Your small business needs a good website, so you're looking for a good Web hosting service. You want reliability, good support, and good performance. The Webhosting Talk forum is a great place to learn which companies are reliable and which to shun. But beyond that, you need to know how to get the most bang for your buck.
One way or another, you'll pay for everything that goes into supporting your website. You do the work yourself, or you hire someone, or you find a hosting service to do the heavy lifting. Then all you need is a good Web developer. I'll be frank with you; 99 percent of the time the first option is the worst one. Nothing says "My business is rinkydink" like an amateur design job. The other two options are realistic, and I'm going to discuss why the third one is the best for small businesses.
Choosing a Small Business Web Hosting Service
These are the main elements to think about when you evaluate Web hosting services:
- Content management system (CMS)
- Developer tools
- Cloud or not cloud
- Managed or unmanaged
Content Management System
Choosing your content management system (CMS) is a major decision, because you'll live with the consequences for a long time. It's expensive and difficult to migrate to a different CMS. There dozens of CMS, but the big two are WordPress and Drupal. Both are very flexible and do pretty much whatever you want, and mobs of developers and designers support both systems.
Your main problem is finding a developer with the right experience and skills to build your website. How do you find a good developer? Good talent is expensive and well worth the money, because a developer who gets it right the first time, and who knows how to write maintainable code, will cost you a whole lot less than developers who take forever to figure things out, and whose sub-standard work has to be fixed.
Candidates should provide many examples of their work, and be able to solve some test problems that you throw at them. A good developer should be someone you can talk to and understand. There will be a lot of back-and-forth between boss and developer, because the boss often doesn't know what's technically feasible, so you need to be able to talk things out and craft a written plan and specification.
Yes, this is something boss types need to think about, because it has a direct impact on the maintainability and reliability of your site. Avoid the old way of web development: your developer keeps a local copy of your site for testing changes, and then uploads them to the live site. Or worse, makes changes directly to the site without testing a local copy first. In this scenario, you rely entirely on your developer to get it right the first time, to track changes, and to have some kind of rollback system in place.
Here's an example of better way. Acquia's four-part version control system: local, Dev, Stage, and Production. Your developer has a local copy of your site on her own computer, and Dev, Stage, and Production reside on three different Acquia servers. Changes are first made and tested in local, and when they look right they're uploaded to Dev for more testing. When they pass Dev, they go to Stage for one more round of testing, and then finally to Production, which is your live site. If anything goes wrong it's one-click to revert the changes back to a good revision.
This is a much better way to manage your site (or sites). Acquia has a nice Git integration for customers to manage their site code. Git is the most advanced code-version control system. A version control system (VCS) is essential for any kind of coding, because it provides an organized structure for multiple developers to collaborate, easy reversions if something goes wrong, and a complete history of all activity. Don't worry if your Web developer is not experienced with using a VCS. It's not hard to learn, and I guarantee she will like it over the old haphazard ways.
Acquia is a Drupal specialist, which may not work for you, but version control works with every kind of coding, and other Web hosts are adopting the Acquia model. Even a simpler local production system using VCS is significantly more robust than not using a VCS, so look for a Web host that provides integrated VCS tools.
Cloud or Not Cloud
The short answer is "Yes, cloud." Cloud is a tiresome buzzword that will not die. It is also state-of-the-art technology that keeps getting better. "The cloud" is a network of pooled resources that allow for rapid changes. Web hosting providers use the cloud in a multitude of ways: to provide flexible storage and flexible hardware resources, to scale up or down on demand; to provide pay-as-you-go pricing and different levels of service—from basic application servers to a complete datacenter-in-a-box.
A properly-constructed cloud is resilient, which means better uptimes and better performance for your website. Most Web hosting providers hook into some kind of cloud backend, so it's not really a choice anymore. The decision you have to make is what level of account you want. The choices range from a dedicated server where you are responsible for all software installation and maintenance, to fully-managed accounts where all you need is a Web developer.
Managed or Unmanaged
A fully-managed hosting account is the most cost-effective. Acquia, Rackspace, and LiquidWeb are three top-notch hosting providers that offer fully-managed hosting accounts and great service. They might give you a bit of sticker shock when you start pricing their offerings, but remember—the more they do, the less you have to pay someone else to pick up the slack.
Good system and network administrators are as scarce and expensive as good Web developers, and they come and go. Offloading system and network administration to your hosting service ensures consistency and 24x7 coverage, and it costs less than hiring your own.
Here is one example to illustrate my point: a shop with a half-dozen websites on four load-balanced servers racking up a million and a half monthly visitors, a cloud backend, full development infrastructure, automated hourly backups, 24x7 monitoring and alerting, and unlimited support tickets costs about $5,000 a month. That $5K won't buy a system or network administrator who is worth a hoot, let alone everything else that comes with the hosting account such as hardware, bandwidth, security, and performance optimizations.
Now don't panic, because you won’t pay anything close to $5K for smaller, less-demanding sites. The lowest price you'll be seeing for any kind of decently managed cloud account is around $100/month, and that buys you quite a bit. For example, on Liquidweb that gets you a fully-managed virtual server with 150GB of storage, unlimited incoming and 5 terabytes outgoing bandwidth—which is a lot!
One last item to consider is the value of your time, and the energy and direction of your business. Do you want to be distracted by futzing with keeping your website up and running, or do you want to focus your resources on moving your business forward? Take advantage of superior Web hosting services and rest easy.
Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.
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