Web hosting is all about what to do with your site after you get your own dot com or net or org or whatever.. The host is where you park your site and web pages. Well, setting up a web site can be more involved then just uploading a few pages...
One of the first things you have to decide is whether or not you want plain old fashioned UNIX or NT as the host operating platform, for you can't run the more sophisticated (and sometimes faster loding) ASP (Active Server Pages) on Unix or Linux. For ASP based sites you are going to need an NT server and this generally limits your choices in hosting service and ups the price per month you have to pay.
Another fact many people don't weigh is through-put. How much server activity you are allowed each month. If your site is a rather passive operation, just some pages to look at, this may not be much of a factor. If, however, you intend to offer downloads of software or process bulk orders for some hot item that you are selling over the net, you may find extra charges at the end of each month for through-put. So check out how many mega bytes the host gives you at the base rate and how much extra you have to pay for additional mega bytes. Right now most hosts are including about 500 MB of throughput a month which may not satify the demands of a company offering MP3 file downloads to the mass market!
Space is another consideration. Most hosts provide about 20 MB of file space which is enough for maybe 100 - 150 pages with a few pictures on each page. A decent size catalog. Again, if you are offering downloads of MP3 files or software, you will find that you can only fit a few files into 20 MBs of space. How much more will extra megs cost you?
SSI -- Server Side Includes (we detailed this in depth, last month). Not every host provides SSI support and you may end up wanting or needing this to use some Perl - CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts. Simple scripts, such as hit counters sometimes need SSI to function! Make sure SSI is supported.
Speaking of CGI scripts, some of the very low cost hosts charge extra to help you with CGI scripts. Many other hosts will be more than happy to CHOAM them for you or at least help you through the process. CHOAMing is something many free CGI scripts require (this is the process of setting the attributes from read only to read-write, etc.). If you are not savvy in Unix commands and tweeking Perl scripts you need to find a host that isn't going to charge you $25 per script for set-up, otherwise that bargain basement site is suddenly priced like a penthouse apartment!
Stream audio and video. Some users may want to eventually include files like those from Real Player. Not every site allows this (the limitation is often for security -- firewall protection), some charge extra while others include the ability to add these touches to your site with no problems whatsoever.
Do you have to store your files into some special folder for them to work? At first you may say, how prissy. However if you make lots of changes to your site and have to use an FTP tool regularly it gets very taxing to land at a designated site area and then manually switch directories into the folder where you have to store the pages. Ask about this when you shop for that host!
Is there a time out limitation? I know one web developer who grumbles all the time at her site because it locks her out after two minutes if she doesn't do something. This means you have to log-in again, move to the directory where your files are stored dozens of times during site installation. It becomes frustrating, to say the least! Ask how long before the server times you out.
Does the host offer a set of tools for site development? Web page editor? FTP tools? I'm talking about the kind like you find on Geocities or Tripod. While most hosts today do offer these web based tools, it doesn't hurt to take a look at what they have, how easy the interface is to work with and what the limitations might be.
Anonymous FTP. Not every host allows you to set up a place where people can download or upload to your site without having to give them your personal password and username (which is something you don't want to share with others as a general rule). Can you set up FTP users with separate passwords and user names? Can an anonymous FTP log-in occur?
Mail boxes and mail forwarding. How many discrete mail boxes (with seperate user names and passwords) do you get? Many hosts offer one with the ability to use aliases. This means everyone's mail comes into a central mail box where someone must distribute (and can read) any of the e-mails that come into the box! Some hosts have unlimited aliases. Some hosts offer only a fixed number of addresses a given site can use. Some hosts only forward mail to a separate POP (Post Office Protocol) box, like Hot Mail or Yahoo mail. Many hosts offer more than one mail box, each with the ability to have multiple aliases. This is very good if you want to keep, for example, executive mail separate from operations mail. Some hosts offer more boxes at an extra fee. Find out how many separate, segregated mail boxes they offer, how many ailiases are allowed for the base fee and what the extra fees are for more mail boxes.
On the topic of mail, believe or it not, many hosts DON'T offer outgoing SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol)
If you absolutely need outgoing mail (and it looks pretty embarrassing for mail at ibm.com to have a SMTP address of firstname.lastname@example.org, so many companies desire their own outgoing SMTP mail server) check your hosts to see if SMTP is included or available at an extra charge. Otherwise, figure in the cost of using mail services from a company like Yahoo into the per month fee equation and see how this new deal compares to other hosts!
Perks and benefits. Some hosts offer a lot of services with even their lower cost sites. One developer I know gets access to SQL database engine and a complete shopping cart for only $12 a month. This means if you are on an $8 a month site and they offer to throw in these for an extra fee, that may not be such a bargain! It might actually end up costing you $15 or $20 a month to get all the services another site offers for $12!
Finally, small as this may seem, where do your 404 errors end up? One low cost hosting service arranges for your page errors (page not found 404 error) to end up at their home page offering your visitors hosting services! Most hosts and servers just have a simple 404 error page, but a few send you to an advertisement on their sites. So ask where the page-load errors are routed, and what that 404 error page looks like!
So make a list of all these factors (and add any we didn't cover that you might find while out shopping for a host), and see how much the prices shoot up when you add all the services together. Then decide what you really don't need and see who actually offers the best bargain.
For some of these factors, going with the lowest of sites may be worth what you lose in benefits. For some businesses it may be a lot more practical to pay a larger fee per month and have access to tools that you may need in six months at no extra cost. Unfortunately a few of you may find that you have to spend a lot more than you thought, to get the site with all the features your really need!
Still, if you shop carefully, anticipate your needs and check the prices out, you can make a good choice of a host at a fair price, and get exactly what you need today or tomorrow to make your stay on the internet profitable!