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hosting (website hosting, web hosting and webhosting)

What is web hosting?

Web hosting -- also known as website hosting or webhosting -- is the process where a web hosting provider stores and maintains website files and applications on a server to make its customers' websites accessible on the internet. Web hosting requires the use of one or more physical or virtual servers to serve as the web host, as well as a domain name system (DNS) for name configurations and pointing to the hosting service.

Typically, a hosting company -- such as GoDaddy, Bluehost or HostGator -- rents out website space to its customers. These web hosting providers have the technology and resources required to ensure a website's secure and continuous operation. However, in some cases, website owners might choose to host websites on their own servers, although this requires extensive technical skills and capabilities.

A hosting provider must obtain accreditation from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) before they can sell domain names, particularly top-level domain names (TLDs). ICANN is a nonprofit organization that oversees the DNS, root servers and central database of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Moreover, ICANN manages the overall supply of IP addresses.

How does web hosting work?

A website is a collection of different files, images, applications and databases. These components are stored on a hosting provider's website server, which is continuously powered on and connected to the internet. The amount and type of server resources allocated to a website by the hosting provider -- such as bandwidth, random access memory (RAM) and disk space -- is determined by the hosting subscription plan. Typically, most hosting providers offer flexible plans, including shared and dedicated services.

After signing up for a plan, website owners typically get access to the web hosting provider's server via a cPanel dashboard that simplifies the process of uploading and managing website files. Alternatively, a website owner might install a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress to build out the website.

The following steps take place when a user tries to visit a website housed on a hosting provider's web server:

  1. A user enters the URL or domain name of the website into a web browser.
  2. The browser translates the domain name into an IP address and sends a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) or HTTP Secure (HTTPS) request to the web server renting the website space.
  3. In response to the request, the web server locates the resources and transfers the files needed to load the requested web page into the user's web browser.
Domain name registration
This image shows how DNS works, including ICANN, registries, registrars, registrants and resellers.

Types of web hosting

Each website has unique needs, whether it's a personal blog or a business website. In addition to selling storage space on servers, hosting companies offer services such as server management, antivirus options, website backups and technical support.

The following are the main types of web hosting services:

  • Shared hosting. Similar to sharing a house with roommates, shared hosting stores multiple websites on each server. The websites also share the server's resources, such as RAM and a processor. Shared hosting is the least expensive of all hosting options and is great for small businesses, beginners, first-time website owners and hobbyists. User-friendly website-building tools, such as drag-and-drop website builders and WordPress hosting, are usually included with a shared hosting service plan. The downside of shared hosting is that website owners can't control server resources and could suffer from performance degradation. But some hosting providers offer resource protection options for stable website performance, regardless of how many sites share the server at any given time.
  • Dedicated hosting. This type of hosting offers the website owner full control and comes with admin and root access to the web server. Website owners can install their preferred security tools and OS. Dedicated hosting is more expensive than other options. It also requires technical expertise, as website owners are responsible for managing the servers.
  • Cloud hosting. Instead of a single on-premises server, cloud hosting employs virtualization technology to pool resources from a collection of servers provisioned in the cloud. This flexible hosting option lets website owners manually scale resources up or down, depending on their usage requirements. It also offers an autoscale option where resources are automatically increased during traffic spikes. Cloud hosting is best suited for businesses that need a cost-effective option that comes with extra resources, is fully scalable and doesn't require much technical expertise. For e-commerce websites, a fully managed cloud hosting provider is a good option, as they can quickly set up and run a store and also provide continuous maintenance and support for the website.
  • WordPress webhosting. This hosting option offers resources and servers that are specially optimized for the WordPress CMS. WordPress installation is included with many shared hosting plans, but a dedicated WordPress hosting plan offers additional features, including site builder tools, premium design tools and automatic WordPress updates. Technical support is provided with most WordPress hosting plans.
  • Virtual private server hosting. VPS hosting allocates a dedicated portion of a server, also called a partition, to website owners. Each partition provides dedicated RAM and processing power for each website. Websites hosted on this type of platform rarely suffer from performance issues. VPS hosting is less expensive than dedicated hosting but costs more than shared hosting. But VPS hosting resources might not be ideal for users who want to host large online stores or stream media files on their websites. However, VPS hosting is suitable for small business owners as it provides root access for customization and specialized software installations.
  • Reseller hosting. With this option, web hosting plans can be purchased in bulk from experienced web hosting companies at discounted rates. Those who purchase these bundles frequently resell them to their customers to make money. The original hosting company offers the necessary hardware, software and infrastructure to host the websites. This hosting is popular among web designers and developers as it offers them the option to host their client websites. Resellers have the flexibility to set their own web hosting plans and prices along with white labeling, which lets clients see the reseller's branding and not that of the actual hosting company.

