At Your Service

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted October 18, 2001
By Amee Abel and Dan Costa

At their best, Web hosting services ensure that your Web site has a rock solid presence. They provide servers, broad connections to the Internet, and promises that those machines and connections are well protected.

At their worst, Web hosting services can put you out of business. Hosts that can't keep servers running, don't provide adequate security, or can't fulfill their promises for bandwidth and uptime are frighteningly common. Because the industry is still new and unregulated, anyone with a computer can set up shop as a Web host.

The Basics
Web hosting services come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Service providers typically offer customers a choice of service - shared, dedicated, or co-located - and various levels of service. In addition, most Web hosting services piggyback Web space with Internet access and e-mail accounts.

Deciding what type and level of service you need is crucial. Virtual or shared hosting is when many sites coexist on a single, powerful server. Such services are often inexpensive ($20 monthly and up) and can provide good service for small sites. Bandwidth is decidedly compromised, however, and a shared hosting model can make your site easier to hack.

Dedicated hosting is when your Web site is placed on its own server and the service provider deploys and maintains the hardware and the server software.

The cost is typically higher than with a virtual host, but you get stronger security and a robust response to high traffic levels. Expect to pay between $200 and $800 per month for a single dedicated server or up to $25,000 per month for a multi-server, load-balancing deployment.

Co-location hosting is when you provide the hardware, software, and Web site, but the Web host provides physical space in which the hardware exists. The benefit is that you have complete control of the way your pages are served to the public without the headaches of an onsite technical staff. Costs vary.

No matter which model you choose, be sure that your host offers a domain name registering service, 24/7 technical support, and FTP for uploading your page files directly to their hardware. Be sure your contract states explicitly how much disk storage space, how many e-mail accounts, and how much bandwidth your monthly fee purchases.

Also consider what type of Internet connection the host offers. Look for multiple high-speed connections (for example, 4 DS-3s). Also check their Web sites for phrases such as 'load balanced' and 'switched network.' These are signs that the service provider can dynamically respond to increases in traffic on the various sites they host.

Hosting a Web site on-site is not a reasonable option for most small companies. By one estimate, your first year cost for hardware, software, network, environmental equipment, and round-the-clock staff would be about $120,000 with an ongoing monthly cost in the $10,000 to $12,000 range.

Help from Big Blue
Tax Technologies Inc. is a tax services company that caters to the Fortune 500. The Haworth, N.J. firm generates over $1 million in annual revenues and employs more than 10 people (the number changes every day), and Jeff Wenger, vice president and chief technology officer, says the company will probably double in size every year for the next five years.

To help manage this growth, Wenger selected IBM e-business Hosting (800-IBM-7080 xHOST09; www.ibm.com/services/webhosting) to host the firm's Web site. 'Although we considered some Internet start-up hosting vendors, consolidation is expected in the industry, and some of these vendors are bound to turnover,' Wenger says.

Tax Technologies chose to deploy its own dedicated equipment into the IBM hosting center. The company manages its own application and database servers but relies on IBM for managed dedicated firewall services, backup and restoration services, monitoring services, and DNS (Domain Name Server) setup.

IBM e-business Hosting lets companies choose the space element (half cabinet, cabinet, or cage), connection speed (10 Mbps, 100 Mbps, or 1 Gbps), and dedicated bandwidth (up to size of Internet connection). The company also provides bandwidth monitoring, URL monitoring, and 24/7 toll-free support.

Tax Technologies pays about $5,000 each month for its service, but they require much more than basic Web hosting. Tax Technologies' Web site consists of online forms, consultations, and other services for registered clients. Because clients may be transferring sensitive financial data, security is essential. 'The most expensive feature by far is the managed, dedicated firewall services, as this requires constant monitoring by IBM personnel, and keeping up with the latest security threats is expensive and time-consuming,' according to Wenger.

Although the Web presences of most companies won't require all the elaborate security measures IBM offers, Wenger says all firms should take a Web host's financial stability into account. 'Selecting a hosting vendor that goes out of business would be very painful as you would be scrambling,' Wenger says.

Pret-a-Herberger
In nine cities - Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, London, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Paris, and San Francisco - HipGuide helps fashionably dressed people find each other.

The site is the brainchild of Syl Tang, founder and president, who also oversees HipGuide's CTO. After looking at some of the leading worldwide hosting providers, Tang eventually settled on Verio Inc. (800-GET-VERIO, www.verio.com), the world's largest Web hosting company with customers in 170 countries. 'We found that Verio had the best combination of price, quality, and response rate when it comes to customer service,' says Tang.

Using Verio's SiteMerlin, business clients like HipGuide can quickly create an online presence. The tool combines domain name registration, Web hosting, Web site design services, and monthly maintenance for as little as $69 a month. The service also includes a 99 percent uptime guarantee and regular reports on Web traffic.

Tang says HipGuide's hosting requirements are complicated. 'We have our own servers, and all the bells and whistles that go with it,' according to Tang. She says her contract forbids her to disclose what exactly she pays every month, but Verio's prices often range from $20 a month to several hundred, depending on the mix of features and service.

