I’ve mentioned before that having your own domain name for your consultancy distinguishes your business from the ephemeral because-we’re-not-otherwise-employed brand of consultants. I also provided some tips in the article linked about selecting your domain name. Next, you’ll want to register your domain and figure out where you’ll host it.
Who tells the Internet where to find your domain? That’s the question answered by a Domain Registration Service. The task is actually divided into two components: (1) the designated registrar for keeping authoritative information about your domain, and (2) hosting the DNS Start of Authority (SOA) records that map your domain name to an IP address for the global DNS. Most people use a single service to provide both.
Most Domain Registrars also provide web hosting, and lots of people take the easy route and use the same service for this as well. On the other hand, consider the level of control you’re placing in one vendor’s hands: They would have full authority over where your domain resolves and possess your billing information. Should you decide to move your domain to a different host, they’d have an incentive to ignore your requests and plead “clerical error” if confronted. You might have to chop through a forest of red tape to get your domain moved. Thus, it might make more sense to use one service for domain registration, and host separately. If your registrar suddenly moved your domain to their servers, they’d have a hard time claiming that was an innocent mistake. I think I owe Chad Perrin a hat-tip for that piece of advice.
A wide range of hosting options are available, but they fall roughly into one of three categories: self-hosting, unmanaged hosting, and managed hosting.
You could skip using a service for hosting at all. Buy your own metal and run it from your office. Have your domain registrar point the domain name to your IP, and do anything you want. This is the ultra-geek solution, and it has its advantages. You don’t have to pay a fee for hosting. You have full control over what can and cannot run on your server, as well as what ports are accessible in what manner. On the other hand, the costs associated with maintaining your own server can easily exceed what you’d pay for a hosting service. Furthermore, with the freedom to do what you like comes the responsibility to prevent security vulnerabilities and insure uptime and scalability.
If your consultancy provides hosting (and doesn’t just resell someone else’s services), then you should eat your own dogfood and host your own server. Some geeks also like to retain control at the hardware level. Otherwise, the costs and headaches of server management will probably dictate that you use an external service of some kind.
Lots of services can provide you with all the hardware and power that you’ll need for your domain, then hand you the keys and let you take it where you want to go. Some of these services provide virtual hosting (sometimes with the buzzword “cloud” pasted prominently on the front), which can scale up the actual hardware used to meet demand, and bill you accordingly. These options eliminate the need to worry about hardware, power, space, and physical security, but still have the advantage of full control over the software the system can run.
Most web hosting services will be more than glad to add on server management features for a fee. Others, especially shared hosts (where your domain occupies part of the same physical system with other domains) will insist on some level of control over the operating system as well as what applications get installed. Managed hosting is always a question of degree, so in a sense Unmanaged hosting is just a special case of Managed hosting, in which the managed part approaches zero. At the other end of the spectrum, web hosting services often offer to manage everything you’ll ever run on their servers, including custom applications.
It can make sense for consultants, even those who manage servers for their clients, to use a service to manage their own domains. Operating system updates, security, and scalability issues can eat up a lot of time you could otherwise bill for client work. It depends on how much control you wish to retain, whether you could view these activities as self education, and the costs involved.
Personally, I use a lightly managed shared host for my domains (camdensoftware.com, chipsquips.com, chipstips.com, and par4kidssake.org). The amount of traffic I get doesn’t justify a dedicated or scalable server (yet), and I’m happy to let my web host manage the operating system. I get SSH access to a privileged account on my domain, running in a jail. All of the scripting languages and database managers I need came already installed. It’s all I really need for now, but if I wanted to do more with my public sites I might switch to a less managed option.
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