How to pick a web host?

The search for a web hosting service should start before the launch of a website. A web host is responsible for making a website available online, as well as maintaining and directing traffic to it. Therefore, it's crucial to pick a reliable and trustworthy host.

Website owners should consider the following key points before selecting a hosting company:

  • Assessing the website requirements. Each website has unique needs and website owners should analyze their website requirements before picking a host. For example, the website for an established business might require more bandwidth and technical support compared to a simple blog website that doesn't require much upkeep. Website owners should also keep future needs and scalability options in mind when selecting a provider.
  • Bandwidth allowance. Bandwidth is the measure of the maximum data transferred in a given amount of time. The amount of bandwidth a website needs depends on the volume of data, the number of site visitors and the streaming of media files on the web pages. Before signing with a provider, it's imperative for website owners to provide a detailed service-level agreement (SLA) on the exact amount of bandwidth required and whether the host will scale bandwidth during traffic spikes. As a rule of thumb, the amount of bandwidth a hosting company offers can be an indicator of its capabilities. For example, the higher the bandwidth, the better the speed, connectivity and network reliability of the provider.
  • Upgrade options. Most site owners start with a shared hosting plan, but over time they might need to transition to a VPS or dedicated server to meet the growing needs of their websites. In this case, a hosting provider with simpler and more transparent upgrade options is preferable.
  • Webhost's uptime. Reliability is important when a website needs to run and operate around the clock. A website that's frequently down or is slow to load can lose customers. To consider how reliable a potential web host is, website owners should check their uptime history, read reviews and consult their advertised uptime guarantees.
  • Refund policy and guarantees. Even top service providers can run into issues. Therefore, when running a critical website, it's important to have an SLA that includes a money-back guarantee or refund if the provider doesn't meet the uptime promised. For example, DreamHost provides a money-back guarantee for 97 days, which means a full refund is given to the customer if they cancel the service during this time.

The benefits of paid hosting

Free hosting can't compete with the following benefits that paid hosting offers:

  • Uptime and speed. According to a 2022 study by marketing services company Portent, 86% of business-to-consumer websites load in 5 seconds or less. A website hosted on a reliable hosting platform will most likely have increased load speeds and uptime, which positively affects the user experience.
  • Domain-based email address. A domain-specific email address looks professional and helps website owners with branding efforts. Most hosting providers provide free domain-based email accounts to their customers. However, the number of email addresses provided is determined by the hosting provider. For example, some providers might only provide one domain email, while others might offer an unlimited number. Hosting services also enable website owners to check, send and receive emails, as well as set up email forwarding.
  • Tech support. A great benefit of a hosted service is support during outages and downtimes. When a website goes down, every minute counts and can cost a website owner visitors and sales. Reliable hosting companies offer 24/7 technical support as part of their hosting packages, which helps reduce mean time to repair (MTTR) during outages.
  • Security. Reliable web hosting service providers use proper security measures to ensure that the websites hosted on their platform are fully protected from outside threats. For example, some providers offer fully guarded data centers with around-the-clock threat monitoring.
  • SEO optimization. While search engines aren't concerned with which hosting provider a website uses, they consider certain ranking factors such as speed, reliability and uptime. Therefore, a website hosted on a platform that favors these factors automatically ranks higher on the search engine results page (SERP).
  • Short domain name. Free hosting platforms include a sub-domain of the hosting provider as part of the website's domain name. With paid hosting, website owners can purchase a concise domain name and have the option to use the top-level domain at the end of the URL. For example, a free domain will be similar to www.yoursitename.subdomainname.com instead of a paid domain such as www.yoursitename.com.

Differences between web hosting and a domain name

Most web hosting providers sell both domain name and website hosting, but website owners also have the choice to buy domain registration from a different domain registrar, such as Domain.com, GoDaddy or Namecheap.

While domain name and web hosting can be purchased together, they serve different purposes. The following are the main differences between a domain name and web hosting:

  • Web hosting is a platform for hosting website files on a web server, whereas a domain name is the address of their exact location.
  • A domain name can be purchased before developing a website, but a website can't go online without a domain name.

A DNS server resolves the hostnames of websites into IP addresses. Learn how to troubleshoot common name resolution issues on Windows, Linux and macOS.

This was last updated in February 2023

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