Outsource your Web site, or do everything in-house? Tough decision.

While you’re evaluating your options, consider these outsourcing pluses:

  • Competition has driven Web-hosting prices down to ridiculously low levels.
  • Competition has driven feature lists to dazzling heights.
  • Server hassles become someone else’s problem.

I’ll admit it: I’m biased in favor of outsourcing. I’ve never had to manage my own server, and I’ve had good experiences dealing with Web hosts.

Today, it’s all about features—databases, server-side scripting, e-commerce, mailing lists, ColdFusion, ASP, Real streams, and Java tools. All kinds of glitzy, sticky goodies to attract and keep visitors. I can’t imagine keeping up on a home-built server. I can’t imagine wanting to.

Thousands of providers are waiting to host your site, whether you’re a Mom-and-Pop operation or a corporate big fish.

What if you have a provider you’re satisfied with, but there’s one little feature you’re missing? Just pick up a provider a la carte and link over for that one thing.

Narrowing the field
TopHosts.com surveys the field and offers a Fast Find search feature to help you target likely hosts based on price, disk space, and server type. It also sifts through hosts to produce a top 25 listing each month.

The front page has a Yahoo-like presentation that not only provides links to the hosts themselves but also to articles on hosting considerations. Interested in enterprise hosting, reseller opportunities, or merchant services? Can’t decide whether to spring for a UNIX or Windows NT account? Read all about it.

HostIndex.com lists more than 1,000 Web hosts in its database. You can search them based on features and pricing, or take a look at the site’s recommendations. HostIndex also groups sites based on features. Is it imperative that your database-driven Web site use ColdFusion? Click the ColdFusion link under Showcases and find out.

WebHostSeek’s Web directory offers another host search engine, and it too groups providers into categories and presents a list of featured hosts. HostSpot.com is yet another option.

Want to explore Web site features on a shoestring budget? Tinker with features you’re not ready to implement on your “real” account? Would you like to do it for free? FreeWebSpace.net offers a searchable index of more than 400 providers of free Web space. Most of these sites are ad-supported and rather basic. But others offer things like a cgi-bin to house your CGI scripts, server-side includes, and other features. Through FreeWebSpace you might find a site like DomainDLX, which offers ColdFusion, ASP, SSI, PHP, and more. I challenge you to find a better playground!

In control
A few years ago, you had to be a programming geek to add interactivity to a Web site. Your first battle was to write the CGI script, and the second was to convince your Web host that you weren’t going to crash their servers with it.

Nowadays, you don’t have to be a programmer—there are thousands of canned scripts ripe for the plucking. (CGI Resources , anyone?) And through either evolution or the competitive process, Web hosts now welcome your scripts. For the most part, they’ve abandoned script review, and they make it easy to get your scripts installed. They’ll even facilitate the process with slick control panels—handy devices that, among other things, install customized scripts on your account. Want a message board? Click a button. Want to enable a form mailer? Click.

Ah, control panels. I’ve come to love one in particular—CommuniTech’s . A hobby group I’m involved with uses CommuniTech as its host, and this company’s Web-based control panel must be seen to be believed. And unlike the static panels most sites offer for the perusal of window shoppers, you can actually get inside and play with CommuniTech’s demo .

CommuniTech has allied itself with Matthew Wright (of Matt’s Script Archive fame) and offers some of his most popular scripts in the control panel. But beyond that, the control panel makes it easy to assign POP3 e-mail accounts, mail forwarding, and autoresponders. You can also use it to install things like mySQL databases, shopping carts, a MajorDomo mailing list manager, Excite! searches, and Real G2 streaming.

And that’s just the UNIX flavor of the control panel. There’s also an NT version for Windows NT-based accounts. Using it, you can manage Microsoft SQL Server databases, among other things.

CommuniTech’s panels aren’t perfect—they’re kind of slow, and the text could use a good spell-checking. But they’re so easy to use, they have to be the wave of Web hosting’s future. If your Web hosts don’t offer one like it, clamor until they do. It’s not just enough for a Web host to offer tons of features. They should make it easy to implement them too.

Lauren Willoughby is a Web editor at The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY, where she also writes the weekly “Technophobe” column. At night, she turns into an online auction junkie. When she’s not spotting deals on refurbished 486s, she’s reading a science fiction novel.