What to look for in a host
The current count of web hosts yields just over a gazillion companies claiming to be number 1, offering the very best in what hosting can offer with prices that simply cannot be beat. Needless to say, it can take a trained eye this day and age to see through their gimmicks and get right down to whether this company has what you want. If you're confused about what to choose, read on.
Before even beginning your search, analyze what your needs are. What features would you like your site to have? What Internet programming languages do you anticipate using? Be sure to take under consideration any feedback form features, database connectivity or any other site virtue that is simply too advanced for pure HTML. Would you like e-mail addresses? Do you have a domain name? How much traffic do you expect to receive? All these questions and more help in the final decision for that one glorious hosting company.
In the midst of your search, you'll probably run across hosting services that offer 'unlimited bandwidth'. This is simply not true. The term 'bandwidth' refers to the amount of information that is past between the hosting servers and the end user. Most hosting companies are connected to high-speed Internet backbones (UUNET, Sprint, AT&T, etc) which charge the hosting company based on their monthly bandwidth from customers. Needless to say, if you rack up upwards of 25Gigs of bandwidth a month, that lacks financial prosperity for your hosting company. Be sure to read the terms of service very carefully with each hosting company that you are considering, especially if they advertise 'free' or 'unlimited' site features.
A hosting company's support services often goes untested, especially with beginners in the site design and hosting world. A skilled and prompt support staff should be one of the most important decision breakers in your mind. If you run into trouble getting a perl script to work, or perhaps your database permissions are not setup correctly on the hosting company's side. You want those problems corrected, and fast. One way to test a service's support staff is to simply send them an e-mail and see how long it takes for a response to be sent. Try to send an inquiry to support and sales and any other department you deem necessary. Ask support if they offer a web language that you like, or ask the sales department if they charge your credit card or hire another company to do it for them. If you receive a response the same day, you can probably rest assured you will receive timely help with any inquiries you have. They should not take more than one complete day to get back to you.
Perform research away from the company's web site. Ask questions through e-mail lists and other mediums to try and get some feedback. If the company lists a testimonials section, look into contacting the authors of the testimonials and start asking questions. The more comments you have, the better understanding you'll have on how that hosting service treats its customers.
Pay attention to how long they have been online. A well-established hosting company of many years will most likely yield the greatest chances of customer successes. Click on the about page if they have one and read it all; after all, you may very well be giving this company your credit card number.
Now, let's get down to the nitty gritty: Does the service offer what you want? Although you may expect your site to remain fairly small, allow yourself some room to grow, represented in megabytes (Mbs). If you're using 5Mbs, look for 10. If you're using 20Mbs, look for 30 or 40. If you are a photographer and want to use your site as a portfolio, you better opt for a more powerful account with more space and bandwidth, as images take more of both. Depending on how many images you have and how popular your site is, look for at least 50Mbs of space and 5Gigs of bandwidth. However, a regular, average size site with mostly html pages should be fine with 15 or 20Mbs and 1 or 2gigs of bandwidth and paying no more than $15 a month, depending on other features.
If you have purchased your own domain name, be sure the hosting company supports them (most do), and be sure they give you at least 1 e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org). A lot of companies offer 10 or more custom pop e-mail accounts with unlimited forwarding address at little or no additional cost, which is a nice feature.
Let's look at a few features and offerings you might find with a Windows and Linux based hosting services.
Cheaper than Windows in general
Should offer PHP and MySQL (at least and PHP)
May offer telnet accounts at little or no additional cost
Since the Linux operating system and all Linux based languages and databases are free to install and offer for the hosting company, prices are usually lower than Windows. Perl should be supported with sendmail support for any formmail scripts. SSI is nice, along with .htaccess. Linux is the choice of most budget web designers and is also much more secure than Windows. In general, more configuration options and advanced customizations are available with Linux based hosting services.
Usually more expensive than Linux
Should support ASP
Could support Cold Fusion, Access, SQL Server at an additional cost
Windows based servers are flat out expensive for the hosting company to purchase, so prices are usually a bit higher. Cold Fusion is fairly expensive and is purchased through Allaire, now merged with Macromedia. SQL Server is also purchased for a high price through Microsoft, while Access is almost free. Any important database work should be done through SQL Server. If you want the extra features through a Windows host, be prepared to pay extra. In case you are wondering, Stevesdomain.net rests on Linux based web servers.
The decision rests in your hands. If you are completely new to the design world and know next to nothing about hosting options and features, you may find a Linux based hosting service more to your liking, and for a lower price. If you are using Microsoft Access databases for the web, a Windows based hosting service with Access support would be required for you. Take your time when looking for a hosting company. Test their support services, gather comments from others and weigh your requirements to the company's features and offerings. Remember to leave yourself some room to grow and expand.