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On a Budget? 
Finding an Inexpensive Web Host
by Bob Brooke

Expensive or inexpensive, all Web hosts ultimately provide the same service. An individual or a business places a page on the host's server and people all over the world can access that page from their Web browser. But that, unfortunately, isn't all there is to it, especially when it comes to budget hosting.

A Web site's performance depends on the bandwidth, server resources and infrastructure of the hosting provider. Budget hosts–those charging less then US$20 per month–often cut corners. In some cases, budget hosts will advertise several hosting services, all under different names. While it looks like there are many to chose from in a list, in reality, there may only be one or two. You should take extra caution with these hosting companies since they may not deliver what they promise.

Who Should Use a Budget Host?
Budget hosting works best for personal or small business use. The best candidate for a budget host is a site that contains mostly static HTML pages, no database, and generates a small amount of traffic. Size matters as well since Web hosts offer limited amounts of disc space for the different services they offer. So, if you have a large website or a heavily trafficked one, a budget host isn’t for you.

What Features Do Budget Hosts Offer?
To be honest, there are a number of budget hosts who offer quite an impressive package at a budget price–LunarPages.com, iPowerWeb.com, and MidPhase.com are three of the best. Features like subdomains, scripting, shopping carts, and email processing are available through most budget hosts. More advanced features are available at some hosts, but usually at an additional cost. And all budget hosts offer you the opportunity to upgrade to an account that better satisfies your requirements at a later date.

Reliability is the Key
When choosing a budget Web host, you should look for size, speed, and diversity of dedicated Internet connections, as well as what hardware and software the host uses–if they tell you. Most host on either Unix/Linux platforms and Windows platforms or both employing Apache Web server software for Unix/Linux and IIS for Windows. Regardless, reliability is a prime concern. Even though you may be paying only less then US$20 a month, is there more uptime than downtime?

Check to see how long they have been around. If the host has been around for a short time, it may not yet be an established company. If a host goes out of business while hosting your site, chances are you’re out of luck, especially if you’ve paid a year in advance. Also check to see how responsive a host is in case of an emergency. The quality and standard of back-up power is also important, as is security. But one of the most important issues you'll face when choosing any Web host is the quality and level of customer service.

Customer Service–Is there Any?
Twenty-four-hour customer service means next to nothing unless the persons fielding calls are qualified computer professionals. Is there even someone available at 3 A.M. and what about their skill level? How accessible is an engineer during "non-business" hours? Can the engineer on call be notified via pager that there'sa problem? While this may not be as serious a problem if you have a simple site, it becomes more important as your site grows larger and more complex.

Support Response Time
Make sure your budget account includes technical support. Some hosts offer budget accounts for a good price, but charge extra for support. If they do, how fast is their response time? When sending a message out into the great unknown, it's nice to get a response back within a an hour or two. This is something you can test before signing on with a service. After sending the host's support department a question, how long does it take for them to respond? Also, how helpful is the response? If a host has extensive online FAQs, then its customer support team should respond faster to queries and respond in more detail than if they were bogged down all day telling 500 people how to upload a page.

Ensure Maximum Uptime
Size and speed indicate the Web host's total bandwidth to the Internet and, therefore, directly relate to the speed of a site's delivery and the traffic it can support. One of the most overlooked issues is diversity of a host's Internet connections. To ensure maximum uptime, it should have connections to several national backbones. This ensures that it will have at least one active connection even if one of the national backbones goes down. Call several hosts and ask about this before signing up.

Many hosts claim they have "unlimited bandwidth." This simply can't be true, as no one has unlimited bandwidth, and someone eventually has to pay for it. If you set up a site which chokes a host's Internet connection, the host will either make you pay more or simply shut off your site.

The best budget hosts allow you 20-35 gigabytes of transfer a month. While that may seem like a lot, a site with large graphic files and lots of content can eat that up in no time. Every time a visitor goes to a Web site, he or she downloads the images off of its host's server and onto a PC. This transfer causes data to be sent over the host's internet connection, which is only of a finite size. Too much data can cause the connection to become clogged. But figuring out your site's requirements is easy. If your homepage has two 5K images on it and receives100 visitors, that means that each visitor would download 10K of information over the host's Internet connection or 10K x 100 or 1000K, which equals 1MB. One to two gigabytes of traffic is ample for 99 percent of the sites on the Internet. To keep your transfer rate under control, optimize all the graphics on your site to make sure they have the smallest file size possible.

Host Reliability
Reliability can be a tough issue. Servers crash–that's simply a fact of life. Everyone has seen the dreaded "Server not responding..." message. For a host to admit to downtime is an admission of failure. However, a responsible host should understand that crashes are a part of running a server and be open about any major interruptions of service. The top budget hosts mentioned above all guarantee a 99.5 percent up time

What About Backup?
Is the host's equipment backed up by battery or generator? If the host relies on battery backup, how and when is power routed to the batteries in case of an outage? If backup power kicks in only after primary power goes down, a site may be down for the period of time while power is restored and the servers are rebooted. What about danger from flood? You probably won't ask what floor the hosting facility is located on until there's a flood. Business people and Web developers often don't look at the Internet as something physical. But the virtual world exists on physical facilities, and competitive pricing is only one of the critical elements to consider. iPowerWeb is the only top budget host that advertises taped backups and a backup generator.

How Secure Is Your Host?
Even more important is the security of the network. What is the host's security policy and configuration? Do they have a firewall? Is there a security expert on staff? Hosts with weak network security are vulnerable to hackers.

Read the Reviews
To find out as much about your potential budget host as possible, go to sites like Web-hosting-reviews.org, an independent, non-profit organization, or 10-cheapwebhosting.com and read reviews of a number of budget hosts. These reviews provide insight into just how efficient and business-like each host is. Remember, being a knowledgeable budget host shopper prevents troubles down the line.

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