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What is web hosting? A beginner’s guide

Anyone who wants to get a website online needs to go through a web host. So, what is web hosting? Web hosting is a service that allows you to host data online so it’s accessible on the internet. This data can come in the form of text, images, videos, etc. 

When you pay for the service of web hosting, you’re not paying for a website. You’re paying for your website to be hosted by the company offering the service. For example, our clients pay us to host their website online.

If it seems a bit confusing, you’re in the right place. We’ll take you through how it works and what it all means in this beginner’s guide. Dive into the captivating world of web hosting – where your website’s story unfolds. And for a backstage pass to budget-friendly brilliance, explore the wonders of web hosting.


What is web hosting?

Web hosting is renting space from a web host provider to make your data accessible on the internet. Let’s use an analogy to explain this.

If you wanted to build a house, before you could start you would need an open area of land. That’s because the house occupies space. So, before you get all your materials for your house, you’d find the perfect piece of land.

To become the owner of a piece of land, you’ll need to purchase it from the proper authorities. After you purchase it, you’ll have a vacant plot of land. Once the land is yours, you can build any kind of house you like. Naturally, the bigger the plot the more options you have.

Even though you own the plot, you still have to adhere to the laws of the land. So, as long as you operate within the laws your house won’t be a problem. If you break the laws of the land, you could possibly lose your house.

Web hosting works the same way.

Web hosting companies like us have plenty of vacant plots available on what we call servers. Think of servers like massive computers made especially for hosting websites.

For you to own a vacant plot, we’d have to sell it to you first. Once you own a vacant plot (server space), you can start to build your house (website).

This is the only way for you to have a website on the internet. You have to use web hosting from a web hosting provider. You can’t have a website without web hosting, the same way you can’t have a house without land.

If you have enough technical skill and money, you can get all the hardware and software to host yourself. It’s an expensive option, so not the solution for everyone, but it’s possible.

It takes a large amount of hours and money to make it happen. After all that, it will rarely be worth the website, so we wouldn’t suggest it. Finding a reliable web host is practically the best way to go.


How does web hosting work?

Now that you know what web hosting is, let’s get into how it works.

A website is made up of a bunch of files that sits on a physical computer called a server. This server has RAM, hard drive space, and uses bandwidth like a normal computer, except it isn’t.

It’s way more powerful than a normal computer. That’s why a single server can host thousands of websites at a time without any trouble.

When someone wants to visit your website, the server will transfer your website files to the visitor. Their browser will then load all the files and the website will start to appear.

Websites with large or plenty of files take longer to load. The entire process only takes a few seconds in total, but more files can make the process slower.

The servers differ from computers in one other key way: you can access them at any time. The server never sleeps, so your website will always be accessible. Servers continue to work even if people are doing maintenance on it.


Getting a domain for your website

A HOSTAFRICA donut chart showing the most popular TLDS

There’s one other key part of the entire web hosting process. You need to know the address of the website you want to visit.

The server can only fetch a website’s files once you tell it to. The tricky thing is that browsers speak to each other and servers using Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. They basically ask each other for information using numbers instead of words.

Since we don’t speak in numbers, we need a system to tell computers how to fetch information using words. This system is the Domain Name System (DNS). It’s basically the phonebook of the internet. 

It has a massive list of the names or words that match specific IP addresses. We call the names or words people use for their websites domain names. For example, Google is matched to 142.251.32.46 which is their IP address. So, when we enter that into a browser, it knows what website to fetch.

That’s where your domain name comes in. If you don’t have a domain name, people won’t know how to access your website. They could enter your IP address, but have you ever entered an IP address to visit a website?

To make your website accessible to people you need a domain name.


Who needs web hosting?

Anyone who plans to start a website needs web hosting. Think of our house analogy. You could create the most magnificent house in your mind. If you want it to be a reality, however, it needs to occupy a space in the world.

Websites are good investments if you’re looking to extend your reach beyond a small circle. They work well for almost any venture or idea. Here are a few examples.

  • Online store
  • Business website
  • Portfolio
  • Resume & CV
  • Blog
  • Learning hub
  • Social media hub
  • Online scrapbook
  • Online diary

The possibilities are vast, and they open the door to plenty of opportunities. A website with your portfolio and CV will look a lot more professional than a Word or PDF document.

Like our house analogy, one size does not fit all. There are different kinds of hosting that will suit different needs. Some people want a big house, some people want a small house with a big yard, etc.

Depending on your hosting needs, some hosting packages will be better suited for you.


Different types of web hosting services

There are quite a few hosting packages available to you. A general rule of thumb is to start with the smallest hosting package. For most hosting companies, it’ll be standard web hosting. You can upgrade to a package with more server resources once your traffic increases.

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of hosting. This way you know what suits your business, project, or venture best.

