Finding The Best Shared Hosting: Virtual Hosting Is Not A Commodity

So you’ve decided to put a website online, and you’ve checked out shared hosting packages offered by the big-name web hosts. You would be completely forgiven if your eyes glazed over pretty quickly – it happens to everyone. Unlimited this, unlimited that…one-click installation, free backup, concurrent connections…PHP, Perl, MySQL…not only is half of it unintelligible to most people, it looks like every host has exactly the same chart with exactly the same features.

It would be easy to conclude that virtual hosting is really just a commodity; it appears that you get the same thing no matter what webhost you choose, and all there really is to compare is the price.

Nothing could be further than the truth. Most hosting providers just make it seem that way. Here’s what you need to know to be able to separate the “we offer that too!” companies from the best shared hosting providers.

Defining Shared Hosting

First, let’s look at a quick definition of shared hosting, to make sure we’re all on the same page. A web server has lots of capacity and can handle hosting duties for many websites at the same time. Most clients only require a small percentage of a server’s overall storage and processing capacity, so the hosting provider places many clients’ sites on the same server, where they share the machine’s resources. That’s why it’s known as “shared” hosting, or sometimes as virtual hosting.

With a shared account, the clients can handle normal configuration tasks using control panels or FTP/SSH, but usually don’t have access to the “root” of the server since that would allow access to other clients’ sites. The setup and maintenance of a shared server is taken care of by the host.

Shared hosting has some drawbacks, including the fact that another client’s heavy use of resources can directly affect the performance of your website. However, it has all of the features that most small sites need, is the easiest way to get started, and is definitely the least expensive hosting option.

Linux Web Hosting vs. Windows Web Hosting

The first choice you have to make when choosing a virtual hosting account is whether you want Linux web hosting or Windows web hosting. Most providers offer both, and each has its pros and cons.

Linux web hosting is the most popular option. It is generally seen as the most stable, secure and versatile platform, and most designers and Internet professionals prefer to work with Linux. The platform is usually the best choice for sites using content management systems or online shopping applications, as well as forums and blogs. It’s also required for running SSH and some scripts that use Apache web modules.

Despite the Linux advantages we’ve mentioned, Windows web hosting is still a stable and functional platform to use so you shouldn’t shy away from it if you need it. When would you need it? If you have website applications which depend on ASP, ASP.NET, or other Microsoft products like Access, MSSQL or C#, you will have to use Windows web hosting.

One note if you’re not familiar with web servers: the type of web hosting you choose doesn’t have any relationship to the operating system on your home or business computer. You can work with Linux web hosting even if your own computer runs Windows.

Standard Web Hosting Features

Earlier, we mentioned the “features chart” you’ll see on every host’s website. It lists the different shared hosting packages offered, along with their associated features like the number of domains, subdomains, email accounts, databases and autoresponders, and the amount of storage space and bandwidth allocated to an account. If you’ve looked at any of these charts, you know that most of those entries usually say “unlimited.”

Here’s the secret the providers don’t tell you on their sites: it’s only unlimited until you use too much. If you think about it for a minute, you’ll understand why. They obviously can’t give you “unlimited” storage, for example; the server only has so much storage space available, and it has to be allocated among all of the clients using the machine. What “unlimited” really means is that you can use as much as you need – within the limits of what’s “normal” for a shared account. If you think about it a little more, you’ll realize that’s actually quite fair. You don’t have to pay attention to the amount of resources you’re using on a daily basis, but if you’re using too much of a machine’s resources, it makes sense that you would have to upgrade to a bigger shared account or a VPS (the next step up from shared). Don’t worry, the host will tell you if you’re using “too much.”

So when you’re looking at the charts of standard features, don’t be too concerned about most of the entries. Just be sure you can host the number of domains you need to put on your account and that you get your own IP number. In the next section, we’ll look at the important features you should look for – and that you’ll find in the best shared hosting packages.

What to Expect From the Best Shared Hosting Providers

Some of the features you’ll really need for your shared web hosting account are listed in the charts, but many will either be listed elsewhere on the sales page – or may not be mentioned at all. In that case, you should ask before you buy.

  • Free Automatic Site Builder: Each host will have their own version of this feature, but it can be invaluable if you aren’t an experienced web developer, allowing you to set up a website easily and quickly in a point-and-click interface.
  • Easy-to-Use Control Panel with Fantastico: The majority of Linux web hosting providers provide the cPanel control panel, while Windows web hosting providers use Plesk. In any event, the control panel is where you will do the bulk of your account administration, and it should be intuitive. Fantastico automatically installs web applications like WordPress, and it (or a similar program) is a must.
  • Ioncube Loader, Zend Optimizer and ImageMagick: You may not need any of these applications, but more complicated websites will. A top-notch host will have them available, standard.
  • SSD Storage: This isn’t a requirement to operate a website, but SSD (solid-state storage) is state-of-the-art and will vastly increase your site’s speed while eliminating the danger of relying on touchy disc drive storage. The very best shared hosts will offer it.
  • 99.9% Uptime Guarantee: Lots of fly-by-night hosts, and even some good ones, may promise great uptime. If you’re dealing with a company that provides the best shared hosting possible, they’ll guarantee it; after all, your website needs to run 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
  • 24/7/365 Support: And while we’re on the subject, the host’s support team must be available whenever you need them. If websites develop problems, they tend to happen at 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and substandard or average hosts ask you to submit a ticket and wait until they get into the office and get back to you during working hours. You should expect the best shared hosting companies to be available at all times.

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