Choosing the Right Website Hosting

When a website is in the development phase, often times very little forethought is put into where the site will be hosted. Who is going to host a website, however, is an extremely important issue and can have major ramifications into the design of a site, as well as it's overall performance and reliability.

In the "old days" when websites were just a collection of static HTML files, who was going to host a site had very little impact on web design considerations. Now-a-days with dynamic websites that are database driven, who is going to host a website and what technologies they support will dictate the programming environment that a website is written in.

Over the years, we have developed websites that were hosted under all kinds of conditions from university computers, to small ISPs, to small, medium, and large web hosting providers. We have even been responsible for corporate websites that were hosted in house. From this experience we have learned a lot about what to look for and what to avoid when deciding where and how to host a website. The advice on this page is based on that experience.

Should we host "in house" or with a web hosting firm?

When you are deciding upon web hosting solutions, the first question that needs to be asked is whether the site is going to be hosted "in house" (run on your own servers) or is the web hosting going to be out sourced to a third party. Unless there are over riding technical reasons and sufficient infrastructure (including redundant fault tolerant high speed Internet connections) in place, the hosting of a website should be out sourced to a web hosting firm. This eliminates the need to worry about hardware, server administration, and network administration.

What to look for in a web hosting firm

Any Joe can get a dedicated Internet connect, configure a web server, design a slick website, and declare themselves a "web hosting firm." Alternatively, many "web hosting firms" do nothing more than resell server space they lease in bulk from a larger firm. This makes finding a truly reliable firm very difficult. Here are the things to look for in a web hosting firm and what to avoid:

  1. Do they actually own their own servers and are not simply a reseller?
    A reseller is just another layer of interference between you and those who are truly responsible for the servers your site is hosted on. Invariably they will cause massive headaches when something goes wrong and you need technical support to get it fixed.
  2. Do they have massive amounts of bandwidth to the Internet?
    A web hosting firm of any reasonable size with a dedicated data center will host tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of websites. Unless they have massive amounts of bandwidth (e.g. 1,000 mb/s or greater) the odds are that at busy times, your website will be slow to respond as the web hosting firm's Internet connection becomes congested. The following table defines common Internet data connections:
    Data connection Bit rate
    DS-0, E0, J0 0.064 mb/s
    DS-1, J1, T1 1.544 mb/s
    E1 2.048 mb/s
    DS-1C, J1C 3.152 mb/s
    DS-2, J2, T2 6.312 mb/s
    E2 8.448 mb/s
    Ethernet 10.000 mb/s
    J3 32.064 mb/s
    E3 34.368 mb/s
    DS-3, T3 44.736 mb/s
    OC-1c, STS-1c 51.840 mb/s
    DS-3C 91.053 mb/s
    J3C 97.728 mb/s
    Fast Ethernet 100.000 mb/s
    E4 139.264 mb/s
    OC-3c, STM-1c, STS-3c 155.520 mb/s
    DS-4 264.176 mb/s
    J4 397.200 mb/s
    OC-9c, STS-9c 466.560 mb/s
    E5 565.148 mb/s
    OC-12c, STM-4c, STS-12c 622.080 mb/s
    OC-18c, STS-18c 933.120 mb/s
    OC-24c, STM-8c, STS-24c 1,244.160 mb/s
    OC-36c, STM-12c, STS-36c 1,866.240 mb/s
    OC-48c, STM-16c, STS-48c 2,488.320 mb/s
    OC-96c 4,976.640 mb/s
    OC-192c 9,953.280 mb/s
    Gigabit Ethernet up to 10,000.000 mb/s
  3. Do they have multiple redundant connections to the Internet via several different major backbone providers?
    Invariably network connections will go down and backbone providers will have outages. The only way to ensure such nuisances don't affect your website is to make sure the web hosting firm you use has connections to multiple (at least three preferably more) providers. This may seem like over-kill but keep in mind that it is not at all uncommon that when an Internet connection like those used by web hosting firms goes down that it stays down for an extended period of time while the vendors squabble over whose fault it is or use half-baked "fixes".
  4. How secure is their network operations center (NOC) and web servers?
    Security is of paramount importance, especially for e-commerce sites. The web hosting firm should spell out what measures they take to ensure the physical security of their servers and limit who has physical access to them. In addition, they need to be able to provide proof of the measures they take to ensure their servers are patched for security vulnerabilities and secured to resist hackers.
  5. Are they prepared for natural disasters?
    On the Internet, falling victim to a natural disaster means lost opportunities. Web hosting provider should have redundant systems in place to deal with power outages including battery and generator backup sufficient to handle them for days or weeks. What types of fire suppression systems are in place? Is their NOC susceptible to floods or earthquakes? Is the NOC located in a politically stable corner of the world?
  6. Do they specialize in the server environment you need?
    Some web hosting firms specialize in one server environment (e.g. Unix & Apache or Microsoft IIS), while others offer a range of server environments. It is our opinion that one should choose a web hosting firm that specializes in only the server environment that the website is going to be developed in. By offering only one server environment, a company is able to really focus their energies rather than having to spread their energies over many different environments with different requirements. Over time we have consistently experienced the worst performance and service from firms that hosted sites on multiple server platforms (e.g. Unix and Windows). As the saying goes: "Jack of all trades, master of none."
  7. Do they have a good reputation?
    Do a web search and see what people are saying about the firm you are considering. Is there a lot of negative "noise" or just a little? When reviewing reviews, always keep in mind that people will mostly post messages on such topics when they have problems. As such, you are sure to find negative feedback on almost any firm you do a search on. The key is how one firm's overall noise level compared to others.
  8. Don't use your ISP (Internet Service Provider) who just happens to offer web hosting on the side.
    This goes back to the "Jack of all trades" comment above. Very rarely do ISPs make really good web hosts as defined above. For starters, their physical security to their systems is typically lacking. In addition, most ISPs don't have really robust back-up systems in place to keep the websites they host operational regardless of what happens (e.g. power outage and other natural disasters). Finally, their IT staff is normally being pulled in a dozen different directions, and thus they cannot specialize in securing and patching web servers correctly.
  9. Don't use small firms.
    To be a really good web hosting firm, it takes a great deal of infrastructure, which is expensive. With typical share hosting costs running around $10-$70 per month depending upon options, it takes a huge number of websites to make it profitable. In addition, the dot com bust has created a massive glut of server space and has driven profit margins down to almost non-existent. As a result, smaller firms have been getting bought up by larger firms that then get bought up by yet larger firms. These mergers create all kinds of quality of service issues. Never have we seen service get better after a merger. In fact, we have found that sometimes it becomes nearly impossible to get issues resolved after a merger.
  10. Don't use the biggest firms.
    Finding a large, but not too large web hosting firm is a balancing act. They need to be large enough to have a solid infrastructure, but not so large that they lose interest in the individual customer. It seems to be a truism that the larger the firm the worse the customer service is.

