Article updated May 27th, 2016.
If you are just getting started, this is the page you should bookmark (ctrl + D for PC, cmd + D for Mac) and read thoroughly. By the end of this lesson, you should have fundamental understanding on how web hosting and websites work behind the scene.
So… is your coffee mug filled? Let’s rock and roll!
Quick Navigation: What’s in this guide
This guide consists of the following subjects –
- What is web hosting
- Types of web hosting
- What is domain name
- Web hosting vs domain name
- How to register a domain name
- TLD, TLDcc, and sub domain
- Domain privacy, bandwidth, and file transfer protocol
- Choosing a web host
Chapter #1: What is web hosting?
Web hosting is a place where people store their websites.
Think of it as a house where you store all your stuffs; but instead of storing your clothes and furnitures, you store computer files (HTML, documents, images, videos, etc) in a web host.
More often than not, the term “web hosting” refers to the company that rent out their computer/servers to store your website (hence the word, host) and providing Internet connectivity so that other computers can access to the files on your website.
Web Hosting And Data Center: Aren’t They The Same?
Normally when we talk about web hosting, the term “web hosting” refers to the server that host your website or the hosting company that rent that server space to you; when we talk about data center, we mean the facility that is used to house the servers.
A data center could be a room, a house, or a very large building equipped with redundant or backup power supplies, redundant data communications connections, environmental controls (e.g., air conditioning, fire suppression) and security devices.
Chapter #2: Types of Web Hosting
Generally, there are four different types of web hosting: Shared, Virtual Private Server (VPS), Dedicated, and Cloud Hosting.
While all types of hosting servers will act as a storage centre for your website, they differ in the amount of storage capacity, control, technical knowledge requirement, server speed, and reliability. Let’s dig in and look at the main differences between a shared, VPS, dedicated, and cloud hosting.
What is a shared hosting?
In shared hosting, one’s web site is placed on the same server as many other sites, ranging from a few to hundreds or thousands. Typically, all domains may share a common pool of server resources, such as RAM and the CPU. As cost is extremely low, most websites with moderate traffic levels running standard software are hosted on this type of server. Shared hosting is also widely accepted as the entry level hosting option as it requires minimum technical knowledge.
No root access, limited ability to handle high traffic levels or spikes, site performance can be affected by other sites on the same server.
Virtual Private Server (VPS) Hosting
What is VPS hosting?
A virtual private server hosting divides a server into virtual servers, where each websites is like hosted on their own dedicated server, but they’re actually sharing a server with a few different other users. The users may have root access to their own virtual space and better secured hosting environment with this type of hosting. Websites that need greater control at the server level, but don’t want to invest in a dedicated server.
Limited ability to handle high traffic levels or spikes, your site performance can still be somewhat affected by other sites on the server.
Dedicated Server Hosting
What is dedicated hosting?
A dedicated server offers the maximum control over the web server your website is stored on – You exclusively rent an entire server. Your website(s) is the only website stored on the server.
With great power comes… well, greater cost. Dedicated servers are very expensive and it’s only recommended to those who need the maximum control and better server performance.
What is cloud hosting?
Cloud hosting offers unlimited ability to handle high traffic or traffic spikes. Here’s how it works: A team of servers (called a cloud) work together to host a group of websites. This allows multiple computers to work together to handle high traffic levels or spikes for any particular website.
Many cloud hosting setup do not offers root access (required to change server settings and install some software), higher cost.
Chapter #3: What is a domain name?
A domain is the name of your website. Before you can run a website, you will need a domain. It is not something physical that you can touch or see; it is merely a string of characters that give your website an identity (yes, a name, like human and businesses).
Now, here are some quick examples: Google.com is a domain name; so are Alexa.com, Linux.org, eLearningEuropa.info, as well as Yahoo.co.uk.
To have your own domain, you will need to register your domain with a domain registrar.
Where can I register a domain?
Here is a list of domain registrars where you can register a domain name.
Chapter #4: Web Hosting vs Domain
The difference between web hosting and domain name
It is very common for newbies to get confused between a domain name with a web hosting.
However, it is important to be crystal clear on the differences between the two before you move on to your first website.
To simplify: A domain name, is like the address of your home; web hosting on the other hand, is the space of your house where you place your furniture.
