Web Hosting Primer
For the uninitiated, web hosting is the process of housing a website on a computer or group of computers. These "servers" will hold all the files and related data that comprise a website. The data itself could take many forms from simple text and imagery, to large and complex datasets stored in database systems spanning many machines and locations. The common thing relating a large corporate website to your local store down the road is that they both need a web host in some shape or form.
This article is here to help give something of a primer on where to start when looking to get a website online. We'll take a look at the more common technologies out there and how to select the right options for your site. In the long run being selective will save you both time and money... plus a good deal of stressing over too many choices.
Where you host your website is more important than you might think. One of the prime things to consider is the speed your site is delivered to your visitors at. If the bulk of your potential audience is in Brazil then why host your data in Europe? The single thing most likely to put off potential visitors staying for more than a few seconds is a slow loading website, so take a moment to think about the location you are going to host in. After that it is well worth looking into the political jurisdiction your potential web host is located in as well as the infrastructure available.
In this day and age data privacy is paramount, and is becoming an important deciding factor on hosting locations. Why? Well if privacy is important then locating your website data in the United States, United Kingdom, or the various countries of the European Union might be a bad idea due to all the monitoring and electronic snooping that has become commonplace. If you need to target the E.U. then Switzerland is a good option, it has some of the strongest privacy laws, is located slap bang in the middle of Europe - without being a member state - and has some of the best Internet infrastructure around. Using our earlier reference to Brazil another South American country would fit the bill, and in that case you won't do better than Panama. They have very strict privacy legislation recently written into law and have upgraded infrastructure to a very desirable level in recent years.
The bottom line is to think carefully before choosing your data centre or web host, it's not all about finding the cheapest deal.
A quick word on data centres... these are generally large and extremely secure buildings containing hundreds - or thousands - of servers that are all hosting applications or data in some way or another. A data centre is designed specifically to house servers with backup generators in the event of power outages, special cooling systems to keep the environment inside at a constant for the machines, and a whole host of other features.
A web hosting company might not own a data centre - as they are very costly to run - but will more than likely rent space in one. This allows massive cost savings. It is definitely a question worth asking of your potential hosting provider so if you feel you want to you can then enquire about the on-site security at the data centre itself. This is actually a must if you intend to go down the route of running an e-commerce business as in some instances you will need to make sure you have passed PCI-DSS security checks which will include the web host and data centre.
Web Server Software
Which server-side software you opt for will depend very much on what technologies your website has been - or will be - built with. The three biggest players hosting active websites according to Netcraft's most recent survey are Apache from The Apache Foundation, nginx, and Internet Information Server (IIS) by Microsoft. Together these account for approximately 75% of web server market share.
By and large your web server software choice will be dictated by a number of factors but one important one is the language used to build your website. If a site has been put together with Microsoft .NET using Visual Basic or C# then you will pretty much be locked in to using IIS. Apache or nginx will most likely be best if your site uses PHP, Ruby, or Python/Django. Things can be mixed and matched so you are not confined to a box if you want to run a little bit different, but on the whole these are the more common configurations and going more in-depth is beyond the scope of this post. If your site is plain HTML then any web server will do the job nicely.
Depending on what your website is going to do and how complex it is then you might want a database to be available at your hosting provider. All modern content management systems (CMS) like Wordpress, Drupal, ExpressionEngine, Craft, Joomla, and many more require a database for storing their site data. The most common of all databases provided by web hosting companies is the open source community edition of MySQL (owned by Oracle). All of the CMS applications mentioned default to use MySQL. Other open source database favourites are PostgreSQL, and SQLite.
If you run Microsoft servers and languages you will more than likely have Microsoft SQL Server available as it ties in very well with the whole .NET ecosystem. However that is not to say that you cannot use MySQL, PostgreSQL, and other databases with the .NET platform. For the most part it is possible to use any of the databases mentioned in combination with most web languages when building custom websites.
One final point on databases, this is by no means an exhaustive list, in fact the databases systems covered are all from one family of database servers that are known by the acronym RDBMS; relational database management systems. There are other databases out there that do things a little differently and have become grouped together - rightly or wrongly - with the "NoSQL" tag. These distinguish themselves from the more traditional RDBMS systems as they don't generally use the standard SQL (structured query language) method of querying data. You will hear names like MongoDB, Cassandra, Riak, and a lot of others. Suffice to say there are many database options out there, and when building customs websites and mobile applications selecting the correct database for the job is very important.
Where to go from here?
Hopefully at this point you now have a good idea of exactly what you need from a web hosting company. You can now research the different technologies available to you and who offers them in which locations. Some companies will specialise in one specific area, whereas others will give multiple options. It's safe to say that no matter which set of tools you ultimately decide upon you will be able to locate your website in pretty much any jurisdiction you want. Remember to think long and hard about your audience's location, and how seriously you want to take data privacy, the rest will then all fall into place.