All You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Hosting But Were Afraid To Ask

woman drinking coffee and looking at social media on her smartphone in a cafe

Any home inspector worth their salt knows that a cracked foundation means a full-stop in the home buying process.

Well, for digital content creators, your host is your site’s foundation.

Is it well-constructed and built soundly enough to withstand a battering from the digital elements?

How can you tell? What should your host be doing for you? What questions should you be asking a potential host?

For all the answers to our hosting questions, we went to Peter Green. Peter is the Owner and CTO of Agathon, a company that specializes in building and hosting web applications.

Agathon logo

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start?): What is a host?

Starting at the beginning, when you sing you begin with “do – re – mi”… sorry, slipped into ‘The Sound of Music’ there for a second! What I meant to say was that a host is the place where websites live on the internet. Whenever your readers open their browsers and type in your domain name, the browser has to go out and find where your website actually lives — that is the host.

Or that’s usually the case, but some hosts where you think your website might be housed don’t actually have their own equipment. Instead they resell someone else’s hosting service and your website is housed on that host, even though you might never deal with them (or even know about them!)

Aside from where your website lives, there are other services (e.g., domain registration, DNS services) that are necessary for your readers to be able to get to your site. You may get those services from yet another host or you may get them from the same company that’s housing your website.

That seems extremely complicated.

It can be, yes. In the simplest form, a host is the place that provides services so that your website is available on the internet. The complication comes into the picture because nearly every piece of the puzzle can be managed independently from the other pieces. This is both a blessing and a curse — it can be a good idea to diversify providers, but it will always complicate matters in the end.

Details about hosting seem to be unfamiliar to many publishers. Beyond the fact that it is so complicated, why is hosting such a mysterious and intimidating planet in the blogging universe?

Hosting is somewhat like a utility, like the water service you might have in your house. There are many complex systems involved — the flow of water from the city, the plumbing in your walls, the fixtures in your kitchen and bathrooms — but 99.99% of the time, everything Just Works. Publishers tend to think about their hosting about as often as they think about their water service, which is almost not at all.

Until it breaks. It’s terrible when you have a problem with your water, but when a publisher’s hosting breaks and it’s costing them hundreds or thousands of dollars, it can be catastrophic. Adding to the stress, that publisher is then scrambling under immense pressure to analyze a problem in a complex system about which they’ve never really had to stop and think.

So maybe they contact their host to try to figure out what’s wrong. Their host points fingers at everyone but themselves and intentionally uses obfuscatory (WHOA) terminology to keep the publisher confused. And, of course, it takes hours or days to get even those disappointing responses from the host.

So maybe they contact “their guy” or “their gal”, someone who has helped design their site, to jump in and figure out what’s going on. Their contractor fixes the problem, but provides no feedback on what actually happened. It all remains black magic to the publisher.

We’ve heard stories like this over and over from our clients about their experiences before coming to Agathon. This sort of thing is incredibly intimidating because it doesn’t treat the publisher as a party to the problem-solving process, but rather as part of the problem! It’s no surprise that publishers end up checking out of the process of understanding their hosting.

The Agathon team working together in a meeting room.

Collaboration at work at Agathon

A big thing in hosting is a shared environment versus a dedicated environment. Will you compare and contrast these for us?

This is a tricky question — another part of the confusion for publishers when looking at hosts is the fact that there is no real standard language for package names. It really is a bit of the Wild West in that hosts can call their packages “professional” or “dedicated” regardless of whether those packages are any of those things.

In general, though, we can look at different types of environments by looking at real-life housing differences. A host is a property owner — let’s say they own five acres of land. They can subdivide that land in the same way they can subdivide their hosting resources to provide different “packages” in both cases:

Shared hosting is analogous to putting a bunkhouse on that land. It’s a building with a single room that might have 40 bunk beds shoved in there (or more — higher density is always better). Tenants are loaded into the beds as tightly as possible to make the best use of the space and aside from a small locker, all space is shared. You cannot personalize anything about your environment, as you get only what everyone else gets.

