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What is web hosting? All you need to know about choosing the right provider

What is web hosting
(Image credit: Unsplash)

What makes a website a website? Basically, it comes down to access. You can think of a website as a collection of documents on your hard drive: images, videos, HTML files, and more. 

When these files are stored on your computer, only you can access them. In fact, you can design and build an entire site without an internet connection. But it’s only a website once it’s online and others can access it. That’s where website hosting comes into play.

Most personal computers, however, can’t handle the burdens of hundreds or thousands of simultaneous connections. The solution is to have your website hosted by a specialized third party, with more power and bandwidth available, and a dedicated online address. 

IP, IP, IP, Hurray 

This dedicated online address is called a static IP.  At home, your WiFi works over a dynamic IP, meaning that the number changes every so often. For personal purposes, there’s nothing wrong with that, but for a website, static IPs are better because they result in less downtime and provide a fixed online address for users to connect to.

Static IPs also enable you to run a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server, for easy transfer of files from one computer to another, and your own SSL certificate, which we discuss in another article.

Websites are hosted on what is called a web server—those powerful computers we spoke about that can handle many connections. All the information for a website is stored on the web server, and used to render web pages as requested by users.

Web hosting refers to storing websites and making them available to others. What you’re actually buying when you pay for a hosting service is the disk space, computer power, and bandwidth. 

The physical servers are stored in bulk in specially designed, temperature-controlled data centres, with top-notch security and backup functions.

Computers with superpowers 

These data storage centres are like giant warehouses for computers, with rows and rows of harddrives and computer towers lined up. This is where all the files for a website are stored, and where all the computing power comes from.

Web servers are similar to home computers, except that they’re usually much more powerful. In fact, your own personal computer technically could act as a web server to host a website, but it’s not recommended.

Many different technical skills are required to keep a web server online and performing well, including security, hardware, and system administration. For most people, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to self-host.

Essential features

Web hosts don’t just provide space and other physical and digital resources. There are a number of essential and facultative services that come into play: 

  • A website builder that enables you to easily create advanced websites without knowing any HTML or CSS.
  •  An SSL certificate so you can provide secure access to your website 
  •  Multiple email accounts 
  •  SFTP and SSH access for uploading content securely 
  •  Automatic backups of your website and back-end updates
  •  Customer support, often available 24/7.  

Different providers include these features to different degrees, and the best ones make sure you have everything you need.

Another important factor when choosing a web host is the presence of pre-installed apps for managing your site, like Virtualmin or cPanel. 

Finally, you’ll want top-notch security and privacy. Features like firewall and DDoS protection, virus and malware scanners, and two-factor authentication will help keep your files (and audience) safe.

So, there you have it. Web hosting is a complex affair, best left to professionals. Fortunately, there’s many great hosting services out there, so you can stay focused on designing your website and filling it with content.