365:
- to deal with any hardware or software problems
- to update servers
- to handle queries from the owners or lessees of the 1000's of servers in their care.
SuttonNet's role as a managed webhosting provider is:
- to select reputable and reliable server specialists
- to buy or lease the best web server software and hardware configuration for our clients' websites
- to manage all the website and email functions of the servers
- to communicate with the server companies that we hire or buy from, about any problems, queries, upgrades etc.
We have tried various server companies over the years. What distinguishes the best from the rest?
- Service ethos
- Staff knowhow
- Flexibility, to truly meet their customers' needs
- Speed and capacity of server-to-Internet connections.
Warning! Hosting price vs value
A webhosting provider either owns web servers or leases them from a larger server company. The hosting provider adds their chosen software, skills and time. Website owners such as yourself pay for this service, to keep your website online.
- There are no standards for webhosting service provision.
- There are few or no standards for terminology in advertising.
- Conditions and pricing structures change frequently.
- It can be very hard to find out the full terms and conditions before you commit to buying.
For advertised 'high speed' services, check the fine print! Do they only guarantee those speeds to inner city businesses, with their own connection to the server hub just a few km away? That's not much use to your website visitors, who connect from all over Australia or all over the globe.
There are 2 main providers of webhosting for small/medium businesses:
(i) Specialist webhosting providers like SuttonNet, that offer managed webhosting at various levels of service. We convert the very powerful server technology owned by giant server facilities, into something which is directly useful to your business.
- We act as go-betweens, who can communicate both with website owners and with the server experts.
- We recognise when things are going well, and how they can go better.
- We adjust server settings for best website performance.
- We know what questions to ask and we understand the answers.
- Web developers may provide webhosting to their clients, so that website developer and website owner stay connected. This makes it easy to add new features to your website over time. You work with a developer who knows your business well.
(ii) Large companies that offer pay-online webhosting to individuals or businesses (and may provide other server products to their bigger customers).
Support is available by ticket and/or phone. Some companies offer a regular contact person for your business.
You need to:
- understand webhosting and its associated jargon well enough to communicate with their staff
- understand the pro's and con's of various webhosting options
- identify the best plan for your business
- manage your own website and associated email accounts.
SuttonNet believe that this works best for businesses with permanent IT/web specialists, or business owners with the knowledge and time to deal with webhosting issues.
Perhaps a keen staff member - who's not working in IT - has assured you that they can manage your webhosting and save you $. Food for thought:
- Do they know as much as they think they do?
- Will they still be working for you in a year's time? If not, what happens to your webhosting management?
- How much time can you afford for them to spend on website matters?
More about Web Servers
More detail, to help you choose the right solution for your business. It gets tricky here; a portion of a server, operating as a discrete entity, can also be a 'server'.
Web server specifications affect how well your website runs, eg:
- server size
- speed of data transfer (how long your webpages take to load)
- service level agreement (SLA) (check out the amount of time per month that your website might be 'down' due to server maintenance or failures)
- storage or traffic limits per website
- backups - frequency, exactly what is backed up and how long it is retained
- the software that runs them and what facilities it offers
- website software that they accept; can your site be hosted by your preferred supplier?
- whether they include email hosting
- who is allowed to upload websites or website software updates on to them
- no of customers sharing a physical server or a cloud, no of customers sharing a single operating system.
How important are your website presence and email to your business? Choose a host with a high service level agreement (SLA).
An SLA of 99.95% uptime allows up to 21 minutes of downtime during any given month for maintenance, server problems etc.
SuttonNet's server provider has a 99.999 % uptime SLA... they guarantee no more than 26 seconds per month of service interruption due to server hardware or software problems.
Some hosting services save $ and effort by not including email hosting. This complicates your hosting (2 suppliers instead of one) and can add to your costs.
Relying on generic email services such as Gmail can be cheap, but it is not always good business practice.
There should always be plenty of redundancy in a web server's capacity: ie extra data transfer and storage capacity beyond what is needed for normal daily running conditions. This allows for busy days on some websites, and for websites to grow bigger without affecting any other site's performance.
It can be tempting for some hosting providers to sell more space/data transfer than is ideal for website performance levels: similar to what has happened with some telecom towers and satellites. At SuttonNet, we regard a web server as 'full' at around 70 - 75% capacity.
With cloud hosting, a set of computers and other devices share the hosting responsibility for a set of websites. In a well managed cloud, if one device has a hardware or software breakdown or needs routine maintenance:
- the others automatically take over, and
- all the websites continue to function on the Internet as if nothing has happened.
The computers linked via cloud need not be in the same building or even the same town. Service protection through the cloud is more effective if they are not.
Cloud web servers are faster and easier to set up and to upgrade than dedicated servers, and more affordable.
Dedicated vs shared physical server
A dedicated server is one complete physical server (= computer) in a specific location, managed by a single user (eg a webhosting provider).
Alternatively, a single 3D server's resources can be shared out among many hirers, who each manage their own part of it. This is common. It costs each user less than a dedicated server would. It is also less secure for hosting your website than a dedicated server.
SuttonNet believes that a well run, secure, scalable cloud server is the best and safest place for hosting business websites.
- Your webhosting provider has full control over how many websites are on the server.
- They can select software and manage the web server for best performance of all the websites running there.
- No other server user can slow your website down, by overloading the web server.
- Scalable cloud servers can be quickly expanded to meet the growing needs of the websites that they host.
- Only SuttonNet and our server supplier have 'root access' to the server. No one can compromise its security through dubious software, deliberate hacking attempts or poor security practices.
- Your webhosting provider controls, and can track via logs, all access to the web server.
A Look at SuttonNet's Servers
SuttonNet leases secure scalable cloud web servers and appropriate software from a reliable company. We manage all the website and email functions; the lessors take care of general server maintenance.
We refer to 'web servers' for short, but the picture is more like this:
We use a solid state hard drive (SSH), which is much faster - but has less storage capacity - than a rotating hard drive. This is ideal for websites.
If we start to run short of storage space for clients' websites, we just scale up our servers or get another web server.
SuttonNet uses Plesk software for managing the website hosting and email settings on our servers. There are various webhosting platforms available. We prefer Plesk because it lets us install customised software easily on our clients' websites. This means that your website's capabilities aren't limited by off-the-shelf software.