In simple terms, web hosting is renting space on a web server. A website is not simply a domain name, it is a collection of files linked together by HTML code to display text and graphics on a computer. In order for anybody to see this collection of files you’ve created, it has to be housed on a computer somewhere that has access to the internet. Not just any computer will do, of course. A web server is a computer set up with special software that allows it to receive requests from the internet for the website files it has stored on it and to send those files out over the internet so that the requesting computer can display them. It is very much like a waiter in a restaurant taking your order and bringing the food that you ask for from the kitchen, hence the name “server.”
Along with making sure your files can be seen by internet users around the world, a web server provides other important services as well. First and foremost is the ability to create email addresses based on your domain name and to send and receive email with them. The web server also has various types of software installed on it that allow your website to run programs, create and manage databases, display video, and many other functions you might find useful. Almost any type of computer can function as a web server, but it’s the software that’s on it that makes it a server.
When you buy webhosting, the monthly fee you pay goes to the continued maintenance and upgrading of the server’s hardware and software, the cost of keeping it online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in a secure data center with a fast and powerful internet connection, and to pay for the expertise of the people who do all that work. It is completely possible to turn your own home or office computer into a web server if you really want to, but in most cases it is far more economical to pay someone else who is dedicated to providing this service in a properly reliable manner than it is to try and do it yourself.
Shared Hosting – Most websites are not huge affairs with hundreds of pages and thousands of files and graphics, and they are targeted toward a particular audience, so they will not get as many visitors as the large general sites like Yahoo! that are targeted at everybody who uses the internet. As such, the average website therefore is not going to require the full resources of an entire web server to run it. Web servers are designed to be able to handle dozens, even hundreds of websites at once because they are powerful machines.
Shared hosting is simply the concept of hosting more than one website on a particular server. Over 95% of all websites on the internet are being run in a shared hosting environment. Since the resources of the server can be split among the clients hosted on it, so can the costs of operating the server, so shared hosting is universally cheaper than any other type. Shared hosting packages are generally designed so that each client is allotted a certain amount of each resource, with different payment levels representing different amounts of resources such as disk space, bandwidth, email addresses, and so on. Shared hosting is also known as virtual hosting.
Dedicated Hosting – If you do have a big, powerful website that gets lots of visitors and has a tendency to hog resources, then you might want to have a web server all to yourself. Some companies also prefer the extra security of not having to share the server with anyone else who could do something accidentally or on purpose to crash it. Renting the use of an entire server is known as dedicated hosting. The web hosting company still owns the machine and takes responsibility for maintaining the hardware and the web hosting software, but you have greater control over the configuration and use of the server. There is also such a thing as semi-dedicated hosting, in which a web server is only split between a very small number of clients, such as 2 to 4, with strong partitions between each to prevent them from interfering with one another. Since the hosting company is still responsible for the upkeep of the server, this type of hosting is also known as managed hosting. For obvious reasons, dedicated hosting always costs significantly more than shared hosting.
Server Co-Location – If you really want complete control over every aspect of your web server, you might very well choose to buy one and maintain it yourself if you have sufficient knowledge. However, chances are that you still don’t have the resources to keep your server completely safe from power outages, roof leaks, thieves, unwary employees and other hazards and keep it on the internet on a fast, high-bandwidth connection at all times. You need a data center to provide those services for you. Co-location is the rental of physical security, continuous electrical power and a fast, reliable internet connection for a server that you own. The data center is not responsible for any of the hardware or software maintenance of a co-located server, you are. This can be a cheaper alternative to dedicated hosting if you have the necessary expertise and time to run a web server yourself.
You could spend a long time trying to learn everything there is to know about web hosting, but if you’ve read this far then you should be armed with the basic knowledge you need to understand what different web hosts are offering you. Your next task is to figure out what you need and go out and find a host that wants to give it to you at a great price!