Web Hosting 101: What is Web Hosting and How Does It Work?Last Updated:
Got something to say? Whether you’re sharing an opinion or selling a product, you have the power to reach more people than ever before. Just how many? Consider this: over 3.5 billion users – almost half of all the people on the planet – use the Internet today. It’s a wide, wide web out there, and the best way to make your mark is to set up your own website.
For that, you’ll need web hosting. But what exactly is web hosting?
Think of your website as your home on the internet. All of the content you want to put up, from blog posts to product catalogs and everything in between, is a file you’ll soon be storing on the shelves. Before you can do that, though, you’ll need to buy the house. That’s what it means to get web hosting: you’re getting a corner of the internet to make your own.
How Does Web Hosting Work?
Simply put, the internet is a vast neighborhood of computers linked by high-speed connections. The computer that holds your corner of the internet, including all the files that make up your website, is called a server.
Ever noticed how the people who check out a website are called “visitors”? Well, think of them and servers as just that: visitors drop by to view the content you’ve put on display in your internet home, and servers are the butlers who, well, serve up that information. Without web hosting, you’d need to manually send files whenever someone wanted to view your content — getting up to open the door every time a visitor comes knocking, so to speak. That can get tiresome quickly.
Web hosting eliminates the need for that process. Servers have your files at the ready, so visitors can check out your website’s contents whether or not you’re around to let them in.
But wait. How do they even find your website in the first place?
Domain Names and DNS: Your Address on the Internet
If your website is your Internet home, then your domain name is your street address. This is what tells your browser where to go. Facebook.com, Google.com, Linux.org, BBC.co.uk are just some examples of domain names. When you set up a website, you’ll have to choose and register a domain name – that is, claim the address as yours.
Usually, you can register a domain name when you sign up for web hosting. You can also do that separately through domain name registrars like GoDaddy.com or Namecheap. There’s no difference between the kind of domain names you get from different sources, so either way works fine.
You might’ve seen the terms “DNS” or “nameserver” floating around and wondered, What the heck does that mean? DNS stands for “domain name system” or “domain name server,” and “nameserver” is just a shortcut for the latter.
Why are these important? Well, the relationship between your website and its domain name isn’t automatic. You can give a browser an address, but it won’t instantly know which house it’s for. DNS or nameservers are your friendly neighborhood signposts, telling your visitors’ browsers that your address (domain name) refers to your house (website).
You don’t have to worry much about DNS, though, since your web hosting provider will typically take care of DNS matters for you. If you want more advanced DNS options, you can also check out the many DNS-focused service companies available on the web.
Together, web hosting and domain names constitute the basics of your presence on the Internet.
Lights Out: Downtime and What You Can Do About It
Okay, we’ve learned about how web hosting works. What about when it doesn’t work?
We’ve all run into that dreaded error page at one point: you type in a domain name, wait for the page to load, and discover that the website you want to visit is nowhere to be found. You might have heard of a term for it: “downtime.” With any luck, these are temporary hiccups; but all the same, every second your website is down is another second when visitors can’t get to your content. If you’re going to put up your own website, you need to have some idea of what causes these blips so you can be prepared.
There are a lot of factors that can bring down a website: problems with hardware or software, issues with the network, or even deliberate attacks from malicious sources. For now, though, we’ll focus on the factors related to the web hosting process: outgrowing your web hosting plan, traffic spikes, and server maintenance.
Sometimes you’re broke but you’ve got a clever idea, so you sign up for the cheapest web hosting plan you can find just to get started. And then, sometimes, your clever idea finds an audience — and that audience grows and grows, until your server throws its hands up and reminds you that this is more than you signed it up for.
Not all hosting plans are created equal. When it comes to web hosting, you often get what you pay for — and the lower-cost plans, convenient though they are, just can’t handle more than a certain number of regular visitors. When you exceed that number, your server struggles.
This is the best kind of downtime problem to have, for two reasons:
- You’re making obvious, if temporarily inconvenient, progress.
- Solving the problem is as easy as getting an upgrade.
Depending on your current configuration, website needs, and budget, that upgrade might entail switching to a higher-end hosting plan, or it might require getting a beefier server. Either way, it’s a simple matter of your website having grown too big for its house and finding a new home that can accommodate everyone who wants to visit.
Traffic Spikes and Struggling Servers
Remember your server, the one holding all your website’s files? When there are too many visitors trying to pull information from your website, that server can get stretched too thin. This is especially true if it’s a sudden jump in traffic: content that goes for viral, for example, can bring in more visitors/demand than the server can handle. This can cause drastic slowdowns for your website, or even outright outages.
This is the same basic idea behind “DDoS attacks,” which you might know as one of the tools used by malicious users against websites. DDoS, or Distributed Denial of Service, attacks involve tons of traffic deliberately hurled at a website from numerous sources – the goal is to bring down a website by overloading the server.
Luckily, there are many ways for you to guard against server overload. One of the simplest solutions is to invest in backup hosting and DNS management services. With a backup or secondary host, you can have a mirror copy of your website’s content, so you don’t lose any data when your main website goes down. DNS management services, on the other hand, can automatically reroute visitors to your backup hosting if your main one does black out.
Another option is to invest in Content Distribution Network (CDN) services, which store snapshots of your website on different servers. When your website goes down, a CDN service can fill in the gap by delivering these snapshots to your visitors while you work on restoring the actual website.
Another reason for downtime is server maintenance. Ever sat through hours-long updates for your own computers? Then you know how intensive the process can be. Remember that servers are computers too, and sometimes they have to be taken offline so that their hardware or software can be upgraded or repaired.
Fortunately, web hosting providers know better than to carry out this process during periods of high traffic – and if you’re in charge of maintaining your own server, then you should follow their lead and keep maintenance operations to low-traffic hours, as well. That minimizes the number of missed visits that might result from your website being offline.
There’s not much you can do about server maintenance. In most cases, you’ll just have to ask your web hosting provider (or your IT team, if they’re the ones in charge of maintenance) for regular updates, sit tight, and wait for the process to finish. If the process has been planned out right, then it won’t be more than a quick, routine blip in your website’s availability.
Feel Right At Home
There are lots of websites out there, and even more confusing terms and processes that can leave anybody dizzy. But far more than either of those are the number of users you can reach by establishing a presence on the web. Finding out how web hosting works is an essential first step in making the most of the power that the Internet places at your fingertips. With these basics in your pocket, you’re well on your way to building a space on the web that you can proudly call your own.
As for your next step? Time to find a web hosting provider that can help you out! There are hundreds of companies out there, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Here’s a list of our favorite web hosts to give you a good start.