Saturday, August 20, 2005

Hosting your own website

The good news is, hosting your own blog on your own website is either very cheap, or free.

Hosting space is available everywhere. The space used in a Blogger account is free, and seemingly unlimited (there's a limit per post, and a limit of 300Mb for images, although you'd be hard-pressed to reach them unless you write an entire novel in each post.) You may already store your photos online with Picasa, Imagebucket or other free services. So it's not surprising that there's various free options for hosting too. One of the most infamous is Geocities, which has a limit of 15Mb, tiny by modern standards. Frankly Geocities is more limiting than Blogger.

Another common type of free account is one supplied by your ISP/broadband/cable service. Again, these really aren't worth looking at. If you're thinking about hosting your own site, the most basic need is to use it with your own domain name. If that involves paying someone an extra charge (as well as paying for the name itself), then you might as well start off by paying for the hosting.

The trouble with looking for unbiased opinions on what you really need for web hosting is that the web is so full of people trying to make a buck. I'd like to make a few baht myself (different currency), and I will if you click on those adverts on the left. Don't click yet. I haven't seen the adverts or advertisers (they're chosen by Google) but I suspect they'll be offering web hosting deals and full of big numbers boasting how much diskspace and bandwidth they offer. What about comparing long lists of other features? Each seems to offer a near-infinite list of features, but which hosting features are essential? Which are so basic as to not be worth mentioning? and maybe most importantly, what hosting features don't they provide, that will cause you headaches and extra expense later?

I'm not going to tell you :-)

But I'll give you a huge hint. If you're considering cheap web hosting, look for this:
cPanel

CPanel is the Microsoft Windows of web hosting, and I mean that in a good way. Technically that's not accurate, but it's an easy way to understand it. It's a simple and standardised way of working with the web server via your browser, and if you ever decide to move to a new web host, you can expect them to have cPanel too.* But perhaps more importantly, it provides a standard feature set, so you don't have to memorise a huge list of things to look for when comparing web hosts. Its standard feature set is this: everything. Well okay, that was a small exaggeration. But for example, you can safely assume lots of POP email accounts, MySql databases, subdomains... you may not understand these things, and perhaps you'll never care. But to be honest these things cost the host nothing - the only reason to limit them would be to charge you more money later. The point is, cPanel puts you in the right ballpark, or at least the carpark of the ballpark.

I'll explain more about what cPanel actually provides in a later article.

So assuming cPanel, what else matters? Well, those big numbers... diskspace and bandwidth**. Diskspace says how much files you can put in it. A typical amount is 1Gb for the most basic package. For example, if your family photos are 1Mb each, and you put them on your website without resizing them for the web, you can fit 1,000 of them. Because you already knew that 1Gb ("gig") equals 1,000Mb ("Meg"), right? (Extra points if you knew that it's actually 1,024Mb. And if you knew why, give yourself a pat on the back, a sprained shoulder and the next two weeks off. The rest of you - trust me, it's not important.)

However in this case a picture is worth rather a lot more than a thousand words. 1Mb can hold around 160,000 words, unless you're superfluously sesquipedalianistic. Or Finnish. For those of you that are following the story of my own site, I have 3Gb. But that's actually spread across a number of sites, and the amount I allocated to AnEnergyOfHisOwn is just 200Mb, which is more than it'll ever need. Currently, it uses around 2Mb, which represents the software Drupal that it uses.

The other big number, bandwidth**, says how many visitors you can have each month. A typical amount is 10Gb per month. So if your family photo album is now online, with each photo 1Mb, and the average visitor looks at 100 photos, then your site can accept 100 visitors every month. Enough for the biggest and most photo-obsessed families. But if you like other people to see your pictures too, you might have a problem - better resize your photos fast. What happens if you exceed your bandwidth? In most cases, visitors to your site will see a notice from your web host saying something like "sorry, this site has exceeded its bandwidth. Please try again later." You've probably seen these messages on sites hosting the latest amusing video clip, since video uses even more bandwidth than pictures. Meanwhile, as the site owner you should have received advance warning emails as you approached your limit. Your options are fairly simple: if you pay nothing, your site will recover next month. Or depending on the host, you can pay more to upgrade to the next package, or pay more for this month's bandwidth and hope it doesn't happen again. However, a warning here: a few hosts will allow you to exceed your limit, and then bill you later at super-high rates mentioned in the fine print of the contract. This is of course very nasty.

As you can see, for almost all people, diskspace is never an issue. If you're planning on having a popular blog, and like to post lots of high-quality pictures, bandwidth might be.

Two other important points haven't been mentioned yet. They're not measured in numbers or yes/no questions. One is customer service. If your website disappears or your new email stops working, it might be their fault or it might be yours - either way, you have to solve it and there's no shop to go back to. (There are limits to what is reasonable - don't expect them to tell you how to fix the website itself - if you have trouble with your blog software, go back to the people who made it, your host just hosts it. )

And finally there's reliability. Now many companies like to "prove" their reliability by claiming 99.9% uptime guarantee. That means the amount of time that normal service is available, and 99.9% means they can be unavailable for 8 hours per year. However a guarantee means nothing if the companies ceases to exist. My first web host turned out to be a one-man operation. He provided good service so I had no problems with that - until he sold his company. The new guy ran the business into the ground within a few months and stopped answering emails. As he was in the U.S. and I'm in Thailand, I had no practical option but to switch to a new host, and accept my lesson.




* cPanel is of course commercial software. Although you don't buy it, your web host does, and ultimately part of that fee is passed on to you. Sadly I don't have any shares or interests in cPanel Inc. Like most successful commercial software, there is an open-source equivalent - Webmin. I'm sorry to say I know very little about it except it doesn't seem to be available with any commercial deals yet. I predict we'll hear more about it in a couple of years...

** The correct term is data transfer. Bandwidth really means something else, but the battle has already been won and the most popular word is bandwidth.

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