Louis Silberman started off paying $35 a month for a service to host the site for Health4her.com, the women's health, wellness and beauty site he opened in November 1998. A year later, the 35-year-old Scottsdale, Arizona, entrepreneur had fired four Web-hosting services, finally buying three $6,000 servers-and paying a fifth service, Virtual Scape, $400 a month to house and maintain the computer and provide the Internet connection. Silberman's former hosts, he says, promised reliability and performance they couldn't deliver. As a result, he estimates Health4her.com lost more than $25,000 in sales due to downtime and overloaded host systems that slowed performance to a crawl.
Web-hosting computers store the files that contain the information on an e-business site and keeps it all connected to the Internet. Due to hosting's technical complexity, staffing requirements and the cost of high-speed Internet lines, most small e-businesses farm the job out. Third-party hosts provide space on a server, usually shared with other companies, as well as a speedy Internet connection and technical support.
Picking a host is tricky. Thousands of services charge countless fees, make all sorts of promises and raise seemingly endless questions. To help choose one that'll get the job done, here are key questions to ask, answers to insist on and information on how to get them.
How reliable is your service? Surveys show reliability is e-businesses' main concern. Look for at least a 95 percent uptime guarantee, and find out what that guarantee means, advises Jon Landry, sales manager with TopHosts.Com, a Web-host rating service and directory in Toronto.
What kind of performance do you offer? An ideal host has one or more T3 lines connected directly to the Internet, not through someone else's network operations center, says Landry. Servers should be fast Pentium Pros or Sun SparcStations, running Windows NT, Linux or another mainstream, high-performance operating system. Let your host know if you use bandwidth-gobbling features like streaming audio and video.
And know who you share space with, Silberman adds. If other businesses on your server experience large spikes in traffic, you could suffer.
How good is your support? Look for 24/7 phone support available from a live person. Then check it. Call or e-mail the tech support line at 9 p.m. on a Sunday and expect it to be answered.
What will it cost? Entry-level service with a single domain name, 20MB hard-drive space, e-mail service and up to 1GB of monthly data transfer (which may also be expressed as hits) should cost no more than $50.
How do you handle security? Passwords should be required to control the host and manage or modify your site. All files should be backed up daily. Always look for a host that offers secure transactions.
How much control do I have? You want to be able to use a variety of background applications, including custom CGI scripts and online forms tailored for your business, says Dave Murphy, president of Damar Group Ltd., a Web hosting company in Elkridge, Maryland. "Otherwise," he warns, "you won't be able to design a site that really meets your needs."
Can you handle the technology I'm using? If your site's software runs on Microsoft Internet Information Server under Windows NT, look for a host that supports that configuration. Personal referrals help, too. Silberman's new hosting service came recommended by the company that sold him his software.
Finally, no matter where you are in the process, don't let anybody snow you, advises Silberman. Some third-party hosts take on more clients than their systems can handle. "Without good service and fast connections," he reminds, "you're dead in the water."
Go Get One
Let a Web-host directory start the work of picking a hosting service. Check out TopHosts.Com, The Ultimate Web Host List at www.webhostlist.com, HostIndex at www.hostindex.com or Web Host Directory at www.webhostdir.com.
Damar Group Ltd., (410) 290-7000,www.dgl.com