Beginning Web Developer Course: Domain and Hosting Basics

By David Fiedler

The previous article in this series gave you some useful tips and information about choosing a domain name for your new site. Now we'll learn how to register and protect that domain name, and how to find the best hosting value for your money while hopefully not getting stuck with the wrong provider.

To Serve And Protect

Let's assume you're interested in registering a regular .com domain name for a business site, something that has the potential to become larger or make serious money or have employees or trademarks involved. First, go directly to your favorite domain registrar (after making sure they're on the list of accredited registrars, and not simply a reseller). Then make sure you can register not only the .com name, but also the .net and .org versions of this name as well (back in the day, we called this .cno, for com-net-org). This is absolutely the cheapest insurance you can buy in case your website takes off to any extent whatsoever, since it protects against speculators or copycats registering the identical name with a generic TLD (Top-Level Domain). Of course, if you operate in any special areas, such as a particular country or industry, you also want to register the name in that specific TLD as well.

Now that we've protected your basic intellectual property to an extent, let's protect you too. Once you own a domain, your name and all your contact information is now permanently linked to that domain, visible on publicly accessible databases, and available to spammers and stalkers alike. If you're an entrepreneur or company (doing a stealth launch, for instance) you might not want industrial spies to know which domains you own. By getting a service called "private domain registration", all your details can be hidden. Check this service carefully before signing up though, because some implementations set up a separate company to actually own the domain, which would be a serious problem for you if that other company ran into some problem or other.

The Devil You Say?

As soon as you get serious about putting your money down for either a domain or hosting, you will see offers about getting the other one free. It's like making a deal with the devil. Don't do it!

Why not, that cheap little voice in your head wants to know. Well, hosting companies make money by hosting, so giving you a "free" domain name (even though it's only worth $18 or so at this writing) better have a positive return to them. And it does, because once people register a domain, they tend to leave it with the same registrar unless the prices rise or the service level changes suddenly. So you can imagine the inertia caused by people wondering whether it's really worth the trouble to leave when they'd have to transfer their domain to a new company and the hosting as well. The end result is that once these kinds of places get you signed up, they pretty much have you for life, so they have little incentive to keep their hosting up to snuff.

It works the other way too, but worse. Free hosting, given just because you bought a domain name, is almost guaranteed to be of the lowest possible quality, because decent hosting has a much higher value than the cost of a domain registration.

Now, if you have a small static site (and by that I mean up to a dozen plain vanilla HTML pages, no video, Flash, or database), you don't really need great hosting. Almost anything will do, as long as it stays up, maybe even the free hosting that comes with your personal ISP account. So that might be perfect for some of those Make Money Fast type of sites. For anything else, you'll want one of the following:
  • Shared Hosting: the entry level for hosting plans, since many other accounts share the same physical server and operating system. A good shared hosting plan will give you access to either a Linux or Windows-based server, with some kind of user-friendly control panel (such as cPanel or Plesk) to help you manage things. It will also allow you to set up as many different domains as you like, within reason, so for the $5 to $10/month that these plans generally cost, you could actually host all your domains and all your friends' and relatives' domains too for free!
  • Dedicated Server: this is the ultimate in hosting. With a dedicated server, you lease a specific computer, set up to your complete hardware and software specifications, and have full control of it. This generally costs at least $100/month and can go to hundreds more.
  • VPS Hosting: a Virtual Private Server looks to you like a dedicated server; you have almost complete control of the machine, as far as you can tell, and can install system software, but it's actually shared with others. All the other virtual machines exist on the same physical hardware. It's a lot cheaper than a dedicated server, starting at around $20/month.
Almost any hosting company will offer you any and all of these kinds of hosting, because their job is to make every possible option available so you will hopefully have need of their services. But most hosting companies actually do specialize in one kind of hosting or the other, and the trick is reading their service offerings and websites carefully to see what they're best at.

For example, if you go to the website of company "P", you'll see lots of offers for dedicated servers, managed servers, and so on. Clearly they specialize in relatively high-end customers who can afford these services and know what they're doing. Company "H", on the other hand, trumpets their affordable shared hosting, and it turns out they're rather good at that. Company "G" has everything, but everything, on a gaudy site with "Sale!" shown every day, and they'll even sell you an iPod...but maybe they're not really so good at anything but selling.

Unlimited Hype

Many hosting companies, even some good ones, gave up metering bandwidth, disk space, and other metrics and fell into the competitive trap of offering "unlimited everything". It sounds great, and obviates the need for you to "watch what you're doing" carefully, but it's literally impossible and a bit misleading. What they say in large print is often negated by the fine print, or by policies that confound you.

For instance, you may well get unmetered, unlimited transfer...but the physical bandwidth will be limited, preventing your website from supporting as many users as you might like. Or you'll get unlimited disk space...but only for web pages; not for videos, downloadable files, or anything that actually takes up a serious amount of disk space. Your best bet is to work with a company that promises (and has been shown to deliver) reasonable and clear measures of service.

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