Shared web hosting

A HOSTAFRICA donut chart showing the popularity of shared hosting versus every other kind of hosting

Shared web hosting is when your website shares space on a server with other websites. Think of an apartment building. Everyone has a flat in the apartment, but the building itself does not belong to any of the tenants.

This is the simplest form of web hosting for most people looking to get their website online. Shared hosting is ideal for smaller websites, or people with small to medium businesses.

It doesn’t require much upkeep and is relatively affordable. If you’re just starting out, we’d recommend you start with a shared hosting package.

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Barely any technical skill required
  • Server is already configured for you
  • No server maintenance is required

Cons

  • No say on server settings or configuration
  • No admin access

Virtual private server (VPS) hosting

VPS hosting is similar to shared hosting in the sense that many people use the same server. The difference is that they don’t share resources. Each VPS user gets a set amount of the server’s resources. We call this creating a virtual partition for each user.

Let’s use a housing complex analogy to explain. Instead of renting a room in an apartment, you buy a house in a housing complex or gated community. The houses around you are all part of the complex or community.

Whatever happens in someone else’s house doesn’t affect you, because everyone owns their own house. This also means you have access to the shared resources like gyms, parks, and pools.

So, with VPS hosting your resources are only for you. It’s like having your own server where you don’t have to share resources with anyone else. It’s similar to dedicated hosting in that sense (which we’ll cover in a bit).

VPS hosting is a great option for medium-sized online stores or websites that are getting plenty of traffic.

Pros

  • Affordable for the service you’re getting
  • Scalable
  • More secure than most kinds of hosting
  • Traffic and issues on other people’s websites have no bearing on your resources.
  • Highly customisable 

Cons

  • You need technical skill to manage it
  • A bit more expensive than shared hosting
  • May need to hire an expert to help you run it, increasing the effective cost

KVM cloud hosting

Our Cloud hosting is similar to VPS hosting. The difference is that this kind uses Kernel-based Virtual machines (KVMs). It’s enhanced with Virtuozzo’s hypervisor that supports Linux and Windows.

Cloud hosting is better suited to large or multiple websites that have lots of moving parts to keep it functioning.

One of the biggest perks is that virtual machines are even more isolated. This means that many environments can run on one server without any trouble. Think of your device running Windows and Mac OS at the same time on separate screens.

Another major perk is that your resources aren’t metered. That means the server will do whatever it takes to keep your website operating. That’s different to the previous two options where there’s a general limit on your resources.

We go into more detail on our cloud hosting and VPS hosting in this blog post.

Our house analogy struggles a bit with this kind of hosting, but imagine this scenario. You have a house on an island. If you need more space or another house, you can make the island bigger. The main idea is that you’re completely isolated.

Pros

  • Lots of scalability and flexibility
  • Backup and disaster recovery are usually automatic
  • Practically no downtime due to hardware failure
  • Load balancing helps prevent DDoS attacks
  • Full root access

Cons

  • Pricier than shared and VPS hosting
  • Needs reliable internet from your side to access remote data

Dedicated server hosting

Dedicated server hosting is having an entire server all to yourself. Since you have the entire server to yourself, you can configure it any way you want. That includes customising and installing software and operating systems you prefer.

All these perks come with a hefty price tag. So, dedicated hosting is usually best suited for websites with heavy traffic. The other side of that coin is that you need experts to help you manage it.

Because maintaining a server is such a massive task, you’ll need a few technically skilled people. Even if you know how to maintain one yourself, it takes so much work. You won’t have time to complete any other tasks.

Imagine having a neighbourhood all to yourself. That’s what dedicated hosting is, essentially. All the land, houses, roads, and whatever is in between. With all that ownership, comes plenty of responsibility as well.

Watering the grass, fixing the roads, painting the houses, the works. Basically, a dedicated server is not a one-person job. You should only consider it as an option if you have a team of people with you.

Pros

  • Very reliable hosting solution
  • Root access and maximum customisability
  • Excellent flexibility and scalability
  • Complete control over the configuration 

Cons

  • Need to be technically skilled or have a sysadmin on your team
  • Needs more maintenance 
  • Hefty price tag

Reseller hosting

This is a special kind of hosting that’s different from all the others mentioned so far. Reseller hosting is when you get some space on a server then rent the space that you have to other people. In a sense, you’re becoming a web host yourself.

Reseller hosting can work for almost any kind of hosting. So, you can sell shared hosting, VPS hosting, and even domains. It’s more of a business venture than just having a website online.

You’ll use part of your server space to host your own website. The rest of the space is yours to sell. You can divide it as you see fit, creating packages similar to the way we create packages.

Think of it as buying a big plot of land and building a big house on it. You then divide the house up into separate rooms and rent the rooms to people. The more rooms you rent the more houses you can buy over time. 

With time and hard work, you could eventually own the whole neighbourhood.

