When it comes to choosing the right internet hosting provider for their websites, the majority of business owners know very little about making the best internet/web hosting decisions.

When starting an e-business, many entrepreneurs will ask:

  • What makes a good web host for a business website? What makes a bad one?
  • How can the wrong web host help/harm my business?
  • What are the different types of web hosting services? Which ones are best for which industries?

Here are some tips to help you make the right choice:

Tip #1: Understand the difference between the types of hosting available
It's crucial to understand the distinctions between shared, collocated and unmanaged dedicated and managed dedicated hosting so you choose the one that's right for your business. As the hosting industry has matured, hosting offers have split into a couple of distinct categories, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Shared hosting (sometimes called virtual hosting) means you're sharing one server with your hosting company's other clients. The host manages the server almost completely (though you maintain your site and your account). They can afford to charge you little since many clients are paying for use of the server. However, companies other than yours are using the resources of that server. That means heavy traffic to one of the other sites on the server can really hammer the performance of your site. Also, you're typically not able to install special software programs on these types of machines because the host will need to keep a stable environment for all of the clients using the server.
  • Collocated hosting means that you purchase a server from a hardware vendor, like Dell or HP for example, and you supply this server to the host. The host will then plug your server into its network and its redundant power systems. The host is responsible for making sure its network is available, and you're responsible for all support and maintenance of your server. Good hosters will offer management contracts to their collocation clients so that you can outsource much of the support to them and come to an arrangement similar to managed dedicated hosting. Most collocation hosts don't offer this service, however.
  • Unmanaged dedicated hosting is very similar to collocation, except that you lease a server from a host and don't actually own it yourself. Some very limited support (typically web-based only) is included, but the level of support varies widely depending on the company you choose. This type of server can be had for around $99 a month. Support levels are typically only provided in general terms. Ask the host to go into specifics about what support they'll provide (e.g., Will they apply security patches to your server?) before signing up. This service is typically good for gaming servers or hobbyist servers, but not for serious businesses that need responsive, expert-level service.
  • Managed dedicated hosting means leasing a server from a host and having that company provide a robust level of support and maintenance on the server that's backed by quality guarantees. This maintenance typically includes services such as server uptime monitoring, a hardware warranty, security-patch updates, and more. Make sure your managed dedicated host is specific about the managed services included so that you can be sure they're not disguising an unmanaged dedicated offering as a managed dedicated server. This has been known to happen, unfortunately, which is why it's important to do your homework and ask the right questions.

Tip #2: Ask Your Potential Host's Network if it Has Blackholed IPs
Many hosts care little about who's actually hosting on their networks, so long as the clients pay their bill. That means many hosters will allow porn sites, spammers and servers that create security issues on their network for the sake of the dollar. Even if you're placing ethical issues aside, this does have a negative impact on customers when a network gets blackholed for spamming, for example. Getting blackholed means that other networks will refuse e-mail originating from your IP because it's blacklisted. Some hosts have a number of networks blackholed and redistribute their tainted IPs to new clients. That means if your business relies on legitimate closed loop opt-in e-mail marketing to drive sales, being on such a network can severely cut response to your campaign because your e-mail may never get to its destination.

Check with any hosting companies you're considering to use to see if their networks are blackholed. The following website will take you to third-party source that tracks blackholed networks and lists them: www.spamhaus.org/sbl/isp.lasso

The following URL is also a good resource to help you understand what's labeled spam and what isn't: www.spamhaus.org/mailinglists

Tip #3: Don't Confuse Size With Stability
Just because a web hosting company is big, doesn't mean it's stable and secure. In fact, many of the biggest web hosting companies have filed for bankruptcy protection or have been saved by being sold to another company--in some cases causing uncomfortable transitions in service for their clients. How do you protect yourself? Ask some key questions:

  • How long has the host been in business?
  • Is current ownership the same as always?
  • Are they profitable and cash-flow positive from operation-generated revenue?

Tip #4: Don't Make Price Your Only Priority
The old saying "you get what you pay for" applies to most things in life, and hosting is certainly one of those things. When you over-prioritize price, you run the risk of ending up with a host that'll provide you with a connection to the internet and little else in terms of support (and even that connection may be running at maximum capacity or have uptime issues).

Tip #5: Make Sure Your Host Has Fully Redundant Data Centers
When dealing with smaller vendors, make sure they have their own data centers that are fully redundant in terms of power and connectivity. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • How many lines do they have coming into the facility?
  • What's the average utilization of their connections? (No matter how large the connection, if it's running at maximum capacity, it'll be slow.)
  • Do they have redundant power to the servers?
  • Do they have a generator on-site?
  • How often do they test their generator?
  • What sort of security measures do they have in place for the network?
  • What physical security do they have?
  • What type of fire suppression systems do they have in place?

Tip #6: Find Out if They Have Experienced Systems Administrators On Their Support Staff
When you call in for technical support, it can be a frustrating experience to be stuck talking with a non-technical "customer service" representative when you really need to talk to a systems administrator who can resolve your issues. Find out the structure of their support department, how quickly you can get to an actual systems administrator when you need to, and which systems administrators can help you when you need it.

Tip #7: Make Sure the Host is Flexible
It's important that the hoster understands how important quality servers are to their clients' businesses. Most managed dedicated hosts won't go near supporting applications that aren't part of their initial server setup. Find a hoster that has a vast amount of experience to support a wide variety of applications, and one that can bring that expertise to you through their services.

Tip #8: Find Out What Their Former/Current Clients Say About Them
Can your prospective host provide you with success stories for clients with similar configurations to yours? Are they able to provide references from clients who can tell you about their experience using that company?

Tip #9: Make Sure the Host's Support Doesn't Include Extra Charges
Make sure any host you consider provides you with a comprehensive list outlining the support they offer so that you can have an understanding of what's supported for free, what's supported at a fee, and what's not supported at all. Many hosts will try to hide a sub-standard level of free support behind non-specific statements of high-quality support, so make them get specific to win your business.

Chris Kivlehan is the marketing manager for INetU Managed Hosting. INetU is an award-winning hosting provider that specializes in managed dedicated hosting for businesses nationwide in the online retailing, web development, e-learning, financial services and online marketing industries, as well as for governments, non-profits and civic institutions.