If you’re new to buying web hosting or running a web site, this page could answer some of those nagging questions. We’ll take you from the very beginning and work up to some fairly advanced concepts – but don’t worry, everything on this page is suitable for absolute beginners.
What is web hosting?
Think about the files and folders on your computer. They are stored on the hard disk of your desktop or laptop computer, ready for you to access them whenever you like. A web page is a file, just like your word processing documents. Just as your word processing documents require your computer to store them, all web pages require a computer to store them.
The difference is that web pages are generally intended to be seen by the general public. To enable this, the computer on which they must be stored must be of a much higher specification than your desktop PC, and must be connected to the Internet through a very powerful link.
A computer on which web pages are stored is called a web server (because it serves pages, on request, to users on the Internet). Collectively a bunch of web pages is a web site, and collectively all the web pages in the world form the World Wide Web (WWW).
The job of making web sites and web pages available to many users is called web hosting. We sometimes like to call the product we offer web space, because we are selling “space” on the Internet for you to host your web site. Web space is measured in megabytes, in exactly the same way as the space on your own computer is measured.
Why do I need web hosting?
It is technically possible to connect your own PC or Mac to the Internet and have it serve pages. But it is not practical since usually a home-based Internet connection is not powerful enough to serve many users at the same time.
For this reason, web hosting companies exist. They own and maintain very powerful web servers which store your web pages. They connect these web servers to the Internet by very powerful connections, enabling many web users to access your web pages at the same time.
If you want to run a web site you need web hosting because unless you’ve got unlimited funds you would not be able to afford the web servers and connections necessary.
What else do web hosting companies do?
As well as providing web space web hosting companies provide other “value-added” services. The extent of these varies from company to company but there are some key services provided by nearly all. These are the registration of domain names (see below) and provision of email. They may also provide technical support either through their web sites or by email or telephone.
Are there different kinds of web hosting?
Yes, of course! There are many different varieties of web hosting, designed to meet different needs. A two-page web site set up by an individual will need far less robust web hosting package than a multinational high-traffic site set up by a big company. There are a few key differentiating factors between the packages web hosting companies provide.
Amount of web space
This means how much web space the web hosting company will allow you to use for your web site. This can vary but usually starts at around the 100 megabytes mark, and can go all the way up to 1000 or 2000 megabytes. For all but the biggest web sites, 100MB is more than adequate. Some web hosting companies offer much more space – they are able to do this because they know that the average web site comes in at less than 100 megabytes.
Number of email addresses
This means how many email addresses the hosting company will permit you to have. For budget accounts, this is usually somewhere between 1 and 10 email addresses. Some higher-end packages permit say 250 addresses.
|1 letter on a page = 1 byte|
|1024 bytes = 1 kilobyte|
|1024 kilobytes = 1 megabyte|
|1024 megabytes = 1 gigabyte|
Bandwidth (or data transfer)
This is a much misunderstood measure, but it is really important if your web site starts to generate a lot of interest from web users. It means the amount of data your web site can transmit to web users. For example, if a web page in your web site is 10 kilobytes (about 1000 words on the page) in size, and one Internet user views it, you have used 10 kilobytes of bandwidth. If 10 users request that page you have used 100 kilobytes of bandwidth. Bandwidth is normally measured monthly.
Most small web sites will need under half a gigabyte of bandwidth per month. That means you can serve about 52,000 web pages per month (assuming the pages are an average of 10 kilobytes in size). At UKcentric our lowest-cost package (the Pro plan) offers 20 gigabytes of bandwidth per month, allowing you transfer about 2,080,000 pages. This is more than adequate for small to medium web sites.
What happens if you go over your allotted bandwidth? This is known as bandwidth overage. Some companies will switch off your web site if this happens. Others will automatically add on extra bandwidth charges which are priced at a different (usually much higher) rate than your normal monthly hosting charges.
At UKcentric we understand that some customers will occasionally go over their monthly allowance. We do not cut off the web site if this happens, nor do we charge any extra. Instead we may notify you and recommend you upgrade your web hosting package to one with a higher allowance.
