Web sites have a natural progression. Not all sites go through every stage described below, but many do follow a similar path.
1. Many sites start off on a free server in a shared hosting arrangement. Your site is one or hundreds of thousands running on the same physical server with an address like mysite.myshot.com. That sort of address is fine for semi-public site development or a personal Web site, but it's obvious that you're a tenant in someone else's building. It's comparable to having a mailing address that is "in care of" another firm; not at all professional. At some point, often the very beginning, a site will get its own domain name like myserver.com.
2. Then a site moves to a paid but still shared host, gaining more bandwidth, more server space for data, a larger traffic allowance per month and hopefully better support. You get what you pay for, and often what you get is enough for a simple informational site or a very modest Web store.
3. From there, a site may migrate to a better host and to a virtual server. The advantages as you move up the scale include bigger, faster servers and more host-provided application software and site management tools. A virtual server is a self-contained copy of an operating system running on a "virtual machine" in an environment isolated from all other tenants of the physical server. It provides greater security and protection against downtime.
4. The next step is to move on to one's own physical server in a dedicated, managed or colocated hosting arrangement. The immediate advantage is not having to contend with other tenants of a physical server for processor power, or for bandwidth on the Internet connection coming into the physical server. The added security of having "the place" all to one's self is another advantage. Similar to buying and moving into a stand-alone home, moving into one's own server means lots of purchasing and configuration choices.
5. The operating system that underlies one's site makes a huge difference in server management; software applications available; maintenance and support routines; and often cost. The overwhelming majority of Web servers run under some flavor of Unix, often one of the many variations of Linux. This is known as the "*nix" world. The cost of *nix is much lower than running under Microsoft Windows Server. A wealth of free application and management software is available for *nix servers, too.
Having chosen an operating system, one must decide how the physical server itself will be hosted. You can rent or buy. You can maintain your site's home or let someone else do it for a price. You can share maintenance chores with the hosting company.
6. A dedicated server is leased from the hosting company, which is responsible for maintaining the server hardware, connectivity and facilities management. You are responsible for all software that goes on the machine and for day-to-day maintenance: uploading new data, monitoring and reporting, load balancing and so forth.
7. A fully managed server is one in which the hosting company retains full control of the machine and its software. You simply provide data that is manipulated on the server and pay the company to manage site configuration, monitoring and reporting, traffic analysis, load balancing and the like. You may not even have root access to the server but have to pass your data to the host and let it place the data on the server for you.
8. A colocated server is a physical machine that you buy and own, located along with others (colocated) in a data center operated by the hosting company. Unlike standardized servers provided by the hosting company, a colocated server can have virtually any configuration of processors, RAM, disk arrays and so forth that you want. It is your custom-built Web home. You may be responsible for running the server, as in a dedicated hosting arrangement; or you may outsource part or all of that task to the hosting company, in a managed hosting arrangement.
Web hosting is a highly flexible way to develop your company's Web presence, as the many options above reveal. A small to midsize business can start at the lowest level of free Web hosting and gradually (or, hopefully, speedily) move up the scale as its revenues and customer base grow. When to take the next step is determined primarily by traffic volume.
Most businesses migrate to paid, more reliable Web hosting within weeks or months of launching a Web site. Sharing a server with other tenants can last longer depending on the power of the physical server, your traffic volume, how many other tenants are on the server and their traffic volumes. Eventually, you will probably want your own server and dedicated Internet connection in a dedicated, managed or colocated hosting arrangement.
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