What is a hosting server and how to choose one?
Hosting is sharing disk space on a computer (called a server), which is working and connected to the Internet at all times. On this disk space, your website (so files) are being kept and served to the Internet users. In order for a website to function, it has to be put on a hosting server. If this computer isn't working properly, your website will be inaccessible. Because of this, it is essential to pick your hosting provider with extreme caution.
Uptime is a vital term, related to hosting. It is the time (measured in percentages) of uninterrupted work of a hosting server, and thus - the websites which are kept on that machine. The correct uptime should be 99%, which means, that if we check our website for any amount of time, then in 99% of cases it will load without problems.
Many hosting companies guarantee their uptime level and return cash if it drops below a certain threshold. The company that I use - DreamHost - guarantees 100% uptime.
How much does hosting cost and free hosting
Hosting prices range from $10 to $200. Choosing the cheapest hosting will result in a low quality service, with bad parameters (described below) and low uptime. Remember, that even the best looking website can be a reason to be ashamed, if it constantly doesn't work or loads for ever.
The reasonable price range for good quality hosting ranges from $100 up to $150. Cheaper offers will likely just arise problems, while the more expensive ones will not give any extra value.
Some companies offer free hosting. This should be absolutely avoided. Free hosting services are slow, have restrictions on data transfer (so your website wouldn't work for half of each day), but most of all - they display advertisements on your website.
There is no such thing as good cheap or free hosting services. Hosting is THE vital service, on which your online business depends. You shouldn't try to save money on it.
Web Hosting features and the difference between hosting offers
Depending on how technically complicated your website is, you will have to choose a hosting provider that supports the right technologies. Most of the time you only need to make sure that the hosting provider offers the PHP and MySQL technologies, although some web developers use other tools, so be sure to ask them, if that's what they need.
Hosting services have restrictions on how much disk space (data storage) you can use. For a typical website, 200 MB (megabytes) of storage will be enough, but if you're going to post a lot of pictures, graphics or movies on your site, you should choose an offer, that lets you put a few GB (gigabytes, 1 GB = 1000 MB) of files on the hosting server.
The last important feature of a hosting service is it's transfer or bandwitdh. It is the size of data, which is actually sent from the hosting server to the Internet user. For example: a picture takes 1 MB of disk space and is send to 2 website visitors. The generated traffic is 2 x 1 MB = 2 MB.
For a typical site, the bandwidth rate doesn't exceed 30 GB a month, although a safe margin would be 60 GB.
What to focus on when choosing web hosting?
Aside from the above features, you should make sure, that if you reach your data transfer limit, the website will go offline and not serve users extra bandwith, which you would later have to pay an extra fee for. So, you should review the agreement for this case, and if it's not clear, ask your hosting provider about this case. If this kind of fees are in the agreement, choose a more professional hosting provider. Better yet, choose an offer with limits that you'll never even get close to reaching - the prices are the same, you just have to find the right deal.
Which hosting company and offer should I choose?
From my experience, DreamHost is a great hosting provider (one of the 15 largest hosting companies in the world). They have a big enough infrastructure, that they don't place any limits on data storage or bandwidth. Plus, they even provide a free domain, paid for by them as long as you use their hosting!
The stability and lightning-fast technical support make them an unprecedented leader in hosting in my opinion. Their service costs $120 a year and if they don't reach the guaranteed uptime of 100%, you don't pay for that month.
What's next? How to connect my hosting with a domain name?
Your hosting works immediately after purchase, although for your website to function, you will also need a domain name. These two services have to be connected with each other using a DNS server (it's billed to the domain name price). If you're using the same company to buy hosting and domains, they're automatically set up after purchase. If you're using different companies, don't worry - your web site developer should do this simple task for you with no additional costs.
Remember, that may take up to 48 hours for the domain to function after connecting it with a hosting server. This delay is called the DNS propagation time. It usually takes just a few minutes, though.