Choosing A Web Hosting Company

Choosing a new web hosting company was a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. Fortunately, the Web itself proved to be the best source of information about the features and benefits of various Web hosting companies.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 11/1/1997; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

After about five months with my old Web hosting company, I felt that it was time to move my Web site to a company that specializes in Web hosting. Choosing that new company was a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. Fortunately, the Web itself proved to be the best source of information about the features and benefits of various Web hosting companies. Here’s how I moved my Web site from one provider to another with zero downtime.

Before I began looking for a company to host my Web site, I created a list of requirements that the new company would have to satisfy.

Requirement 1 – Web Services Only

My first requirement was that I only wanted to purchase Web hosting services from the new company. Not e-mail, not news, just Web. Fortunately, you can get different Internet services from different providers. This is a little bit like getting local, long-distance, and calling card telephone services from different companies. To change your long-distance provider, you simply have to notify your local telephone company.

Before the switch, my Internet service provider was providing three services for my “heels-dot-com” domain name: primary domain name service (DNS), e-mail to heels-dot-com, and Web service to www-dot-heels-dot-com. If I wanted to, I could get these three services from three different companies. To keep the terminology clear, I’ll call these companies my DNS provider, my e-mail provider, and my Web provider. In most cases, your DNS provider is also your e-mail provider and your Web provider. When the services are split, the most common arrangement is for one company to be both the DNS provider and the e-mail provider, with the other company being the Web provider.

Since I was happy with the first two services (i.e. my DNS provider and my e-mail provider), I only needed to change the third (my Web provider). To do this, I would only need to tell my current DNS provider to direct all requests to www-dot-heels-dot-com to an Internet Protocol (IP) address assigned by my new Web provider. By not changing my DNS provider, I didn’t have to involve the InterNIC (http://www.internic.net/), whose domain name database must be updated every time a change is made to your DNS provider. The InterNIC is overloaded with work, so I wanted to avoid having to deal with them. Administrative snafus at the InterNIC in recent months have taken companies such as NASDAQ off-line for various lengths of time. It wouldn’t be a disaster if my Web site went off-line for a few hours (or even days), but avoiding the InterNIC helps eliminate one more possible point of failure.

I could tell my DNS provider to redirect requests to www-dot-heels-dot-com to either an IP address or a top-level domain name such as heels.my-new-Web-provider.com. Either way Web surfers could access my Web site via http://www.clocktowerlaw.com/.

There are many advantages for a Web provider to assign me a top-level domain name rather than an IP address. First, it allows the Web provider to internally allocate and reallocate IP addresses to Web sites as its network changes and expands. Second, it allows my Web provider to control ownership and assignment of IP addresses, thus eliminating disputes about this if clients choose to move their Web sites to another Web provider. Third, if my Web provider optimizes its network and changes my site’s IP address, I will not have to pay my DNS provider to update its DNS database a second time. Fourth, if my Web site ever becomes so popular that I want it to be served from two unique machines with two unique IP addresses, I can easily ask my Web provider to make this change, and again I wouldn’t have to involve my DNS provider.

Despite all of the advantages of having a Web provider assign me a top-level domain name, all major Web providers currently assign an IP address to new Web hosting clients. OK, so it’s not a perfect world, but those Web providers are just asking for trouble later about who “owns” various IP addresses.

Requirement 2 – A Brand-Name Company

I am very brand-loyal, not necessarily because I believe that a brand-name product or service is better than a no-name product or service, but because I am very busy and have little spare time to compare the brand-names to the no-names. I know that I will get excellent quality and service for my money when I buy Apple computers, AT&T telephones, Hewlett Packard printers, and Toyota automobiles.

Requirement 3 – Price

I was only paying $19.95 to my DNS and e-mail provider, and I didn’t want to pay more than $40/month to my Web provider.

Requirement 4 – Service

I didn’t need a lot of bells and whistles for my Web site, but I wanted to know that my Web provider could support them if I ever wanted them in the future. For example, it was important to me that my Web provider be able to support Microsoft FrontPage extensions, since I’ve conceded that Microsoft is going to own the Web, and I’ll probably start maintaining my Web site with FrontPage in the future. Also, my new Web provider would have to understand my requirements as outlined above.

The Quest Begins

I soon discovered that I would have to make compromises in my search for the ideal Web provider. My requirement of a brand-name company was the first to go. Unfortunately, the national Internet service providers that I had heard of appeared to price their Web hosting services for the Fortune 500 crowd, not for the small-office/home-office (SOHO) market. My Web site takes up less than one megabyte of disk space, and I didn’t want to spend more than about $40/month for Web hosting.

Undaunted, I flipped through the last couple issues of Internet World magazine and wrote down the names of Web hosting companies that had taken out full-page ads. Next, I searched Infoseek for “Web hosting industry” to find Web sites that reviewed various Web hosting companies. Among the sites that I found was Web Host Guide (http://www.webhostguide.com/), which lists features of the nation’s major Web providers. Web Host Guide also provides its own reviews of Web providers, but not all of my questions were answered by those reviews. Usually, if I’ve found one Web site on a certain topic, I can find another on the same topic by searching Yahoo. In this case, my search for “webhostguide” in Yahoo revealed no Web sites similar to Web Host Guide.

Web Host Guide allowed me to eliminate many Web providers that did not provide the service I was looking for at the price I was looking for. I was then left with about a dozen companies from which to choose. I visited all of their home pages and quickly eliminated those companies that made if difficult for me to find their e-mail address. I’m not sure why companies choose to hide their e-mail addresses on their Web sites, but they do.

I then e-mailed my requirements to the sales addresses of the remaining six companies. I eliminated a couple companies who replied with faceless auto-reply e-mail robots. Not because I necessarily dislike auto-reply e-mail, but I prefer a reply from a real live human being. For the same reason, I’m not a huge fan of voice-mail, especially as the primary method of answering the phone. I’d prefer if a human being answered the phone and gave me the option of voice-mail if the person I needed to talk to was not available. At any rate, there is no substitute for a response from a human being who understands your questions and answers them. Two companies remained. The one that I chose had both a full-page ad in Internet World magazine and was highly rated by Web Host Guide.

Making the Switch

Moving my site was the easy part. I had an older copy of my Web site on my laptop computer, but just to be safe, I downloaded the entire site again. It was only about a dozen files, so it didn’t take very long. My new Web provider e-mailed me a username, password, and IP address. With these, I was able to quickly upload (via FTP) my Web site files to their new home. I could also test the site by accessing it by IP address (http://209.41.42.118/). The final step was to tell my DNS provider to redirect requests to www-dot-heels-dot-com to 209.41.42.118. They did, and the switch was complete. And my old Web provider didn’t even know that I have moved!

In the future, I suspect that it will become commonplace for companies to get Web services from one company and other Internet services from another. As we saw with the breakup of AT&T (remember having to choose a long-distance phone company by filling out a postcard?), we may see legislative action to force competition in Internet services. Otherwise, Internet providers may adopt anticompetitive policies that prevent customers from (for example) getting Web services elsewhere. If such legislation results in better services at better prices, I’m all for it.

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