Which web hosting firm do we recommend?

Of the many web hosting firms we have used over the years, there is only one firm we feel we can honestly recommend. That firm is Pair Networks. They meet all of our requirements stated above and have provided us with exceptional service at a great value. Because of their reliablity, Pair Networks has become the only web hosting firm we use for our own websites.

While having a quick response when calling tech support is good, not having to call them because there are no problems is even better. As a testament to how good Pair Networks is, the first website we moved Pair Networks had been hosted with them for at least a year before we even needed to call tech support for help. When we have called, our calls answered promptly by a real person instead of leaving us on hold for an hour or more, which is common among the other providers we have used. To date, the vast majority of tech support requests we have put in, have not been for problems; rather they have been development questions related to server configurations, etc. Whether via e-mail or phone, all of our tech support requests have been answered promptly.

Pair Networks exclusively operates an Open Source web hosting environment running on FreeBSD or Linux servers configured with open source packages like Apache, PHP, Perl, MySQL, etc. They offer a wide range of web hosting options from inexpensive shared hosting environments all the way up to powerful dedicated servers solutions.

Why we aren't recommending a Maine based company

While it is always nice to "buy local," the web hosting firm we recommend is not a Maine based company because no company in Maine can satisfy our criteria for redundancy in backbone connections to the Internet and being prepared for natural disasters. The reason is that virtually all of the cables that provide Maine with Internet connectivity go through two corridors out of Maine. As 2011's Hurricane Irene proved, this leaves Maine based website hosting firms vulnerable to losing access to the Internet for extended periods of time. After Hurricane Irene hit Vermont, both the primary corridors were severed and much of Maine lost Internet access for many hours. This means that many websites hosted in Maine were inaccessible to the rest of the Internet.

Pair Networks, the website hosting firm we use and recommend, not only has numerous connections to Internet backbones, but is in a geologically and meteorologically boring part of the world which means there is a very low risk of a natural disaster or severe weather event threatening to disrupt their service.