Instead of street name and area code, set of words or/and numbers are used for the website’s naming’. The same goes with hosting, computer hard disk and computer memory are used instead of instead of wood and steel for storing and processing data files.
The idea is presented clearer with the diagram below.
Chapter #5: How to register a domain name
Registering A Domain Name – How It Works?
- Think of a good name you want for your website.
- A domain name needs to be unique. Prepare a few variations – just in case the name is taken by others.
- Make a search on one of the registrars’ website (ie. GoDaddy).
- If your selected domain name is not taken, you can order it instantly.
- Pay a registration fees, range $10 – $35 depends on the TLD (usually using PayPal or credit card).
- You are now done with the registration process.
- Next you will need to point the domain name to your web hosting (by changing its DNS record).
How does domain name registration works (in detail)?
Registering a domain name is essentially like owning a small slice of internet real estate and, just like in the real estate market, consumers will be expected to cough up a good deal of information about themselves and pay for the privilege of claiming their corner of the internet’s public space.
Domain registration guidelines are not set on a pre-registrar basis, but are instead determined by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. This governing body is essentially a global regulator of best practices for registrars, web hosts, and the clients who interact with them.
According to the body’s standards, all customers registering a domain name must be prepared to furnish contact information for themselves, their organization, their business, and even their employer in some cases. For those customers who are seeking to register a country-specific domain name option (like “.us” or “.co.uk”), a good portion of the registration process will be dedicated to determining whether or not the customer is a resident of that country and therefore legally permitted to purchase one of its country-specific top level domains (will talk about this later).
And that should hammer home a secondary point to consumers. While there are hundreds of available domain name suffixes (like “.com” or “.net), many of these domains have specific registration requirements. For example, only organizations can register a “.org” domain name, and only American citizens can register a domain name that ends in “.us.” Failing to meet the guidelines and requirements for each type of domain during the actual registration and payment process will result in the domain name being “released” back into the pool of available domain names; the customer will have to pick a top level domain for which they actually qualify, or cancel their purchase altogether.
These two records determine which web hosting server’s content is displayed when a user navigates to the domain, as well as how email is addressed, sent, and received using that hosting package and the associated domain name. Inaccurate information will result in errors and page-load failures.
Chapter #6: TLD, TLDcc, gTLD, and Sub Domains
What is Top Level Domains (TLD)?
Let’s get back to our previous examples: Alexa.com, Linux.org, WebRevenue.co, eLearningEuropa.info, Yahoo.co.uk, all examples above end with a different ‘extension’ – .com, .org, .net, .biz… and so on.
We call this “extension” as top level domain (shortform:TLD).
Examples of other TLD include .uk, .ws, .co.jp, .com.sg, .tv, .edu, .co, .com.my, and .mobi.
While most of these TLDs are open for public’s registration, there are strict regulations on certain domain registration.
For example the registration of country code top level domains (like .co.uk for United Kingdom) are restricted for the citizens of the corresponding country; and the activities with such domains website are ruled by local regulations and cyber laws.
Certain extensions of these TLDs are used to describe the ‘characteristics’ of the website – like .biz for businesses, .edu for education (schools, universities, colleagues, etc), .org for public organization, and country code top level domain names are for locations.
And that’s not all. We now have more than 1,000+ generic TLDs (gTLD) opened to public, including .BAR, .FOREX, .CLUB, .COLLEGE, .REST, .WEBSITE, .WIEN, .XYZ, and so on. ICANN publishes a number of case studies (done by its partners) here, it’s interesting reads if you are interested to find out more.
