Home, Home on the Web - All About Website Hosting

by Cassandra Moffitt on

In order to truly understand what website hosting is and how it works, it’s important to first understand more about what a website is. A website is a set of interlinked files, each containing different types of code, such as HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), CSS (cascading style sheets), Javascript, PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor) and other assets like images or video. When you load a website, your browser reaches out to the computer that holds these files (for more information on how your browser knows which computer is holding those files, read our article, “Much Ado About Domains”) and requests the website assets. The hosting computer and your browser work in conjunction to read through the website files, interpret any code, and present the results to you. Anyone that wants to view your website has to be able to connect to the computer hosting the files, and, often, this means that computer has to be able to handle many simultaneous connections and communications with multiple viewers. It would be impractical, not to mention unsafe, to use your personal or work computer as the hosting computer - that would mean your computer would have to remain accessible at all times to anyone from around the world for the purpose of sharing those files!

Instead, as the number of websites grew, businesses popped up that offered space for rent on specialized computers that did nothing but host website files. This meant those computers could be configured in specific ways that would be most beneficial to the purpose of hosting website files, resulting in more security, quicker load times, and more consistent up-time (if your website was hosted on your own computer, people would only be able to access your website while your computer was turned on and connected to the Internet, and not busy with other tasks).

These specialized computers, called servers, are most often physically stored in specialized facilities called data centers. Data centers house hundreds if not thousands of servers, all in power-regulated and climate-controlled environments. This ensures they have the optimal conditions needed to guarantee the up-time of the millions of websites or other systems they host (more about software-as-a-service hosting below). In the event that something fails, they have round-the-clock, local staff who can respond on-site and troubleshoot immediately, making this a costly, but sometimes very necessary, solution.

When it comes to website hosting there are a myriad of different types of solutions, with the distinctions between each type rapidly blurring as computer and hosting technologies evolve. To understand the intricacies of how modern hosting solutions work, we need to first cover the three major types of hosting solutions that were originally the staples of the industry. While one or more of these solutions are still present in the market today, they rely on older concepts of hosting that don’t capitalize on modern advances in technologies, which allow for more flexibility, lower costs, and improved security. This has left openings in the market where we have seen things like cloud computing disrupt the industry.

Shared Hosting

With a shared hosting solution (also called multi-tenancy hosting), your website’s files are stored on the same physical server as many other websites, and you may even share (and fight for) resources with the software applications that manage the server itself. Shared hosting is usually very low cost, since many website owners are sharing the cost of a single server spread between them. But it also means you are sharing the finite amount of available resources of the server itself, like its storage space and computing speed. If the server has to allocate a majority of its resources to another website on your server, the load time of your website might slow to a crawl, or, even worse, not load at all, potentially putting you at the mercy of every other website you share space with. Similarly, your website is exposed to a greater number of security risks, purely because there are more points of potential access for ne’er-do-wells. Although there are security features that can be put in place, it is up to the shared hosting provider to install, monitor and update those features on a regular basis - you have no access or oversight into the application of those features. Due to the low cost, when compared to a majority of other hosting solutions, shared hosting is still one of the most popular hosting solutions used today. But the cost comes with a severe trade off of security, reliability and flexibility.

Dedicated Hosting

Under a dedicated hosting solution, your website’s files are the only ones present on the entire server, ensuring that your website has access to all of the available resources. Although dedicated hosting gives you a higher level of performance and customization (since you have full access to managing the server yourself, including security and maintenance), it also requires a level of technical expertise that is usually outside the range of knowledge for the average website owner. The cost is also typically much higher than shared hosting, since you aren’t splitting the cost of the server with anyone else. Dedicated hosting solutions are becoming less common as more cost-efficient options have become available in the recent past. However, they used to be the go-to solution for large businesses with unique security requirements, intense resource needs, or an in-house system administrator.

Virtual Private Server Hosting

Virtual Private Servers (VPS, also called Virtual Dedicated Servers) is a hybrid solution found between shared and dedicated hosting. In this type of solution, a hosting provider takes a single server and allocates specific amounts of its resources to several “virtual private servers”, each hosting only one website. This type of solution can be very attractive, as it combines the cost benefits of shared hosting, with the security and insulation of a dedicated solution. In the past, hosting providers were limited to allocating only the specific amount of resources physically installed on the server itself. Since every VPS was pre-allocated a set amount of resources, unexpected increases in resource needs could not be handled gracefully or quickly, and often meant websites were taken offline during peak times of interest because their hosting solution didn’t have enough resources to serve the website files to everyone requesting them at the same time. VPS hosting solutions have really benefited the most from advances in modern hosting technologies, and while there are hosting providers that still offer physical VPS solutions as described above, many providers have morphed their offerings into Cloud Hosting (covered below).

