Picking the Right Web Host
One of the first things that comes to mind when starting a new web site is "Where will I put it?" This question is easily answered in the beginning as there are thousands of cheap (and occasionally free) web hosts available that will allow you to run a small web site. As time goes on, however, it gets quite a bit more interesting as you try to find a hosting method that will suit your site but not empty your wallet.
At current, there are three main types of hosting available: shared hosting, virtual private servers (VPS), and dedicated servers. The big question is "When is it appropriate to move from one to the next?" Most people answer that question with something like, "When my site is running slowly" or, "When my host asks me to leave." Both of these answers, unfortunately, will leave you in a bad way and may cause you to lose valuable traffic. The good news is that proper planning and research upfront can really cut down on the headaches later.
As a whole, shared hosting is horrible. Free hosting is worth exactly what you pay for it and most small hosts have to oversell their boxes in order to make money. The good news is that it's really not that difficult to find a decent host for your small site if you put forth a bit of effort.
When looking for a host, make sure you ask questions about their operation. Find out what kind of hardware your site will be hosted on and how many sites they run on each server. Find out what versions of httpd, php, and mysql they run. If your site is database-driven, find out how many simultaneous DB connections you are allowed to have. Ask them what the peak load numbers are (and if the load is routinely higher than the number of physical processors then they may be overselling). If someone gives you an answer you don't like, wants to tie you into a long contract, takes longer than 1 business day to answer a sales email, etc., go on to the next host. Don't look at the price until you've narrowed it down to a few quality providers.
A solid shared host should last you for quite a while unless you get slashdotted or happen to have picked a very popular topic. Once you do outgrow your host you're going to need to move to something a bit more powerful. Unfortunately, this is where most people make a HUGE mistake.
Virtual private servers (VPS) are, in general, not worth what you pay for them. Looking for a low-priced VPS will often leave you with more performance issues than shared hosting. VPS providers will frequently give you misleading system specs that say things like "burstable to 1GB of RAM (128MB dedicated)". Now, here's something you may not know... A performance-oriented MySQL configuration will use a little more memory than the total size of your indices (plus a base 25MB or so). Another thing you may not know is that your average Apache process will run in the 15-20MB range and that you need one for each client that is connecting to your site. If keep-alives are turned on then you can count on each of those processes being tied up for a few seconds even if they aren't being used. Don't count on any more memory than is "dedicated" and even then I'd ask the provider the same system specs questions I mentioned regarding shared hosting.
Given those reservations, I really can't recommend ever using a VPS to host your site, especially when you can get a low-end dedicated server from Server Matrix for $69/month which will blow a comparably-priced VPS out of the water.
When looking at dedicated server providers make sure you check out their uptime guarantees. Is their network guaranteed to be up 100% of the time? If you have a hard drive failure how long before they'll have your machine back up and running? A quality provider will have you back up and running within a couple hours. Also, check out the hardware they're selling. Is it a generation or two old? Believe it or not, this can be a good thing. Validated platforms are more likely to be stable and the provider's tech support is more likely to have experience with the various problems that can come up. Finally, make sure that the hardware is matched. Don't buy a quad-processor system with IDE hard drives. Don't pickup a $500/month system with 1GB of RAM. Don't buy a $1000/month system with an unmetered 100Mbit pipe when you're only getting a $80/month Celeron box.
Long story short, just use a little common sense. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
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