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

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If you have recently finished creating your own site, or you have one currently being designed for you, you’ll know the next big step is getting it online and live. This is where website hosting (opens in new tab) comes in .

Think of your website as a series of documents on your computer (images, videos, HTML files etc). Just as a Word document has to be saved and stored on your computer, so too does your website need a computer to store it.

The big difference is - you want your website to be seen by the general public. For this to happen, the computer it is stored on must usually be of a much higher specification than your own PC, and connected to the internet through a dedicated link.

IP, IP, IP, Hurray

This dedicated link is known as a static IP. Dynamic IPs, as is the case at home, refresh every so often resulting in a change in IP address. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, static IPs do provide an advantage. Every time a dynamic IP refreshes, you run the risk of downtime on your server.

Additionally, static IPs allow you to run an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server – meaning you can easily move files from one computer to another - as well as being able to have your own private SSL certificate, something we cover in another article.

The computer where the web pages are stored is called a web server. It stores the information used to render web pages - on request - to users of the internet. The task of making websites and web pages available to many users is called web hosting.

Companies selling hosting services are actually selling disk space (as well as compute power and bandwidth) on their servers for you to host your website.

Servers are stored on racks in purpose-built data centres, which are temperature controlled, secure and provide a backup service. The space is measured in large numbers of bytes. So now you know what hosting is, let’s delve a little deeper…

Computers with superpowers

A web hosting provider will have rooms filled with rows and rows of – what look like – PC towers aligned horizontally, and it’s here that you will find the files belonging to all of the websites they host.

Web servers are like your computer at home, except usually much faster and more powerful. In theory, your home computer could act as your very own web server to host your website.

Although we wouldn’t recommend it, unless you know what you are doing. The specialist skills needed to keep a website up-and-running are vast. If you’re not an internet security expert, hardware engineer, Sysadmin and DevOps specialist, you’ll struggle to host your own website.

Essential features

In addition to providing space and other physical and network resources for your website, web hosts also provide various other services that are essential to managing your website, including:

  • Website builders (opens in new tab) to help you create your website without getting your hands dirty writing HTML
  • SSL certificates to ensure your visitors can interact with your website via secured channels
  • Email accounts 
  • SFTP and SSH access to securely upload content
  • Automated updates and backups
  • 24/7 Customer support

The exact feature spread varies from one provider to another, however you can rest assured that the good ones will go to great lengths to equip you with all the tools you need to successfully and safely manage your website. 

One feature you should pay attention to, is the pre-installed apps on offer to help you manage your website. Chances are your hosting provider either includes Virtualmin (opens in new tab) or cPanel (opens in new tab), which are two popular and feature-rich control panels to help you administer your corner of the web. 

Equally important are the set of security and privacy tools on offer. Things like firewall protection, DDoS mitigations, virus scanners and anti-malware solutions, two-factor authentication, and more, go a long way to help you run a tight ship.

Hosting is a tricky business and involves technical know-how and internet wizardry that you’re better off leaving to the professionals. Focus your efforts on the content of the website instead and let the hosting company do what it’s good at.

Put simply; using a good hosting company will save you time, money and make your life far less stressful.

  • This is an adapted excerpt from an eBook called "The ultimate guide to web hosting", published by TechRadar Pro in association with Planet Hippo (opens in new tab)
Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.