Country Code TLDs
The full list of country code top-level domain (ccTLD) extensions are (in alphabet order):
.ac .ad .ae .af .ag .ai .al .am .an .ao .aq .ar .as .at .au .aw .ax .az
.ba .bb .bd .be .bf .bg .bh .bi .bj .bm .bn .bo .br .bs .bt .bw .by .bz
.ca .cc .cd .cf .cg .ch .ci .ck .cl .cm .cn .co .cr .cu .cv .cx .cy .cz .de .dj .dk .dm .do .dz .ec .ee .eg .er .es .et .eu
.fi .fj .fk .fm .fo .fr
.ga .gd .ge .gf .gg .gh .gi .gl .gm .gn .gp .gq .gr .gs .gt .gu .gw .gy
.hk .hm .hn .hr .ht .hu
.id .ie .il .im .in .io .iq .ir .is .it
.je .jm .jo .jp
.ke .kg .kh .ki .km .kn .kp .kr .kw .ky .kz
.la .lb .lc .li .lk .lr .ls .lt .lu .lv .ly
.ma .mc .md .me .mg .mh .mk .ml .mm .mn .mo .mp .mq .mr .ms .mt .mu .mv .mw .mx .my .mz
.na .nc .ne .nf .ng .ni .nl .no .np .nr .nu .nz . om .pa .pe .pf .pg .ph .pk .pl .pn .pr .ps .pt .pw .py
.qa .re .ro .rs .ru .rw .sa .sb .sc .sd .se .sg .sh .si .sk .sl .sm .sn .sr .st .sv .sy .sz
.tc .td .tf .tg .th .tj .tk .tl .tm .tn .to .tr .tt .tv .tw .tz .ua .ug .uk .us .uy .uz
.va .vc .ve .vg .vi .vn .vu .wf .ws .ye .za .zm .zw
Domain vs Sub Domain
Take mail.yahoo.com for example – yahoo.com is the domain, mail.yahoo.com in this case, is the sub domain. A domain must be unique (for example there can only be one single Yahoo.com) and must be registered with a domain agent (example Godaddy); while for sub domains, users can freely add it on top of the existing domain as long as their web host provide the service.
Some would say subdomains are the ‘third level’ domains in the sense that they are simply “sub folders” under the domain root directory, normally used to organize your website content in different languages or different categories. However, this is not the case to many including the search engines – it is known fact that the search engines (namely, Google) treat sub domain as a different domain independent from the primary domain.
Terms of Domain Name
To quickly recap on what we have just learned –
Chapter #7: Other terms you need to know
What is WhoIs data?
Every domain name has a publicly accessible record that includes the owner’s personal information such as owner name, contact number, mailing address, and domain registration as well as expiry date. It’s called a WhoIs record and lists the registrant and contacts for the domain.
As required by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the domain owners must make these contact information available on WHOIS directories. These records are available anytime to anyone who does a simple WhoIs lookup.
In other words, if someone wants to know who owns a website, all they to do is run a quick WHOIS search, type the domain name and voila, they have access to the website registration details.
What is domain privacy?
Domain privacy replaces your WHOIS info with the info of a forwarding service done by a proxy server. In result, your personal info, such as physical address, emails, telephone number, etc is hide from the public.
Domain privacy is important because your domain record (ie. the WhoIs data) may also be used in ways that aren’t legitimate or desirable.
Since anyone can look up a WhoIs record, spammers, hackers, identity thieves and stalkers may access your personal information! Unethical companies check domain expiration dates then send official looking “renewal” notices in an attempt to get the domain owners to transfer domains to their company, or send invoices that are service solicitations for search engine submissions and other questionable services. Both email and snail mail spammers use the WhoIs databases to contact domain owners with solicitations as well.
What is hosting bandwidth?
Bandwidth is the measure of maximum data that can be transferred by your hosting account in a given time, usually measured in seconds.
The term “bandwidth” should not be mixed up with “data transfer” as they are two very different things. Data transfer refers to the consumption of bandwidth. In layman terms, the amount of data being transferred is ‘data transfer’; while the rate of data being transferred is ‘bandwidth’.
Data transfer and bandwidth limit used to be a big thing when it comes to choosing a good web host in the past (I wrote a tutorial and a math formula on how to calculate site bandwidth here). Not now anymore. As the average cost of data transfer go lower and lower, hosting companies nowadays are very generous in term of data transfer limit. So, unless you are running a large movie download sites, I wouldn’t stretch myself too thin on bandwidth and data transfer when selecting a web hosting service.
What is File Transfer Protocol (FTP)?
FTP is a standard network protocol used to transfer files from one computer to another over Internet. Webmasters use FTP clients like FTP Pro and Cute FTP to upload and download files to/from their hosting server.
The name is client but what it actually does is to connect to your server using FTP and allow you to easily browse and transfer files online.
Chapter #8: How to Choose the Right Hosting
Selecting a web host for your website is an important – and at times, daunting – undertaking.
