CXO

Get IT Done: Choosing a reliable Web hosting vendor

What criteria to consider when choosing a Web hosting service


Your organization has decided to outsource your Web site to save money, speed your time to the Web, and to lift some of the work burden off of your IT staff. But how should you choose a Web host? What features and qualities should you look for in a vendor?

Ask three different people and you'll get three identical answers:
  1. Reliability
  2. Reliability
  3. Reliability

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IBM Corporation is the exclusive sponsor of TechRepublic's special series on Web Hosting. IBM's e-business Hosting gives you the freedom to customize an array of services into a solution that is shaped by your business, not ours. For more information, check out TechRepublic's Web Hosting Center, or visit IBM's e-business Hosting site

IBM Corporation is the exclusive sponsor of TechRepublic's special series on Web Hosting. IBM's e-business Hosting gives you the freedom to customize an array of services into a solution that is shaped by your business, not ours. For more information, check out TechRepublic's Web Hosting Center, or visit IBM's e-business Hosting site

Brett Error, Chief Technology Officer at MyComputer.com, which offers tracking and monitoring tools for small-business Web sites, says reliability is so important that he thinks of his Web host as a business partner. "They can make or break my business," he said. "They can put me out of business. If your business is online, you need to be careful."

Technical support
A crucial measure of reliability is the technical support provided by your Web host, said David Owen, business development manager at Clicksee Network, which offers online advertising services.

Your host’s technical support team must be able to bring your site back up quickly if it goes down. This support is critical because downtime can disappoint customers and damage your reputation, as well as affect the company pocketbook.

But reliability and technical support can be intangible qualities. Hosts often summarize their features in charts that look like alphabet soup (ASP, CGI, PHP, etc.), but technical support offered by the host is hard to quantify.

To gauge the quality of support, Owen runs a simple test before committing to a host.

"What I do is send an e-mail," he said. "I ask a question, not too technically complicated, and see how long it takes them to reply." If it takes an amount of time that you—a potential customer the host should aggressively pursue—feel is too long, mark that vendor off your list.

Error depends on references. "Call Exodus [a hosting provider] and ask for their top five clients," he said. "Then call those clients and ask how many times they've gone down as the result of something happening at the data center."

He also recommends doing a technical analysis to back up a host's claims—to confirm for yourself that it really is multihomed, for example: "You don't want to find that both their lines are on the Sprint backbone."

Besides reliability, Error, whose Utah-based company collocates with a host in California, suggests that organizations choose a host that provides room for a company to grow.

"That means that they have adequate bandwidth now, as well as two to three times that [planned for] down the road. Will they have rack space available? You need to make sure the data center can scale with you."

Transfer allowance
Another critical feature for Owen is transfer allowance—the amount of data traffic your site will be allowed to handle before extra fees kick in.

This issue is critical for small businesses, because unprepared users could be blindsided with bandwidth overages that double or triple their monthly hosting fees.

A small site that attracts about 2,000 visitors per month, for example, usually sees data transfers of no more than 1 gigabyte. The amount of bandwidth you need depends on the size of your business, the number of bandwidth-depleting graphics (or video and other media) you intend to use on your Web pages, and how popular you expect your site to be.

Many Web hosts advertise unlimited bandwidth to potential customers, but Owen says there really is no such thing.

"If you take too much of the bandwidth, they'll ask you to get your own dedicated host," he said. "It's a marketing gimmick they use for small companies, who unrealistically think they'll generate large traffic."

If you examine service agreements closely, you'll usually find something that Owen calls a "courtesy clause," which describes the bandwidth limitations.

Vendor reliability
Vendor reliability was the top item in a Forrester Research report on what users expect from Web hosts. The July 1999 report, "Users' Guide to Hosting," by analyst Jeanne M. Schaaf, summarized the results from interviews with Internet decision makers at 65 Global 2,500 companies.

When asked for the most important criteria when choosing a hosting provider, 69 percent of interviewees gave reliability top ranking. A publishing executive Forrester quoted said, "Downtime is unacceptable, especially with our competitors only a click away."

Customer service came in second with 14 percent of the vote.

Forrester recommends looking to a third party, such as Keynote Systems, to test your Web host's performance. Keynote offers several benchmarking services designed to find the weak spots in your site. As a public service (and to satisfy your curiosity), it also posts benchmarks for popular sites like Yahoo, FedEx, and Charles Schwab.

If your site has custom and complex requirements, Forrester recommends that you make a features checklist and "hit the road"—investigate the host’s facilities yourself, talk with the technicians and engineers, and negotiate money-back guarantees. "If you get wishy-washy responses, move on."

Narrow your vendor list
But before racing off with your checklist, you'll need to narrow down the list of Web hosts to whom you'll be posing your tough questions.

One way to do preliminary research on a Web host—particularly if yours is a small business—is to use a site like Clicksee Network's HostSearch, a searchable directory of Web hosts. With it, you can target hosts by specifying a number of factors: platform, monthly fees, disk space limits, and other various features (databases, e-mail accounts, scripting languages supported, built-in shopping carts, etc.). And you can gather more information by reading reviews of hosts written by their current customers.

Other Web host directory sites to bookmark include TopHosts.com, HostSpot.com, Colosource, and HostIndex.com.
TechRepublic is featuring a series of articles on this topic in every republic this month. If you’d like to see what your IT colleagues are doing with Web hosting, click here.

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