Web Hosting - Behind the Scenes

Unless you work in the industry, nothing seems to change from year to year when it comes to Web hosting. However, the past several years have ushered in a new era. No longer just a place to store websites, hosting now impacts Web business as a whole; including e-mail, ecommerce, communications, SEO and more.

Two hosting trends in particular - hosting in the cloud, and content delivery networks - have quickly become hot issues in the industry. They are, in no uncertain terms, two of the biggest developments the hosting industry has seen in years. Let's take a closer look at both of these issues. It will not only help in understanding the current environment, but prepare you for what to expect the next time your company wants to address Web hosting in the boardroom.

SaaS in the Cloud
When discussing "the cloud" in the hosting industry, inevitably the term Software as a Service (SaaS) will also come up. In fact, it is SaaS that brings the most value to website owners. In short, the cloud offers software on demand - eliminating the need to store large amounts of data on-site which, for small businesses, can often be expensive and resource intensive.

"The trend of cloud computing - that is, applications and infrastructure moving away from the desktop and a private data center and into the cloud - means that the playing field is being leveled and the barriers between these different service providers are being broken down," says Seth Nesbitt, VP of marketing, Parallels, a hosting infrastructure provider.

So how exactly can a website benefit from SaaS and cloud hosting?

The services provided are numerous, and growing - from ecommerce functions such as shopping carts and SSL certification to business-class e-mail and full-blown Web conferencing, Using the cloud, Web hosts can offer a range of business-critical services not previously available to any but the largest of businesses. This has taken the Web hosting industry from an afterthought to the realm of an essential business partner.

Parallels provides back-end services to hosting providers. According to Nesbitt, they have seen tremendous growth in the communication services that they provide - specifically, email and Web conferencing.

"We recently announced a new set of SaaS - one example is a Web conferencing service," says Nesbitt. "Now, our Web hosters will be able to offer a very sophisticated Web and video conferencing service to their users.

"From your Web hosting vendor, you're going to be able to portray your business as worldclass - just like we've seen with the shopping cart and the shopping experience. This trend of cloud computing will arm small businesses with the tools to compete in a very competitive marketplace."

Still, many consumers are wary of hosting their businesses in the cloud. But, for many others, the bundled services are just too good to pass up. Often, obtaining these services from one provider can mean a lower price point than purchasing them individually. But more significant is the ease of operation for Web professionals. Having several business-critical components in one place, under one operator, removes much of the hassle and worry. In the cloud, someone else is charged with updates, upgrades and system patches. What's more, should something go awry, the business owner often has one contact point to get the problem fixed.

"We are very quickly approaching a tipping point," says Nesbitt. "Let's face it, it's already here. Ten years from now, nobody is going to ask, 'Should I host my own enterprise application' any more than you would ask, 'Should I set up my own power generator?' "

Maximum Performance with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)
 While not new, CDNs are quickly becoming the go-to solutions in the hosting world - and that's mostly due to higher-than-ever expectations from today's Web users.

A September 2010 report by Equation Research titled "When Seconds Count" showed that nearly one-third (32 percent) of consumers will start abandoning websites if they don't load within one to five seconds of landing on the page. Worse, more than a third (37 percent) said they would not return to a slow site - 27 percent would likely jump to a competitor's site.

And, user expectations of fast load times is compounded by the fact that they expect resource-intensive content, such as streaming video and other interactive media. Add in the recent introduction of search upgrades such as Google's Caffeine index and the evolution of the real-time Web and it creates a perfect storm for website owners. It's more important than ever that our websites are available, fast and meeting the expectations of our users.

A CDN can have a tremendous impact on our online presences. Essentially, these systems deliver content on-demand through a network of hosting locations spread across locations (referred to as edge networks) to avoid bottlenecks of data being transmitted. The user gets a faster, better experience and the website owner can be assured of high availability and increased capacity for transfer.

For example, a website that hosts a gallery of hundreds of photographs can choose to upload the lot of them to their CDN. The images are then automatically uploaded to each of the CDN's locations. Then, when a user clicks to view photographs on the website, they are being delivered from the nearest point-of-presence (POP). So, a user in Manchester would be pulling images from a London POP, rather than one located in Las Vegas, for example. The end result is a more seamless experience for the user.

But it doesn't stop there.

"Servers can be uniquely tailored to fit certain solutions," says Josh Ewin, director of marketing, Dedicated Now. "The Web server, for instance might have RAID 1 redundancy, a mid-range spec, then your database server could have RAID 5 or RAID 6 for improved input/output. A lot of folks are breaking out their content, like streaming video, images and even their Web pages, Javascripts and CSS files onto CDNs."

In other words, CDNs allow for better allocation of resources appropriate to the task. Not only does a strong hosting environment affect user experience, but it can also have a sizable impact on a website's ranking in the search engines. While Google's exact ranking algorithm remains a mystery, website performance is most definitely part of the equation, on several levels.

"If you're on a dedicated server, you need to at least be in that mindset to allocate funds in the near future to CDN," says Ewin. "It not only enhances your performance and user experience but it's also going to help with the SERPs. Your page load times will be lower.

"If you think purely on bounce rate, imagine if your page load time was 30 seconds as opposed to 5 seconds. Bounce rate is absolutely a key metric when it comes to usability and search engine ranking."

Unfortunately, CDNs are simply not feasible for all Web enterprises - it comes with a cost. Prices can vary but business owners should expect to pay at least $200 per month, in addition to the cost of running a dedicated server. The good news is that dedicated server solutions are becoming more affordable. According to Ewin, an unmanaged dedicated solution can cost as little as $50-$65 per month. However, should you need a managed solution (if you are new to the hosting world) expect to pay around $150 per month.

Expect More
Web hosting has come a long way in just the past few years. Web business owners should expect more from their hosting solutions. From extended software services to high availability and lightning-fast page load times, Web hosts are much more than a simple place to store data. Increasingly, the hosting environment is becoming a critical component of overall Web success. Users are expecting more from your website than ever before.

Whether starting a new website or looking for new solutions for an existing site, know that Web hosts have plenty to offer and are willing to work with you as a business partner, not just a service provider. Make sure you get what you need, and what you pay for.