Cloud Hosting

Over the past few years, you’ve probably heard the term “cloud” being used for everything from website hosting, to your accounting software, to your smartphone’s backups. The concept of the “cloud” isn’t all that new, but the term has recently increased in popularity to such an extent that it’s sometimes used synonymously with the “Internet” itself. Let’s clear up exactly what cloud computing and cloud hosting are, so you can better understand how it has improved the capabilities of hosting in today’s technological environment.

The concept of the “cloud” originates from the early days of computing itself. In the beginning, a single computer was the size of an entire room. A “dumb terminal”, comprised of a keyboard and a display, was used to connect to the actual computer to pass on a request, instead of processing information at the user’s desk. The centralized computer would perform the computation and send a response back to be displayed on screen. This in and of itself was a bit like cloud computing - passing a request from a terminal to the computer, having the computer perform the request, and then hand the resulting information back to the terminal. The important step that makes this a “cloud” setup is that most (if not all) of the computational processes were happening on the computer that was separate from the terminal.

As computer hardware became more powerful, less expensive, and the overall size of computers shrank, the computational power was able to be shifted to the user’s desk where the terminal used to sit, creating what we now know as desktops (and eventually laptops, tablets and smartphones) - computers or devices that can exist isolated from other devices in terms of their computational processes. Each device was now capable of performing all of their intended functionality utilizing its own hardware. The software industry thrived on this model of self-hosted software, which allowed a business to install and manage their software and files on their systems. Eventually, however, the pendulum started swinging the other way - as the costs and staff requirements for managing these processes in-house inflated, businesses began to shift again to centralized systems via cloud computing (or at least, a variation on the original concept). This system became known as SaaS (software-as-a-service).

SaaS (not just a sassy acronym) stands for Software-as-a-Service, and describes a model in which software (like your online accounting software, web-based customer relations management system, or even your online payroll platform) is licensed on a subscription basis, and whose data and application are hosted on an off-site server and accessed remotely, typically via a web browser. By using SaaS, business are no longer locked into the commitment that came with self-hosted software. They have the freedom to scale their business up or down as needed, they are free from typical maintenance, and do not have to worry about managing security themselves.

So what does this mean for cloud hosting? Cloud hosting takes elements of the original types of hosting solutions (shared, dedicated, and especially VPS), and combines them with the concept of cloud computing and SaaS. Cloud hosting utilizes a team of servers that work together to host a group of websites. This team of servers can be unlimited in size, can be added to or subtracted from as needed, is most often spread around the world, and can offer a level of speed and efficiency unheard of in hosting solutions of the past. Cloud hosting provides a plethora of benefits:

Reliability

Similar to VPS, each websites is separated into its own virtualized computer system (or VM, short for Virtual Machine), but instead of being limited to a set amount of allocated resources dictated by the resources available on a single physical server (like a VPS solution of the past), each website can now draw on the available resources of the entire team of servers that are working together. As your business scales up or down, the resources made available to your website can be adjusted quickly and easily.

Cloud hosting also reduces downtime due to system failure. Since your files are made available over several servers, applications and websites can be configured to “fail over” to different servers located around the globe if necessary. By utilizing this idea of redundancy, your website is protected against having a single point of failure like the hardware on a single server, and can even survive a major catastrophe like an entire data center being taken offline due to weather, power outage, or damage to its Internet connectivity.

Speed

Unlike shared, dedicated or VPS solutions, cloud hosting capitalizes on the computing power of multiple computers processing information in coordination. Because of this, tasks are often able to be processed in parallel - that is, many at a time, instead of waiting for one to finish before starting the next. For a website owner, this means your website is able to handle website viewers quickly and more efficiently, providing the end user a better viewing experience.

Scalability and Flexibility

The resources made available to your website are not limited to the capacity of a single physical server. It also means that you are not under or over allocating resources based on guesstimates. With cloud hosting, you are able to provide the exact amount of needed resources at every given moment.

Grid’s Hosting Solutions

At Grid, we have partnered with Webhost.io, an experienced hosting solutions provider. They have customized their hosting solutions to take full advantage of the latest hosting technologies, while also looking forward into the future of what hosting solutions may become. This approach better serves our individual clients and provides hosting solutions that will remain viable for years to come. Our decade-long relationship provides our clients with additional benefits that may not be available to them through another hosting solution, including increased response time, flexibility, scalability, reliability, level of access, and security. For more information on our specific hosting solutions please get in touch!

Conclusion

It’s very easy to make a hosting provider decision based on cost alone. But with the level of impact that a hosting plan can have on your website (which is an invaluable tool for the operation and promotion of your business), it’s incredibly important that a website owner understand fully what they are getting with their individual plan. As technologies continue to advance, we at Grid fully expect the different hosting solutions available to change greatly over the next five years. We look forward to remaining on the cutting edge of these new technologies to continue offering our clients the best possible hosting services.

If you’d like to know more about website hosting, how Grid’s hosting solution takes full advantage of current technologies, or if you need help understanding your current hosting plan, get in touch!