Windows or UNIX?
The last major differentiating factor between web hosting packages is the operating system. Just like your desktop computer (probably running Microsoft Windows or an Apple Mac OS), web servers run an operating system. It’s the software that makes the computer go. There are two major types of OS in the web hosting world – Windows and UNIX. The major variant of UNIX is called Linux.
For basic web sites it doesn’t really matter whether you choose Linux or Windows hosting. Your pages will work just the same whichever you choose. But for more advanced users it pays to make the right choice.
Which OS to choose comes down to what you want to do with your web site. For example if you want to install certain apps such as WordPress (see below) then you need to know which OS the app runs best on. Here are some examples:
Apps that run better on Linux:
WordPress blogging system
Magento shopping cart
Joomla website building software
Apps that run better on Windows:
Umbraco website building software
nopCommerce shopping cart
BlogEngine.net blogging system
But – almost all the Linux apps can also run on Windows!
Features and apps
These days it is quite rare to find a web site that consists entirely of simple, static web pages. Normally most sites offer at least some degree of interactivity. There are many examples of interactivity, including:
- forms for users to fill in, which email the data to the web site owner
- databases which contain details of many products on offer
- ability for web site users to upload files such as photos to the web site
- shopping carts
- online learning systems
- online communities and forums
All web hosting accounts offer the ability to store static web pages. If you want interactivity, you need to ensure your host offers the right components. These are available to you through web site scripting. Web site scripting means we offer you the ability to program your web pages to behave in certain ways. Scripting is done using a programming language, and there are several common ones available for web programming including:
For example, let’s say you want to set up a bulletin board to allow your users to hold an online conversation amongst themselves. This would require a database to store all the messages, and the ability to send an email automatically to you when someone has added a new message so that you can review it.
In this situation, we are using at least two components: a database and an email component.
Storing and retrieving data and sending emails are all done via special script which is embedded in your web page. We offer support for several scripting languages, including PHP, Active Server Pages (ASP) and .Net (ASP.NET). The latter two languages are from Microsoft, so if you have any familiarity with Microsoft languages such as Visual Basic, you will be at home here. Furthermore, .NET in fact supports many different languages such as C#, a variant of the C++ language.
Most hosting plans come with the ability to connect to a MySql database. Windows hosting plans can usually connect to a Microsoft Access database, or even an Excel spreadsheet, if you like!
Once I have web hosting how do I get my web site online?
Once you’ve decided on your web hosting package, you will need to design your web site and get it online. This isn’t as hard as it sounds and there are thousands of web sites built by people who’ve never built one before!
WordPress – a brilliant site-building system for absolute beginners
There are many tools and apps available which can help you build your web site. These tools usually allow you to log in to your site and create/edit pages, add images, and add features such as shopping carts or forums.
A great way to start would be with WordPress – a free system which helps you build web sites and blogs. WordPress is incredibly easy to use, and you don’t have to know any technical stuff whatsoever. It also has an extensive collection of free themes available – which means it’s easy to make your site look amazingly professional with just a couple of mouse clicks.
WordPress runs in your web browser, so you don’t have to download any software, and you can edit your site from anywhere in the world. (Fancy updating your site whilst lying on the beach? With WordPress, you can!)
Site-building for those who like to do things by hand
For those who prefer to build their own sites by hand, you’ll need to start with a software program that can create and edit your web pages. An excellent choice is Microsoft Expression. Another popular choice includes Adobe Dreamweaver. Both of these packages are paid-for, but there are many free web design programs you can download too.
You will initially create your web site on your computer. Once ready, you will then need to upload it to our web servers. As part of the process of ordering your web space, we will have sent you the username and password and other details you need to access your web space on our servers. You must set up your web page editing software with these details. How to do this will vary from program to program, but feel free to contact us for advice on this.
