Web hosting is a massive industry. With hundreds of millions of websites currently online, people all over the planet are finding themselves diving into a strange new world of technology that they’ve never explored before. It can be confusing and intimidating at first, and many people never quite grasp what hosting is all about, what it does for them, or how it affects them. I explain the whole system of web hosting, paralleling every aspect of it with things that you already know and understand in the real world. I start by getting some confusing terminology out of the way. Many different terms can be used to describe web hosting, such as the following:
✓ Web hosting
✓ Website hosting
✓ Self hosting
✓ Blog hosting
✓ Hosted website or blog
The different names can be confusing at first. However, with the exception of “hosted website,” they all mean that you have complete control of how your website is made available to the world.
In the case of a hosted website or blog, the hosting and all its related functions are done by another company. All you get is the facility to build your site, without any access to the powerful tools behind the scenes. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that you don’t have to worry about any of the background functions behind your site; you just get to do all the fun stuff.
The disadvantage to a hosted website is that you are restricted in what you can do by the host in a multitude of ways. If you start out with a hosted site, it’s most likely that after a year or so you will find that the limits and restrictions imposed by your host make it too difficult for your site to expand the way you want it to. This is the time to move to self hosting.
For any website to be available for viewing on the World Wide Web, it has to be on a computer that is connected to the Internet. The computer your site is on is known as its host. The host can be any computer at all, anywhere in the world.
Your computer at home can host your website, if you want. You could also use a computer in your office, in a warehouse, or even in a shed. All you need for the host are
✓ An Internet connection
✓ A dedicated IP address
Each computer or device that connects to the Internet has an IP address. This address is unique and allows other computers on the Internet to find you. It’s just as unique as the street address of your house. Most homes and even some businesses have a dynamically allocated IP address, which means that their Internet Service Provider (ISP) allocates the person or business an IP address each time a connection is made to the Internet. The IP address could be different for every connection. For a site to be readily found online, it needs to always have the same IP address, which is called a dedicated IP address.
Think of it as a party. The person whose house the party is at is called the host. In the same way, the computer that your website resides on is the website host. That host has an address, which is how you can find the party. Likewise, your web host has an address, which is how the Internet finds your site. The IP in the term IP address stands for Internet Protocol.
The current version is Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), which has numeric addresses in the format xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx. There are approximately 4.29 billion possible combinations — and thus, 4.29 billion possible addresses. The problem with that, though, is that each device requires its own address. There are so many devices connected to the Internet that we’re just about to run out of addresses. The solution is to move to IPv6, which has billions of times more addresses and is starting to be phased in now. You could get your own dedicated IP address at home and host your site on your own computer, but what happens when the power goes out, your Internet connection goes down, or you need to reboot your computer?
All of a sudden your website wouldn’t be available for anyone to see, which would be bad. Imagine each website you visit is in a house. Wouldn’t it be annoying if you couldn’t get to Google.com because the house it is in has a power outage? Or what if you couldn’t open Amazon.com because it was on a computer in someone else’s house and the phone lines went down?
The Internet would be terrible if that were the case. Sites would be up and down like yo-yos, and you would never be able to rely on a site to be up when you wanted to visit it. The solution to this problem is web servers, which, as the name suggests, are dedicated machines that exist solely to serve websites to whomever wants to see them. Servers are located in buildings called data centers, which are built specifically for housing web servers. Data centers have all manner of backup systems and generators to ensure everything keeps running smoothly.
They have Internet connections coming in from multiple different companies so if one or more go down, there are always others to take the load. They have a whole host of other safety features — all with the aim of making your site available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each server can host multiple websites, depending on the size of the sites. This is called shared hosting. Some servers, however, are dedicated just to one site or to a small number of sites belonging to one person or organization. These are called dedicated servers.
That’s all that web hosting is. It’s simply having space online to house your website and serve it to any visitors who come looking.