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Website Hosting 101

Although you may have access to web space using your college or university account, whether or not that is a productive space depends on issues likely outside of your control. For instance, if you have relatively little disk space allotted to you, but you want to maintain multimedia downloads for your students, you are already limited by what you can store. Or, perhaps you do not have access to server-side scripting languages or any database software—so much for a dynamic web site or a blog installation such as WordPress. You might also find that institutional support is lacking—even if you have the world’s greatest IT department, they might be overwhelmed and unable to attend to your questions in a timely fashion. Or, you could have no support at all beyond an automated system that spits out your account information and password.

Whatever the case may be, wouldn’t it be nice to have virtually unlimited access to your own shiny new domain name and web hosting account, with a help desk whose only job is to help you and not worry about the wireless network in the Library and the printer in the Physics building and the mail server for the Dean’s Office? Can you afford one measly dollar per week over the course of a year (if that) for the freedom you can have with your domain name and web hosting account? If so, this Prof. Hacker 101 post is for you. I’ll briefly discuss obtaining a domain name and a web hosting account, and what to look for when shopping for web hosting provider.

One of the most difficult steps in obtaining web hosting is choosing a domain name. It’s easy enough, I suppose, if you go with your actual name, such as JaneSmith.com or JohnDoe.net, but if your name is very common you have to start thinking about other options: a dash between words, using initials instead of names, or going with something unrelated to your name (such as my own domains, academicsandbox.com and thickbook.com). Go into the process with a few options in your back pocket in case your first option doesn’t pan out.

A domain name is a text string that, when matched up with a numeric address of the web server software or hardware, allows browsers to get to where they need to go in order to view or interact with the content stored on your web site. This is an oversimplification of the process, but what you need to know is that in order to establish your web space as your own, you need a domain name plus the web hosting account.

To obtain a domain name, you have to pay a domain name registrar to allocate and manage the domain name and its DNS record in the big address book that controls the Internet. These registrars may or may not also provide web hosting services. It’s up to you whether you first obtain a domain name from a registrar, then find a hosting provider and transfer your domain to them for management, or if you find a web host that you like and obtain a domain name through them—they act as a reseller—at the same time you purchase your hosting account. If you’re interested, here is the current list of registrars by market share. When working with clients, our recommendations differ depending on the situation and the web host, but when I counsel individuals looking to establish a web presence I often recommend going with the domain name purchasing options that typically come with the initial purchase of a web hosting package.

Once you know the domain name you want, and several other possibilities in case the name you really want has already been taken, you’re ready to start shopping for a web hosting provider. There are thousands to choose from, and if you ask your friends or send a query into the Twitterverse looking for a recommendation, expect to get a wide variety of answers. Is there one hosting provider that is better than all others? Probably not. Are there hundreds who offer the same services and have the same response times and customer service options as others? Absolutely. For the most part, choosing a web hosting provider is like choosing between Coke, Pepsi, and all the other sugary brown carbonated beverages. They all pretty much do the same thing, some are tastier than others, no one will ever agree which is best, and depending on the store you can get some good discounts.

So how do you even begin to choose? Here is a list of six perfectly good options, each of which cater to different audiences but provide good service. Although I personally have accounts at two of these providers, I’m not getting any referral bonuses for listing them here, and I don’t want to appear biased so they’re listed in alphabetical order:

But you still have to choose the right packages for you, even with a narrowed-down list of hosting providers. Here are some general things to look for:

