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Choosing a Web Host

Tips for finding the perfect host for your new website.

With your website authored, you need a place to stow it so visitors can access it--and you have hundreds of choices. Many of these hosts are free, and few cost more than $20 per month. Truth is, setting up your own host--a dedicated computer that's permanently wired into the Net--is time-consuming and expensive and, for most small businesses, a bad idea. Better to outsource hosting to folks who specialize in it.

You could use the free space that comes with your ISP account--all providers, from AOL to EarthLink, offer users at least some space as part of the basic package of services. Frankly, though, this space is rarely suited to running a business. Servers are slow during peak traffic hours, and domain names can be cumbersome. This space may be great for putting up test pages and fiddling with a site before you are ready to go live, but when you want to get down to business, you will need a dedicated host.

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. Ask your software company if they know of any good hosts.

Actually comparing hosts can be difficult, so a good policy is to quietly set up an account and test the host--kick the tires, so to speak--for several weeks before announcing your presence to the world. Isn't that expensive? You bet, when setup fees are factored in. But more expensive--and embarrassing--is to make a big push for traffic, only to have your host drop the ball and leave you with cranky visitors who cannot quite make it in. Better to know your host is operating smoothly before inviting guests to the party.

When Your Host Goes Kaput
So you've chosen your host and things are running smoothly. But what happens if your ISP shuts down, declares bankruptcy or otherwise goes out of business? What are your options? And what's your next step?

First, look at your contract with the ISP (hopefully you've kept a copy). Make sure the contract clearly states that you own all your website's content--the text, graphics and other "stuff" that people actually see when they look at your site. If this isn't crystal clear, there's a risk your website may be considered part of the ISP's bankruptcy estate and sold to a complete stranger, under terms set by the bankruptcy court, without your approval.

Second, make sure your ISP makes two "backup" copies of your website on a CD-ROM or Zip disk and delivers them to you so you can keep them in a safe place. "If your ISP won't do this for you, that's a real red flag, and you should look for someone else right away," say Amy and Andy Gideon, founders of TAG Online Inc., a full-service web company and ISP based in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. The backup copies should contain not only the content of your site, but copies of the software tools (for example, the specific version of HTML) that were used in creating your site where this is possible. Some tools may not be on your backup copy because the ISP licenses them from the software vendor and cannot legally provide them to you, but you need to be aware of what these products are. Without knowing exactly what tools were used to create your site, say the Gideons, a new ISP will have to re-create your site from scratch using whatever tools they have at hand. This will not only cost you time and money, but there's no assurance your site will look or perform as it once did.

Third, go to the Network Solutions/VeriSign website at www.netsol.com and make sure your site's domain name (the internet address that reads "www. .com") is registered in your name. If your domain name is registered in the ISP's name, notify them in writing that they must assign the domain name to you on Network Solutions' records as soon as possible.

Finally, make sure that all your e-mail addresses are tied to your site rather than to your ISP's site. In other words, if your website is www.xyz.com and your ISP's is www.ISP.com, then all your e-mail addresses should read whatever@xyz.com, not whatever@ISP.com.

When should you worry about your ISP's health? According to the Gideons, some of the "early warning signs" of ISP disaster are:

  • a sudden change in service quality, as when you're told the ISP "doesn't do" something they've always done for you before;
  • an increase in outages, or in the time it takes to get back online after a web failure;
  • a reduction in the "redundancy" of the ISP (the number of separate servers assigned by the ISP to perform a specific task, such as e-mail), which makes them more vulnerable if a single server crashes; and
  • sudden and frequent changes in the ISP's staff ("When you call the ISP's tech support line, you should get a real person, not voice-mail, and messages should not be returned by different people each time you call," the Gideons advise).

When an ISP shuts down, for whatever reason, you're in a state of crisis, the Gideons say. "You need to find an ISP that can help you get back online quickly, without a lot of policies and forms to fill out, because each day your site is 'dark' costs you money," say the Gideons. "When people can't access your website, they assume you've gone out of business and they'll go somewhere else."

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