Tang didn't like the way the server was initially setup, but since then she says the service has been incomparably good with only marginal downtime - 'maybe an hour [total] here and there at the most,' Tang says. 'Since we are not in financial services, it really has not impacted us.'

Tang says the most important thing smaller companies can do when choosing a host provider is compare. Tang thinks businesses must be clear about their hosting needs: Don't forget to ask yourself if you need a dedicated server, or whether you can make do with a shared server; take a look at what your business will look like much later down the line; and find out if your Web hosting provider can grow with you.

Radio Google
You wouldn't know it from its name, but New York City-based Bishop Bait and Tackle is a marketing company for radio stations. The 10-person firm currently serves 25 radio stations nationwide, books musicians for on-air appearances, and creates Internet marketing plans for artists' Web sites. Keeping Bishop Bait and Tackle's own Web site on line is Amy Zaborowski, director of Internet operations. She picked HostNYC (866-467-8692; www.hostnyc.net) to help her.

Zaborowski checked out the provider thoroughly. 'My biggest concern was having someone local,' Zaborowski says. The location also gave her a chance to meet the technicians and managers at HostNYC personally, something she could never do with a big, nationwide provider.

Although the business is only two years old, HostNYC's low cost and quality of service is what finally sold her on the company. She says Bait and Tackle pays about $25 per month per domain, which includes 250 MB of disk space, 3,000MB transfer, and 100 POP e-mail accounts. The service also includes the ability to stream audio and video from the site.

Small companies should make sure they find a hosting provider they can grow into, according to Zaborowski. 'When I first approached HostNYC, I wasn't concerned about streaming or e-commerce, but now these are things we can do.' When Bishop Bait and Tackle is ready to conduct commerce from its site, HostNYC will be ready to help. The provider enables online shopkeepers to purchase SSL Certificates and has a relationship with Card Service International that can support online credit card processing. HostNYC is working on deploying a shopping cart feature, but it wasn't operational at press time.

Zaborowski says HostNYC was one of the few companies she spoke to that actually returned phone calls in a timely manner. This round-the-clock availability was important to Zaborowski, who likes to keep long hours herself. 'I have seen them on line at 4 a.m. and IM'd them to see if they were working, and they were,' she says. 'Those dudes work all the time.'


Jargon

Anonymous FTP: Allows Web site visitors to upload and download files without needing a password.

Auto responders: Sends an automated response to e-mail messages received at a Web site.

Backbone: One of the very large, very fast connections that are the mainstay of the Internet.

CGI (Common Gateway Interface): A protocol that's used to communicate between Web forms and a program. A set of CGI instructions is a script.

Domain Name: The name of a Web site.

DNS (Domain Name System) server: A computer that looks up domain names and translates them into their specific IP addresses.

FTP (File Transfer Protocol): The method by which a user transfers files to the host computer.

IP (Internet Protocol) address: The number that identifies your site or your computer on the Web.

Log file: The statistics the Web hosting service keeps regarding a site's traffic.

Platform: The network operating system a server is using. Two major platforms, Unix and Windows (and their respective subsets Linux, FreeBSD, Windows NT, and Windows 2000 Server) power most of the interactions on the Internet.

T1 or T3: Two types of leased-line Internet network connections. T1 lines offer a maximum theoretical capacity of 1,544,000 bits per second while T3 lines claim 44,736,000 bits per second (enough to do full-screen, full-motion video).

Telnet: Also known as a shell account, allows you to modify CGI scripts.

Server: The host computer that sends out specific HTML pages in response to a user request. Also, the computer upon which the server software resides.


Questions to Ask

Make sure you know the answers to the following questions before signing up.

How much does it cost?
Explore not only the cost for the package of services you purchase, but also check out how much you'll be charged for excesses. Make sure you can buy extra coverage rather than having the host cut you off for exceeding your bandwidth.

What software do you support?
Make sure the host provides support for the software your site uses. For example, if you use Active Directory pages, your site needs to be on a Windows NT/2000 platform.

What are your guarantees?
Find out what the host promises and how you verify that the promises have been met. Make them define 99% uptime. Find out what they'll do if they fail to meet their guarantees.

What comes with my subscription, and what will upgrades cost?

Do I get Telnet, FTP, and anonymous FTP access?

Do you offer merchant accounts or shopping cart software?
Make sure the Web hosting provider can handle e-commerce at the level your site needs.

What about security?
Security is a big concern, both for the physical plant and the virtual one. Find out who has access to your server and what kind of software security they provide.

Do you have any customer references?
The service provider should be able to give you the names and URLs of satisfied customers. Next, check out the Better Business Bureau located in each candidate's hometown. Many offices of the BBB have their listings on line (www.bbb.org).

Finally, before you say goodbye to your current service, make sure that the new company can provide the service they promise. You can do this by checking out host rating indexes on the Web. Host rating indexes compare the pertinent facts, such as services offered and prices. As aggregators of host information, host index sites such as HostsCompare.com, HostIndex.com, 4WebHosting.com, HostSearch.com, and HostCrawler.com are priceless. Use them to narrow the field of host candidates.

Abel and Costa work from their home offices in Maine and Manhattan, respectively.

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