Web hosting at many businesses is an afterthought. We are routinely contacted by companies that bought the cheapest hosting they could find when the business was small, and didn’t think about it again until something goes very wrong–the site gets hacked, infected or just plain crashes. Then they are frantic. Here’s why web hosting is critical to your business.
Your Business Address
In order to direct people to your website, it needs to have an address. That is your domain name–yourbusiness.com, for example. You register (buy) your domain name from a company that sells them–your domain registrar–Network Solutions, GoDaddy, etc. They all sell the same names. They are sort of like travel sites. They all sell the same flights. You might just prefer working with one company because you are familiar with it. The key to maintaining your domain is to avoid expiration. You may have read about how “google.com” famously expired for a few minutes (a former employee bought it and gave it back). Even the largest companies can lose track of a domain name! Domain name registrars typically sell a lot of other things too–including registration with a domain name server.
Domain name servers are like the post office for online traffic. Once your address is registered (translated into an IP address, technically), the Internet knows how to send people who enter www.yourbusiness.com to your website. Bundling all of this information to manage it from a single source can be a valuable benefit of a premium hosting service.
What Do You Get From a Premium Hosting Service?
The biggest benefits of a premium hosting service are superior security, performance and customer service. Security means your site is always up and running. Performance means it is fast–an increasingly important issue as search engines monitor site speed as part of their search engine results ranking criteria. Service means you can get help from an expert whenever you need it.
When it comes to hosting security, it can be helpful to think of your website as your house. You have a location. Great. You have an address. Check. You have registered with the post office so that anyone can find you. OK. You also need to think about security. Most houses come with doors and windows that lock. That’s your basic security. That may be all you need. Depending on the value of your house and what’s inside it, you may want more advanced security–alarms to deter and identify intrusion, video surveillance to identify culprits after the fact, or live physical patrols or video monitoring to stop attacks before they start.
Basic hosting security typically includes Denial of Service (DoS) attack software, a server firewall, and an application firewall. These are the locks on your windows and doors. DoS software will detect and prevent attacks that block access to your site. Application firewalls prevent hackers from entering your site through applications. Server firewalls prevent hackers from accessing the server hosting your site.
Monitoring and Prevention
While it’s great to have strong locks on the doors, many companies want more than this for their websites. Threats get more sophisticated every day. Once a website is entered by bad people or bad software, it may be too late to do anything about it. Monitoring and prevention tools include the capability to regularly scan sites for vulnerabilities. This is particularly important for websites using a combination of a CMS, themes, and plugins. Each of these elements is developed by different parties, and are updated independently. A plugin update can deliver a new vulnerability or can expose an unknown vulnerability in the CMS. Keeping all website components up to date and in sync is nearly impossible to do manually–yet most bare-bones hosting services place this responsibility on the shoulders of the site owner.
Any site with sensitive customer or company information–especially eCommerce sites–will require encryption of things like credit card information. This is typically done through a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificate. SSL Certificates are small data files that digitally bind a cryptographic key to information entered by a user. When installed on a web server, it creates secure connections from a web server to a browser.
Backup and Restore
Imagine if someone broke into your home and ransacked the place–and all you had to do to restore it to its original condition is push a button! Most hosting services offer automated backups, but the restoration process can be difficult. Many premium hosting services offer “one-click” site restoration. This is critical for businesses where any downtime will damage their reputation and/or their revenue.
Premium services conduct periodic code reviews and security audits of all internal environments and processes. Some partner with third-party, independent security firms to ensure best practice security measures are always in place and perform ongoing vulnerability scans and penetration testing.
A common source of website downtime is due to internal employees making changes to the site and inadvertently breaking links, erasing code or otherwise messing up the site’s functionality. A staging server protects you from yourself. It’s a place to move a site while making changes or additions, and everything can be tested and reviewed while the original site stays live. Once you are certain that all changes have been made correctly and everything is working as designed, you can switch it to live, overwriting the old site.
Don’t like waiting for web pages to load? Neither does anyone else. Search engines (most notably Google) rank fast sites higher than slow sites. Why? Because users like and return to sites that give them what they’re looking for fast. Premium web hosting services will use the latest technology to maximize the bandwidth available to your site and monitor and manage loading times.
Content Delivery Network (CDN)
A content delivery network (CDN) is a large distributed system of servers deployed in geographically distributed data centers to ensure that your site loads fast from anywhere in the world. The result is that content loads faster because it’s closer to the end-user, and your site easily adjusts to traffic spikes because the global network of servers shares the traffic load.
Caching is a method of temporarily storing static web assets like files and images–content that rarely changes–separately from more dynamic content order to serve entire pages to use faster. Caching improves website performance by reducing bandwidth usage, server load, and lag time. Premium web hosting services have sophisticated caching mechanisms that intelligently identify and store cacheable media to accelerate site performance.
A Git repository is a version control system for your web content. It takes a snapshot of the entire web structure anytime something is changed. Git keeps track of source code files and allows a developer to go back to an earlier version of the code if needed. It also lets you know who made changes to your code, what changes were made, and why those changes were made. Git’s key attributes are speed, data integrity, and support for non-linear workflows. What it really comes down to is control.
Separate Email Server
Most web developers recommend keeping email servers and website hosting separate. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that having all your eggs in one basket means if your website goes down, your email goes down. If you separate the two, odds are you’ll still be able to communicate in the event of a website disruption. The second reason is that the bundled emails services offered by hosting companies aren’t very good–they are clumsy and lack state-of-the-art spam filtering and file management. Essentially, it’s hard to be great at web hosting and great at email hosting. Business-class email platforms are powerful and sophisticated. A premium hosting services will likely offer to support Google Apps, Outlook or another premium email service.
If your website is critical to your business, it is highly recommended that you invest in a premium hosting service that offers some or all of the services listed here. Web hosting should not be treated as an undifferentiated commodity, because it isn’t. Not caring about where your website is hosted is like not caring about what neighborhood you live in. Location makes all the difference in two critical areas–performance and security.
This blog post is part of “The Ultimate Guide to Web Development” blog series.