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Find the host with the most

No one can deny that the quality and reliability of your Web presence can make or break your business. The average attention span of a Web surfer is a mere 20 seconds, and your competition is always just a click away if load times and connectivity aren't fast, reliable, and browser-compliant. Support and back-end infrastructure are just as critical to your Website as aesthetic appeal. A gorgeous, multi-tiered graphical interface is useless if no one can get to it – and no one will try more than once. Like the stage and silver screen, you get one audition, and that's it.

For this reason, running your own server is a tempting prospect. You have total control, and can configure and reconfigure to your heart's content, without having to concede to bandwidth limits or third-party server failures. Even SOHO businesses can afford to purchase the industry-standard HTML editors, and no expensive hardware is needed to quickly create a Website. But opting to do it yourself without counting the costs and consequences can end your business, or cause your site to be dismissed as amateurish. While amateur construction is adequate for home or hobby sites, it is increasingly necessary to outsource your hosting needs if you wish to operate as an effective eCommerce vendor.

Quite simply, eBusiness doesn't end with the Website. Aside from handling the traffic that your site will attract, you need your server to maintain a constant connection to the Internet while simultaneously accommodating the needs of outside users. Few desktop PCs can handle such a load, and many home DSL and cable modem ISPs frequently prohibit hosting or any other high-bandwidth activities, which are so critical to eCommerce. Furthermore, there are the costs of site security, data backup, power back-up, redundancy, upgrades and transaction tracking to contend with, expenses that are far beyond the resources of even the wealthiest of small businesses. Furthermore, someone will have to constantly monitor and manage your infrastructure to ensure a constant level of connectivity, which will require the hiring of very expensive IT professionals.

A Web host will take care of all of this for you, for a monthly fee that is a fraction of the amount you would pay to purchase these services and hardware on your own. Many people are leery of turning control of their business over to a third party, and because of this unwarranted fear are dismissing the security and benefits that a host can provide. You are not outsourcing your business; rather, you are outsourcing the responsibility for keeping your business up and running. In the same way that a bricks-and-mortar warehouse hires security staff to watch the grounds, a Web host will keep a constant vigil over your virtual property, so you can focus on what's important: building your business.

Web hosts allow small businesses to play in the same arena as the corporate giants, giving them competitive bandwidth and traffic volume accommodation. Most importantly, your Web host will help you secure a domain name, something that most individual ISPs and free hosting accounts (such as Yahoo!) can't offer. Having a lengthy URL indicates that your business is hosted on a free server, and its amateur appearance will confuse your customers. Imagine the traffic that would be generated by a simple URL such as www.acmeflorists.com compared to www.yahoo.com/~128.hmpg/client2434/net~mypage/index_
acmeflorists!

But how do you choose a Web hosting service out of the hundreds that are available? You'll have to do some careful shopping to find the services and relationship you need, as the wrong decision can be disastrous.

When shopping for a Web host, connectivity and reliability are key. The longer it takes for customers to access your Website, the more likely you'll lose customers. Of course, no one's perfect. Connectivity time will fluctuate on a cyclical basis with the flow of daily traffic, but you should insist on a guaranteed connectivity rate of 95% when seeking a host. Aside from that, there are a few other issues to consider before making a final decision:

Look to the future

As your customer base and revenue grows, your site may require the addition of server-side scripting, eCommerce and database support, and a large bandwidth to accommodate audio and video streaming. Free hosting sites never offer these kinds of advanced features, but many commercial hosts don't offer them either. Make sure your host is big enough to accommodate your future needs, as well as your present ones.

Know thyself

On the other hand, don't empty your bank account paying for services you don't need.

The most basic level of service from a Web host typically positions your site among a number of others on a single machine, with a virtual domain name that points to the URL of your page. This is known as shared hosting, and is adequate for the simple "text-and-GIFs" variety of Website.

As your company grows, however, you will probably want to move from static HTML to incorporate more interactive elements into your site. Since this requires more bandwidth, you should probably move to a machine with more resources, and fewer sites vying for them. If you want to add streaming video, audio, or high-level graphics and forms to your site, your should probably switch to a dedicated server, which means having an entire machine to yourself. The host owns, maintains, and backs up the server while providing all the security, power management, and other aspects of maintaining a data center.

The highest level of service a Web host can offer is a Colocated Server. You own the hardware, but it's physically located at the host's facility. The advantage of this is that you can choose the bandwidth you'll need, while the host provides a clear pipe to the Internet. Unfortunately, it also means you'll have to pay for any and all security and firewall provisions, as you won't be protected by the host's firewall. While this gives you complete control over the level of security you desire, it can be quite expensive.

Demand prompt service and performance

The popularity of your site will be directly affected by your host's level of service. Slow load times due to an overburdened server will send your customers elsewhere. Furthermore, a long update-to-live lag time can be disastrous - especially if you have a large, constantly fluctuating inventory. For example, you may want to set up a special page for a new promotion, linked to the very expensive marketing campaign that your business is involved in. A few quick HTML entries are all that's required, but if you have to wait days for your host's IT staff to do the job, you could lose your marketing momentum and render the initiative useless.