Whichever program you choose, the objective is the same – create good-looking web pages. All these editors allow you to enter text and images into your web pages in a similar way to using a word processor. So if you’re familiar with word processing, this will be quite easy for you. If you don’t want to do this yourself you can of course a professional web design company.
You will then upload your files to our servers. You usually do this using a facility in your site-building software. You’ll need the username and password for your web site to do this – your web hosting company will give these to you when you set up your account.
What about email?
The other half of web hosting is email. All web site owners require email accounts with the same domain name as their web site. For example, if your domain is londonwidgets.co.uk, you’ll probably want an email address like email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most web hosting accounts come with a set number of email accounts included, usually between 3 and 10.
Your web host will also give you access your own personal email control panel which will allow you to set up your accounts.
Sending and receiving email
Once you’ve set up your email accounts, you’ll need a way of sending and receiving email through them. There are many ways to access email these days, such as:
- desktop software such as Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird
- email software built into your Mac, iPhone, smartphone, Android phone, Blackberry or Windows phone
- send and receive your email via tablets, smart TV and other devices
- WebMail – a web site where you can log into your email account via your web browser
- popular free or paid-for webmail facilities such as GMail or Hotmail.
Provided your email account supports POP3 or IMAP (don’t worry about what these mean) you will be able to use your email through any or all of the above ways.
Where do domain names come into it?
A domain name is your identity on the Internet. For example, the domain name of this web site is ukcentric.com. All web sites are reached by a user typing in the domain name to their web browser. Also, all email accounts are related to a specific domain name. To set up a web site you will need a domain name.
Most people purchase their domain names from their chosen web hosting company, either before they purchase their web hosting accounts or at the same time. You can also host a web with a different company you bought the name from.
A domain name that does not have any web space allocated to it and does not have any email facilities is known as a parked domain. This means it is reserved for the owner’s later use.
What are the pitfalls?
As with buying any service, whether online or off-line, there are a number of potential pitfalls that is advisable to be aware of. The world of web hosting is infested with jargon and it is sometimes difficult to understand what your requirements are and how to tell if you are getting a good deal.
Unfortunately there are some unscrupulous companies operating in this area who bring the industry into disrepute. Fortunately, the most common pitfalls are easy enough to avoid as long as you are armed with a little information.
Hidden bandwidth charges
Many companies hide the fact that they offer insufficient bandwidth for you to reasonably run your web site. Check small print for any hidden bandwidth charges. Often extra bandwidth is charged at a much higher rate than your normal allowance.
Hidden VAT charges or setup costs
Check the small print of any web site you’re thinking of ordering domain name registration or hosting through for hidden VAT, or setup charges. These can often add substantially to your overall bill.
Some companies offer you “unlimited bandwidth”. This sounds fantastic but in fact no company (really, no company) is able to offer this. What it really means is that there are no set limits, but if your web site attracts too much traffic, they will either close it down or contact you and force you to upgrade.
Hidden domain name transfer fees
Some companies offer very low-priced domain name registration, and allow you to transfer names in for free. However there may be hidden costs if you want to transfer your name away from the company for whatever reason. Some firms are still charging up to £80 to transfer away, which is totally unethical. Most companies allow you to transfer your domain away free of charge.
Domain name ownership
Incredibly, some companies still register names purchased by you to themselves, instead of you. This makes them the legal owner of your chosen domain name. Make sure your domain name will be registered to you, not your web company.
Fixed length contracts and lock-ins
Most companies offer a month-by-month hosting option. But many companies offer good discounts if you pay for a whole year at a time. It’s worth asking your web hosting company if there is a minimum contract term.
Lack of technical support
If you are new to web hosting and running your own web site, top-notch technical support will be crucial to you. You need to ensure that you can contact the hosting company and that they will respond in a timely way with an appropriate answer. Support is one area where web companies can really differentiate themselves. Support should ideally be offered through email, web and phone. Many companies also offer online chat support and support forums where customers can help each other.
We’ve introduced many concepts and gone through some jargon too. We hope this has not put you off. Running a web site, whether for business or pleasure is immensely rewarding.