Beyond finding which web hosts are out there, it’s a matter of digging through different plans, comparing inclusions, and checking customer reviews. But beyond that, it’s important to look for what isn’t said. This explains why ten of thousands of visitors come to our site for hosting guides and reviews.
Questions to ask your web host
There are hundreds of questions that you could ask your potential web host, but by getting the answers to these 30 questions before you sign on the dotted line, you should get a clear picture of what you will receive, what the provider offers long term, how they treat their customers, and if they are an organization you can trust and truly want to work with.
- What is the uptime guarantee? (Anything less than 99.9% is unacceptable)
- What is the average monthly uptime?
- If you are looking at a tangible data center/ service model, where are your servers physically located? Are you given a choice in location?
- What level of customer/ technical support do they offer? Online only? Phone? Email? Etc.?
- What are their customer service/ technical support hours by method? If online chat is available 24/7, what are their phone support hours?
- What type of set-up assistance is included at no additional cost?
- What types of e-commerce features are included with the plan that you are considering
- What payment plans are available? For example, if you sign up for a two-year subscription term, do you need to pay that full amount upfront or is it divided into increments?
- What are the renewal terms and fees? Know that if you are a first-time subscriber, you will likely sign up at a discounted rate that the changes when you renew your contract – make sure that you know the full ramifications.
- What type of scalability potential is there? For example, if you start with a shared server plan, are you able to expand your space later or even switch to a dedicated server environment? Or does the provider you are considering specialize in one environment?
- If you are looking at an unlimited hosting plan, exactly what does that mean? All unlimited plans have limitations – it’s just a matter of what those limitations are.
- Are they the original hosting provider or a hosting services reseller?
- What are their security measures and server backup protocols?
- If you are considering a dedicated hosting environment, who is responsible for managing the servers? Is the plan you are considering one in which the hosting provider will fully manage and service the server or is it one in which you basically rent their server and are responsible for maintaining it and your data?
- How long has the web host been in business? Have they changed management/ ownership in that time or, more importantly, recently?
- What are their server upgrade protocols? For example, are they able to update and upgrade their servers without downtime? If so, how? During what hours of the day/ night do they make those updates?
- What are the provider’s requirements to cancel a hosting contract? What is their required period of notice?
- Does the provider offer a free trial? Almost every provider offers at least a 30-day trial, but some offer longer terms – keep your eyes and ears open and take advantage of the no-commitment period to test every facet of the service.
- What is the refund policy during the trial period? Most providers’ trials are not truly free – you’ll end up paying for the service, but get your money back if you are unsatisfied. That said, what does that refund entail?
- What are the ramifications for organizations that eat up bandwidth and storage in a shared hosting environment? How does the hosting provider mitigate these types of issues?
- What does their set-up/ installation process entail? What exactly are you responsible for and how much support do they provide during the process?
- Is their support center outsourced? Where is it located?
- What is their policy if you need to change your hosting configuration mid-contract? For example, if you start out in a shared server configuration and need to move to a dedicated or VPS environment during your contract term, is that allowed? Are there penalties
- Are there limitations to the types of software that you can run or install?
- If someone does manage to hack their network and servers, what is their guarantee of being able to restore your data? What measures do they have in place for this?
- Are there set-up fees? If so, what are they – and are they waived for first-time subscribers?
- How are spam complaints monitored and dealt with?
- In a shared hosting environment, how many clients are assigned to each server? Is there a maximum? (This can be helpful in determining whether the host oversells space as well as whether you are likely to experience bandwidth or space issues)
- What specifically is included in the plan that you are considering? Sure, you know that it includes X RAM and Y bandwidth – but what does that mean? Make sure that you understand what you’re getting from the storage through the number of email addresses, quantity of domains and subdomains included, and beyond.
More readings and shopping tips
Over time I have written several long articles on how to choose a specific type of hosting service. Shoppers should read some of these to stay informed:
- How to choose the right shared hosting 15-point checklist guide for those who are looking for a shared hosting.
- Ultimate VPS hosting guide Special discounts and everything you need to know about VPS hosting.
- Cheap web hosting guide Not all cheap web hosts are bad. Learn how to handle all the common problems with cheap hosting deals and get the best out of them.
- Top 5 Web Host Picks For hurry shoppers – less reading, focus on only 5 best hosting options according to my experience.