No matter how renowned your host is, technical problems will occur. As such, demand 24-hour, 7-days-a-week technical support for all your applications. If a host claims to already offer this, check! Call their tech line at 3:00a.m. on a Sunday to see if anyone is really there. Ensure that there is some sort of written agreement regarding service, which ideally will provide you with financial compensation in the event of failure.

Security! security! security!

Ask for a detailed description of the hosting company's security protocols. They should provide adequate protection from everyday denial-of-service attacks and the various hacks and cracks that will be attempted on your server. Make sure that your host is responsible for upgrading and maintaining these measures - do you really have hours to spend hours reviewing server logs and updating software? The only thing worse than having no security is thinking you have some.

You get what you pay for

When shopping for a host, you'll find that they vary widely in terms of target and pricing. Some hosts skew their servers to accommodate many small sites, while others prefer to take on fewer, high-volume sites. If you inadvertently exceed the monthly "cap" on your site's permitted volume, you could quickly find that a little success can be your worst enemy, as your monthly fees make a significant jump. Be sure to strike a good balance between price and volume flexibility.

Don't commit right away

Many hosts will quote you a monthly fee, but bill in larger increments. You could sign on for a month, and find yourself promptly billed for a year's service. Ask about the billing period, and initially sign on for a small service term (60-90 days). If you're happy with the service after this trial period, extend the term.

Treat your Web host like you would treat any other supplier for your business. If they can't provide the service and reliability you need, why keep them? Their competitors will be happy to have your business.

Of course the service you will get from a host is important. But you should do some extra digging if you are to feel secure with your new host:

Master your apps

While a standard host with a large amount of disk space and a few fast machines is adequate for static HTML pages, certain sites will make greater demands on the host's CPU and will consequently run slower - and slow down every other site on the server as well. Streaming video and audio, discussion forums and message boards, online surveys, and high-level animation all require huge amounts of memory and fast access to the main server. If you can't afford a dedicated or colocated server, at least find one that has experience in integrating these more complex elements.

Don't be OS-tracized

Trying to put square pegs in round holes is ultimately futile, so let your applications be your guide. Don't assume that you need to use Windows NT to run your site with Frontpage extensions. Many applications created for Windows NT will actually be more efficient if they are rewritten for a UNIX environment. Don't worry about figuring this out yourself, but bear in mind that a host who offers both Windows NT and UNIX will be more flexible.

Don't make leaps of faith with your data

You probably have backups of your HTML data, as you created them locally and uploaded them to your host's server. But what about the other files? User logs, product databases, order tracking logs, server-side scripts, etc., probably only exist on your host's drives and could be lost in the event of a failure. Request the ability to back up these files.

Be master of your domain

Query the Whois database (www.whois.net) to ensure that your company is both the administrative and technical contact for your domain. If your host is listed as both of these contacts, it is the registrant of the domain, not you. Unless you are the registrant, your domain could be held for ransom if there is a dispute between you and your host.

Dealing with user complaints

Many hosts have a zero-tolerance policy with regard to spam and pornography, and don't always subject customer complaints to the proper scrutiny. As such, a customer complaint, regardless of its validity, could cause the plug to be unceremoniously pulled on your business. Find out what recourses are open to you, and if the terms are not acceptable, find another provider. Make sure your interests are protected as well as the host's.

Check references

You wouldn't hire a CTO without checking his or her references, would you? But that's what you'll be doing if you don't do a bit of digging before handing over your site to a host. Ask for a list of Webmasters who run similar sites off the host's server. Call them. E-mail them. Write them. If your host is unwilling to give you this list, go elsewhere.

Read their diary

There's nothing wrong with doing a little snooping to find out what type of people you are committing your property to. Query the Whois database and find the business address of the server. Use a tracing program to view the path to the machine in the Whois database. If another ISP's server pops up, chances are you're dealing with a reseller rather than an actual host. Check out the other sites on their server. If most of them are spam sites, banner click-through pages or porn sites, being associated with them could have a negative impact on your business.

Listen to other Webmasters

There are ways to discover what other professionals are saying about your host. Try the alt.www.webmasters newsgroup, and post the list about your potential host. It is a little time-consuming, but the investment is well worth it.

Accolades are meaningless

Ratings by various hosting "associations" are meaningless. While many members of the Web Hosting Guild are highly regarded companies, some are held in very low esteem by Webmasters. Ratings and awards can also be outdated, and might not reflect a host's current state of service.

Read the fine print

Make sure the terms and conditions of your service agreement are clear. Have a business lawyer review your contract before you sign. Carefully evaluate clauses that relate to copyright ownership, complaint protocol, fee renewals, and notification procedures regarding renewal or service discontinuation.

The bottom line is that you need a host to succeed in today's eCommerce world. But keep in mind that this still a world in its infancy, and is continually reinventing itself to suit the ever-changing face of eBusiness. As in any other market, you should expect constant change, improvement, and the occasional leap in performance or cost-effectiveness. As such, you must always be vigilant, and constantly evaluate the service you're getting, and what it's costing you. Remember, it takes years to build a reputation for your business and brand, and only two seconds to lose it.

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