Remember that your big house still forms part of the neighbourhood, so it has to follow the rules. Within those rules, however, you have free reign.

Our blog on how to become a successful web hosting reseller can give you some excellent tips if you’re interested. 

A donut chart showing the market share of hosting companies worldwide

Pros

  • Server space for the same size is less than the type of hosting you’re selling
  • An additional income opportunity
  • Additional admin features compared to normal hosting
  • Little technical knowledge required

Cons

  • The web host you’re buying server space from has a direct impact on your business
  • It’s hard work
  • You need some technical knowledge
  • It can be competitive

How to choose the best web hosting provider for you

Now you know some of the different kinds of hosting options available to you. Let’s go over how to pick the best hosting provider for you.

Web hosting is usually a long-term plan. Few people want a website for less than six months or even a year. Even if it’s not that active people tend to hold onto it. That way they can come back later and pick up where they left off.

As their website grows in size and gets increased traffic, they’ll want to upgrade or scale their hosting plan. It may be different for you, but this is generally how it goes.

So, when choosing a web host, you want to look for a company that provides top quality products with excellent scalability. They should have a variety of products so you can scale forwards or backwards if you need to.

There are free web hosting options as well. They generally won’t match up to the paid shared hosting plans, however. They’ll usually lack the timely technical support that you need with web hosting.

Having quick expert support is probably one of the most important requirements for web hosting.

Issues will always appear or break on your website. That’s just the nature of hosting because there are so many movable parts. The more you try to improve things the more likely they are to break. That’s part of having a website.

What makes the experience good or bad is how you receive support when an issue occurs. Our support staff will always go above and beyond to patch any server or hosting issue you’re having. That’s because hosting a website shouldn’t be a problematic experience. Our support engineers make sure that it isn’t.

Sometimes the website itself can be the issue. In that case you’ll need a developer to take a look and patch things up.

There are things you can look at and compare to see what hosting provider will suit you best. They include resources, reliability, and reviews, to name a few.

Uptime and reliability

One of the most important things to consider for your website is uptime. You don’t want your website to be offline every other day.

That won’t be good for business or visitor trust. Your website should be available 24/7. A website that’s always available will get more visitors, naturally.

Look for an uptime guarantee when choosing a web host. It shows the company maintains their servers and systems. That’s what you want, since your website will be living on a server.

Control panel

To run a website, you need some level of admin access. Not to the server per say, but to your website files. That’s what a control panel is for.

It’s similar to the control panel on your Windows or Mac device. You’ll be able to change all the dials and knobs related to your website.

What you want from a control panel is something that’s easy to use and not technical.

You don’t want to build the wheel before you use it. Each hosting company will use a control panel to help users manage their website. Check out what they’re offering and see if it suits you.

We use cPanel. It’s a world-renowned control panel for managing websites.

Customer support and online reviews

A HOSTAFRICA donut chart showing the impact of customer service on a company

Like we said earlier, excellent customer support is vital. Unexpected crashes or a slow loading website needs a swift but steady hand to fix. Make sure that the hosting provider prioritises support.

A good way to check this is looking at their reviews. People will generally share if they’ve had a good or bad experience in dealing with a company. Hellopeter, Trustpilot, and Google reviews are a good source for reviews. We’ve shared ours so you can decide for yourself.

Another area of support can come via a knowledge base. Chances are, the problem you’re facing is not a new one. Their knowledge base should have quick and easy solutions to most common problems you could face.

Security

A HOSTAFRICA pie chart showing security incident statistics that are the fault of providers versus customers

Online website security should be a priority for everyone. That’s especially true for your hosting provider. Check their website to see what security measures they’re using. They shouldn’t cut any corners when it comes to server safety.

Security measures should include things like DDoS and malware protection, automatic backups, and updates.

Technical specs and addons

Most hosting companies will have similar kinds of hosting products. What separates them from one another, besides top-tier support, are the addons and technical specs.

What technology are they using to run and maintain their servers (and your website by extension)? Higher grade equipment and systems will obviously mean a better product for you. Compare the different machine specs that companies offer.

They could also have other addons like SSL certificates, cheaper domains, or free backup services.


Conclusion

Consider yourself equipped with the knowledge of what web hosting is. We hope you can confidently choose the right web hosting provider for you. The health and accessibility of your future website depends on your provider and the work you put in.

If you’re looking for the perfect hosting partner for your website, look no further.


The Author

Ashwin S.

Alphabets are a random collection of symbols that, when put in a certain order, convey a specific meaning. We use our senses to understand this meaning. When we become immersed in the symbols' meaning, we're under the illusion that it's real - we hallucinate after looking at the symbols. Thus, I create hallucinations, using arbitrary symbols. In other words, I'm a writer. I've been a part of the Marketing Team since 2021 and am responsible for much of the text content HOSTAFRICA produces.

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