What is web hosting? Web hosting explained

By now, every business owner knows that being on the web is a necessity. Customers look online when seeking new places to shop and new services to try. Online shopping has become part of commerce, regardless if the customer purchases from your website or checks out your website before visiting your store.

But what does “being on the web” actually mean? Where is the web, and where does your web page go? For most people, the answer is “your website lives on a web host where you rent space so that your page can be accessed by people online.”

What is web hosting exactly?

To understand web hosting, it helps to know a little bit about how the internet works. At its most basic, the internet is just a series of connected computers. These computers, known as “servers,” are where all the information found online is stored. 

When a user wants to see a website, they contact a server by sending a request to its IP address. This is usually done by typing that server’s URL, or an easily remembered version of its address that’s translated into an IP address, into a web browser. This sends a special request to the server, and it responds by sending the contents of the website to the user’s computer.

Any computer connected to the internet can be a server; however, processing web page requests requires special software. Your computer isn’t hosting your website just by being connected to Wi-Fi. It could, but there are security concerns with publicly opening up your computer to the web. Because of the costs and technical needs of running your own server, most people use web hosting providers instead of taking the DIY approach.

In professional web hosting, a company sets up a number of servers and rents out space on those servers to organizations and individuals that want to put web pages or other documents on the web. This gives users a quick and easy way to get online instead of buying, securing, and maintaining their own web servers.

What are the types of web hosting?

There are a handful of different types of web hosting. Each has distinctive pros and cons, and appeals to different kinds of users.

1. Shared hosting

In shared hosting, multiple users share the same server with the same IP address (though they will typically have individual URLs). This is like living in a house with roommates. Everyone has their own room where they keep their private belongings, but they share the costs of rent and utilities.

This is the cheapest option, and it works well for personal websites or very small businesses that can’t afford a more expensive plan. The disadvantages are that websites tend to be slow (since resources are shared), security is skimpier, and if one of the other websites on the shared server is doing something illegal or problematic, it can cause problems for everyone on that server. For instance, if someone using the server sends spam email, it can get everyone on that IP address blacklisted in spam filters.

2. Virtual private server hosting

With a virtual private server (VPS), your files are still on the same physical server as the files of other users, but they’re walled off into a “virtual machine” that pretends it’s a completely separate computer. Your files are completely untouchable by anyone else on the server, you have your own dedicated resources, and to anyone outside of your hosting provider, it looks like you have your own private IP address.

To continue the housing metaphor, a VPS is like living in an apartment. You share the building with other people, but you have your own dedicated space that isn’t shared.

A virtual private server is a good middle ground for many businesses. It’s more cost-effective than a full stand-alone server, while still giving you the benefits of dedicated power and a dedicated address just for you.

The major downside is that the amount of bandwidth, memory, and storage space available is less than a full server. Because the hardware is still shared, there are limited customization and optimization options.

3. Dedicated private hosting

Dedicated private hosting is, as the name suggests, a private server dedicated entirely to one company. A dedicated server gets you full access to an entire physical machine that is 100-percent yours. To complete the housing metaphor, this is like having your own house.

A dedicated private server gives you the most customization options with a wide range of specifications and capabilities. Typically, you have free rein to make any kind of changes you want to the software. There often are multiple hardware options available if you want faster speeds or more storage. 

The disadvantages are cost and upkeep. Dedicated servers are the most expensive option, and because they can be customized, they typically require more technical knowledge to manage.

4. Cloud hosting

Cloud hosting is a type of VPS system where instead of getting space on a specific server, the hosting provider builds you a virtual server in their cloud. This is exactly like a standard virtual private server, except for one big difference: A cloud server can be scaled to be as big or as small as you need it, and very quickly. This is especially useful for fast-growing companies and for any company that has unpredictable spikes in the number of people visiting their site.

The biggest downside of this flexibility is that pricing can be unpredictable. Since cloud hosting providers typically charge for the amount of space and bandwidth used, a huge influx of visitors can result in a massive unplanned bill for business owners.

Choosing a web host

Simply put, web hosting is where your files live on the internet. There are many web hosting providers. Some provide hosting to everyone, while others focus on providing web hosting to specific kinds of organizations or businesses.

Over the last few years, web hosting has become a commodity. Most hosts have similar packages with similar prices and use similar interfaces. That means that unless you’re looking for something highly specific, it really doesn’t matter which host you use as long as it’s a reputable company. It’s never been easier, or cheaper, to find good web hosting, and that’s a good thing.

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