  • Reliability/Server Uptime—if you have an online presence, you want to make sure that people can actually get there consistently
  • Customer Service—look for multiple methods for contacting customer service (phone, email, chat) as well as online documentation for common issues
  • Server Space—does the hosting package include enough server space to hold all the multimedia files (images, audio, video) you plan to include in your web site? How much is enough? That is up to you, but some hosts offer truly unlimited storage as part of their base plan while others may give you only 100MB for the same price.
  • Bandwidth—does the hosting package include enough bandwidth so that all the people visiting your site and downloading files can do so without you having to pay extra? You might not know how much bandwidth you need, or how popular your site will be. Like storage space, the amount of bandwidth included in your account is somethig that you can change later as you need to, but you might also be offered unlimited bandwidth as well.
  • Domain Name Purchase and Management—does the package include a custom domain name, or must you purchase and maintain your domain name separately from your hosting account?
  • Price—do not overpay for hosting; you will see a wide range of prices offered and should immediately wonder “what’s the difference”? Often the difference has little to do with the quality of the service and everything to do with company overhead and what the company thinks they can get away with charging people. Shop around.
  • Scripting Languages and Database Support—even if you don’t know what it means, look for a provider that runs PHP 5 and Perl, and offers more than one instance of MySQL. The latter will come in handy when you want to do automatic installations of multiple blogs or other applications that require database access. Although you could make your own modifications and run numerous applications off the same database, that’s probably something you don’t want to bother with, and that’s ok—especially when some hosting providers offer 5, 10, 25, or unlimited numbers of database instances.

cpanelAnother feature you should look for in a good hosting provider is that they provider you with a control panel for you to manage aspects of your account. You might never need to use your control panel, but having it available to you makes the installation of databases and other software, the viewing of web statistics, and the addition of e-mail addresses (among many other features) very simple. If you can follow instructions, you can manage your own web server—no extra special training required.

wpinstall_fControl panels—bearing in mind that they may differ from host to host—enable the quick installation of what some consider complicated pieces of software. A WordPress installation, for instance, might be daunting if you do it yourself, but a control panel-based installation is a breeze, as options are presented to you in a “wizard”-like fashion. Answer a few questions, fill in some form fields, and voilà—your own blog on your own domain. Once you have your own hosting account, here are a few other things to keep in mind. Actually, some of these tips are valid no matter where your web space is located (on a university server or at a hosting provider you selected):

 

  • Pick an FTP Client—Since you will need to transfer content from your personal computer to a web server, your FTP client will quickly become a tool you use quite a bit. Find one that you like; FTP clients generally have a similar interface: the directory listing of the local machine (your computer) appears on the left, and the directory listing of the remote machine (the web server) appears on the right. Typically you will see right-arrow and left-arrow buttons which will send selected files from your computer to your web server, or from your web server to your computer. Additionally, many FTP clients also allow you to simply select and then drag and drop files to and from the target machines. Here are a few popular options:
  • Have an Organizational System—Mirror the directory structure of your web site on your personal computer. This will also ensure that your web site content (except for anything stored in a database) is backed up as part of your usual personal backup process, either into the cloud or on removable media.
  • Backup Your Database—You will very likely have access to your MySQL database(s) via an interface called phpMyAdmin. Familiarize yourself with this tool if for no other reason than to use the “export” function to backup your database content in a single file you can then store on your own machine.
  • Keep an Eye on Statistics—not for any ego-related reasons, although that’s fun too, but so you can tell how much bandwidth and server space you are using and if you need to purchase more or if you have plenty to spare. Statistical analysis packages are also typically part of a hosting package, so you can see content that is popular, content that is not so popular, and when people are linking to your content (either for good or nefarious reasons).

Believe me, I could go on and on. Hopefully this will give you an idea of how easy it really is to set up a hosting account outside of your institution. In brief, the steps are simply:

  1. Think up a domain name.
  2. Find a host that offers good stuff for the price you want to pay.
  3. Pay them.
  4. Wait for an e-mail from them containing your logins.
  5. Access the control panel and find something you want to install, click on it and follow the instructions to install.
  6. Or, skip the previous step and just start sending your HTML and multimedia files up to your server via FTP.

Typically you can achieve all of the above within 12, and definitely within 24, hours from start to finish.Now, if even the concept of creating pages and using FTP is out of your comfort zone, I will refer you to my forthcoming book Sams Teach Yourself HTML & CSS in 24 Hours, 8th ed., in which the first two chapters take a step back and cover those basic steps. But if you are ready to break free from the confines of your institution’s web hosting options—if you even have any—hopefully you can see that it is not a difficult or scary experience. If you have any questions about the process in general or would like a specific opinion on a web hosting provider, I am happy to answer those questions either in the comments or privately via e-mail or Twitter DM.

 

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