Location, Location, Location

You wouldn't think of choosing a location for your business without knowing whether the plumbing and electricity worked. And you'd never select a location that was only accessible to customers part of the time.

You'd also go over the lease with a fine-tooth comb to make sure you know whether the landlord or the tenant is responsible for maintenance and repairs. But when it comes to choosing the right Internet host for their Web sites, the majority of business owners know very little about how to choose one. Think you're the exception. See if you can answer the following questions:

• What makes a good host for a business Web site? What makes a bad one?

• How can using the wrong Web host harm your business?

• What are the different types of Web-hosting services? Which ones are best for which industries?

Did those questions make you go, "Hmm". Read on for some tips to help you sort out the differences and make the right decisions.

1. Understand the distinctions between shared, colocated, unmanaged dedicated and managed dedicated hosting. As the hosting industry has matured, hosting contracts have split into distinct categories, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Shared hosting (sometimes called virtual hosting), means that you are sharing one server with a number of other clients. The host manages the server almost completely (though you maintain your site and your account). They can afford to charge you little since many clients are paying for use of the server. However, that means heavy traffic to one of the other sites on the server can really hamper the performance of your site. Also, you are typically not able to install special software programs on these types of machines, because the host will need to keep a stable environment for all of the clients using the server.

Colocated hosting means that you purchase a server — the actual hardware — from a vendor, like Dell or HP for example, and you supply this server to the host. The host will then plug your server into its network and its redundant power systems. The host is responsible for making sure its network is available, and you are responsible for all support and maintenance of your server. Good hosts will offer management contracts to their colocation clients so they can outsource much of the support and come to an arrangement similar to managed dedicated hosting. Most colocation hosts do not offer this service, however.

Unmanaged dedicated hosting is very similar to colocation, except that you lease a server from a host and do not actually own it. Some very limited support (typically Web-based only) is included, but the level varies widely from one company to the next. Ask the host to go into specifics about what support it will provide before signing up. For example, will it apply security patches to your server. This service is typically good for gaming servers or hobbyist servers, but not for serious businesses that need responsive, expert-level service.

Managed dedicated hosting involves leasing a server from a host and having that company provide a robust level of support and maintenance on the server that is backed by quality guarantees. This maintenance typically includes services such as server uptime monitoring, a hardware warranty, security patch updates and more. Make sure the host is specific about its included managed services so that you know they are not disguising an unmanaged dedicated offering as a managed dedicated server. Unfortunately, this happens, which is why it is important to do your homework and ask the right questions.

2. Ask if your potential host's network has blackholed IPs. Many hosts care little about who is actually hosting on their networks, so long as the clients pay their bills. That means many hosters will allow porn sites, spammers and servers that create security issues on their network. Even if you are to place ethical issues aside, this has a negative impact on customers in general when, for example, a network gets blackholed for spamming. Getting blackholed means that other networks will refuse e-mail originating from blacklisted IPs. Some hosts have a number of networks blackholed and redistribute these tainted IPs to new clients. That means if your business relies on legitimate, closed-loop, opt-in e-mail marketing to drive sales, being on such a network can severely cut response to your campaign because your e-mail may never get to its destination.

Check with any hosts you are considering to see if their networks are blackholed. Also, you can visit spamhaus.org/sbl/isp.lasso, a thirdparty source that tracks blackholed networks and lists them.

To help you understand what is considered spam by hosters and what isn't, visit spamhaus.org/ mailinglists.html.

3. Don't confuse size with stability.

Just because a Web-hosting company is big does not mean it is stable and secure. In fact, many of the biggest filed for bankruptcy protection or were saved only by being sold to another company, in some cases causing uncomfortable transitions in service for their clients. How do you protect yourself. Ask some key questions: How long has the host been in business? How long has the current ownership been in place? Are they profitable and cash-flow-positive from operation-generated revenue?

4. Don't make price your priority.

The old saying "you get what you pay for" applies to most things in life, and hosting is no exception. When you over-prioritize price, you run the risk of ending up with a host that will provide you with a connection to the Internet and little else in terms of support.

5. Make sure your host has fully redundant data centers. When dealing with smaller vendors, make sure that they have their own data centers with fully redundant power and connectivity systems. Here are a few questions to ask: How many lines do you have coming into the facility. What is the average utilization of your connections. (This is more important than capacity, because no matter how large the connection, it if is running at maximum capacity it will be slow.) Do you have redundant power to the servers? Do you have a generator on-site? How often do you test your generator? What sort of security measures do you have in place for the network? What physical security do you have? What type of fire suppression systems do you have in place?

6. Find out if they have experienced systems administrators on their support staff. When you call in for technical support, it can be a frustrating experience to talk with a non-technical "customer service" representative when you really need to talk to a systems administrator who can resolve your issues. Find out the structure of their support department, how quickly you can get to an actual systems administrator when you need to, and which systems administrators can help you when you need help.

7. Make sure the host is flexible.

It is important that the host understands how important quality servers are to their clients' businesses. Most managed dedicated hosts will not support applications that are not part of their initial server setup. Find a host that has vast experience in supporting a wide variety of applications.

8. Find out what former and current clients say about them. Can your prospective host provide you with success stories from clients with similar configurations to yours. Are they able to provide references.

9. Make sure the host's support doesn't include extra charges. Make sure any host you consider provides you with a comprehensive list outlining the support it offers so you know what is supported for free, what is supported for a fee and what is not supported at all. Many hosts will try to hide a sub-standard level of free support behind non-specific statements of high-quality support, so make them get specific to win your business.

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