Virtual dedicated hosting is analogous to putting an apartment building on that land. It can be high- or low-density depending on the type of tenant you want; the higher the density, the lower the price. But within that building, you have your own dedicated space. You can generally personalize your space however you want, though it can require permission from the landlord.

Physical dedicated hosting is analogous to putting private homes on that land. The homeowners have full control over the design of the house and what they do with it. They can put up walls around their yard to ensure that no one can encroach on their space in any way.

(These days, physical dedicated hosting is more common for enterprises, as it’s more expensive and it provides fewer tangible benefits for publishers beyond what they can get from virtual dedicated hosting. As such, virtual dedicated hosting is the most common “dedicated” hosting and shared is, well, “shared”. Also, there are perhaps a half dozen different types of virtual dedicated hosting, but conceptually they are very similar. I’ll treat them as a monolithic category for the purposes of my illustration. 🙂

From that analogy, you can probably imagine some of the advantages and disadvantages of shared and dedicated hosting. Shared hosting, like a bunkhouse, is great if you need somewhere cheap to sleep for a little while and you have a high tolerance for being bothered by other tenants sharing the same room. But you wouldn’t want to try using a bunkhouse as your professional office — similarly, we wouldn’t recommend trying to run your money-making blog on shared hosting!

Agathon only provides dedicated (including physical dedicated) hosting because our clients deserve the high-powered environments necessary for keeping their WordPress sites humming (and for keeping those ad revenues robust!).

The Agathon team meeting in a more casual living room type setting.

Agathon team meeting

So, I’m a publisher and I’m shopping for a new hosting company: What should I be looking for and what questions should I be asking?

Now that you’re an expert in shared versus dedicated environments, your first question should be which one your new host offers! 😀

Seriously, though, since hosting is something of a utility, a great question to ask would be: “What happens when something goes wrong with my site?”

Two scenarios commonly come up when something is wrong with a website: either it’s very busy or something broke.

Many of our clients have horror stories about posts going viral and their previous host shutting off their site for being too busy. This boggles my mind: why would we want to penalize you for being successful? Wouldn’t we want to help you manage that success and parlay it into something even better?! Apparently that’s a crazy thought because many hosts will say you’re using too many resources and just shut you off, even if you’re in the middle of a big push. Agathon doesn’t impose artificial limits on our clients’ hosting and we never shut anyone off for being successful!

Other times, our clients might upgrade their plugins and get the dreaded White Screen of Death when they try to get into their WordPress dashboard. Something broke.

When that happens, what is the host’s response? It’s generally not their responsibility to fix, so do they shrug their shoulders? Do they offer to restore from last week’s backup and lose all of your recent work? Or do they dig in, even though it’s not their problem to fix, because the client relationship is more important than the five minutes it costs them to diagnose and repair the problem? (Or do they even have the staff that is capable of doing such diagnosis and repair?!)

Agathon is a full-service shop — we employ developers and designers along with systems people — so we can fix all manner of problems, even if we didn’t cause the problems in the first place!

One other complaint we often hear goes something like this: “I’d love to switch over to you, but I’ve already paid for three years of hosting at [some host they hate].” Ignoring the sunk cost fallacy implicit in that statement, publishers should ask a potential host: what is the contract term and what are my options for moving between packages?

Agathon offers only month-to-month contracts with unlimited free switching between packages because we recognize that needs and budgets change. Your hosting should be able to change too.

Thanks for all of this information, Peter. You’re a really awesome guy and so handsome.

I get that a lot. I’m also pretty gracious, as I’m happy to help demystify the “mysterious and intimidating planet” of hosting!

Peter Green, Owner and CTO of Agathon

You can catch Peter and Co. at #MVCon18 in California, where they’ll continue their mission to unlock the secrets of the hosting universe with scheduled live site audits and the Open-Blog Surgery: Knowing How Your Blog Works panel.

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