A Hosting Solution for Small Business

Last week I identified nine essential systems a small business web site needs to have in place to do e-commerce like the big guys. And I challenged myself to build those systems with off-the-shelf components and within a budget of $6,500.

Essential system number one was a hosting solution a place for the web site to live. That is the subject of this week’s article.

Web site hosting ranges from a low of around $20 per month for shared space on a server to a high of several hundred dollars a month or more for a server all to yourself.

Most small businesses do just fine with the cheaper shared space option. And later, they can migrate to a dedicated server as the site traffic grows. But the trick to this strategy is to do it all with just one company.

Here’s why.

There are these wonderful things out there in cyberspace call domain name servers (DNS). These are the computers that translate a URL like http://www.clickz.com/ into an IP address, the number assigned to the physical machine on which the web site resides. DNS is what allows a domain name to be portable. If you want to change servers, you just change a file (the DNS record) to point to the IP address of the new server.

That whole process of changing the DNS record is much smoother when just one hosting company is involved. If you have your old hosting company talking to your new hosting company, the potential for screw-up greatly increases.

Normally it takes three to four days for changes to a DNS record to “propagate” to all the necessary places on the Internet meaning some people will get the old site and some people will get the new site during that time period. And that is if everything goes RIGHT. Imagine if something goes WRONG.

For me, the DNS issue alone is the single biggest selling point for finding one hosting company and sticking with it. A single company will have immediate access to both severs and can get on top of problems more quickly.

But another equally important point is it is easier to move a site in all its HTML and CGI splendor if the servers you are doing the moving between were set up by the same company. That is because the file structure and operating system will have been set up the same way. Here is an example of why that seemingly trivial piece of information is important.

If all the links to your shopping cart script on your old site have /cgi-bin/ in the URL path and you move those pages to another hosting company that has set up a file structure where the CGI directory is /cgibin/ (no dash), the web site instantly breaks because the links are now all wrong. Such minor, but headache-inducing, things like this are less likely to occur if the site is being moved to servers set up by the same company.

So what all this long-winded explanation means is pick a single hosting service that can grow with you.

OK, so which one do you choose?

We can talk ad nauseam about what you get for $50 a month at hosting company A versus $60 a month at hosting company B. To me this is all moot. Honestly, servers are servers. It is a commodity. The servers at a hosting company like Digital Nation are just as good as the ones at their competitor, Virtualis. System specs aren’t necessarily what is important here. What is important are the answers to these two questions:

  1. What is my upgrade path?

    There is a point in the development of your online business at which you’ll need a good, hearty database to drive things. And what is important is to find a hosting company that can eventually give you a database solution that fits with your development plans.

    For example, if you think you might choose, say, Cold Fusion as your database development tool and the hosting company you choose has no plans to support Cold Fusion, you’re screwed when the day comes to upgrade. So before you even go looking for a hosting company, understand what the technical evolution of your site might be.

  2. How responsive is the customer support?

    Really getting into this e-commerce stuff as a little guy means you’ll probably be a “junior system administrator” at some point. Most hosting companies have idiot-proof web interfaces to let you do standard administrative tasks, like adding email addresses. But things are going to happen that will require the sage advice of the hosting company’s in-house technical guys. Being able to get a hold of them quickly is a good thing. So find a company that has the nice idiot-proof tools to do the little stuff, but has technical people who can jump in quickly to help you if things go sour.

Some other things to think about when considering a hosting service:

  • Unix or NT

    There are two flavors of server operating systems most hosting companies provide, Unix or NT. It is a religious war regarding which one you should go with. Unix is clearly more robust, but many of the shrink-wrapped site tools simply work better out-of-the-box on NT. My advice is the operating system you choose should work seamlessly with the development tools you build and maintain your site with.

  • How much can you do?

    As I mentioned above, lots of hosting companies have self-serve tools that let you do the common administrative tasks. Look for that, since the more you can do, the less you have to pay someone else to do it.

  • Is software included in the hosting package that you would otherwise have to buy?

    Remember the aforementioned Cold Fusion program? To work, it requires a piece of software on the server that is a couple of grand. But there are hosting companies that already have the software on their servers and use of it is included in your hosting fees.

  • Do you have access to the server logs?

    The server logs are where every transaction on your site is recorded. When processed, it can yield valuable information about your site traffic. But that can only happen if you are allowed access to the raw data file. Make sure you can get your hands on it.

  • Can you run CGI scripts on the server?

    Believe it or not, some hosting companies won’t let you run any kind of CGI scripts on their servers. These guys are no place for a small business. Steer clear of them.

My experience is that good, reliable hosting on a shared server that meets all the criteria outlined above can be had for no more than $100 per month (probably less, in fact). So if we set aside a budget for one year’s worth of web site hosting, we are left with $5,300 going into our next phase setting up our web site development process. We’ll get into that next week.

Meanwhile, here are some good places to start looking for a web site host:

Tophosts.com
http://www.tophosts.com/

HostSearch
http://www.hostsearch.com/

Web Host Directory
http://www.webhostdir.com/

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