Broadly speaking, web site hosting providers offer three kinds of service. The host you choose will depend on price, the quality of service and support offered, and the features and expected demand on your site:
The majority of commercial site hosting is “shared”: a collection of sites run on one hard drive, accessed by a single server in a hosting location. This is cheap and easy to operate, but comes with a performance cost, as access to your site must be shared with all other sites running on the same server. Administration access is limited to your site folder: with a few exceptions, you can’t customize how the server operates. Generally speaking, shared hosting is recommended for small sites and first-time web developers.
At the other end is “dedicated” hosting, where a single or multiple servers are devoted to your site alone. This is far more expensive: server costs can easily run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month, and is only used for sites with very high traffic.
Virtual Private Servers
Between the two is “VPS”: virtual private servers running across multiple, abstracted machines. Virtual private servers (variants are also referred to as grid or cloud servers) are the best of both worlds: customizable at the root, scalable, and relatively inexpensive. They usually take some server administration skills to set up and maintain – familiarity with Unix and the command line is a must – so they can’t be recommended for first-timers.
Potential Quality of Service Issues
Hosting providers tend to go through “boom and bust” cycles in their quality of service due to the competing demands on their infrastructure. Any hosting provider will buy as much operating equipment as they think they need while trying to minimize overhead; if not very closely attended, this means that demand will start to stress available infrastructure before the company responds by purchasing more bandwidth, servers and personnel. Some companies stay well ahead of the curve, making investments in anticipation of increased demand; others constantly teeter on the edge, trying to make the most of increasingly fragile and overworked machines.
What follows is a list of recommendations based on my experience, and the personal recommendations of people I trust:
My personal choice for hosting small sites is nearlyfreespeech.net. They are a “minimal hand-holding, maximal services” hosting company, best suited for people who are confident in their technical abilities and who have created several public websites before. They also charge differently from most hosting providers, on the basis of traffic rather than a set monthly fee; for small sites they can be extremely cost-effective.
For larger sites with higher traffic (over 2000 visitors a day) my current preference is Digital Ocean, who offer cheap VPS servers on SSD with excellent support and documentation.
Photograph by Ars Electronica, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license
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