What is Web Hosting?

Where do websites actually reside?

Servers supplying information to the world

Putting your own site on the web requires a lot of effort to come up with content, promote it to your audience, and keep everything fresh. But a lot also happens behind the scenes that allows you to create that content, for your audience to enter your site's name and land on your home page, and more. This is collectively known as web hosting, and if you're looking to launch your own site, you should know what web hosting is and how it works.

What is Web Hosting?

What we consider a single service, web hosting, is actually a collection of functions. They can be provided by different vendors, although you'll typically get them all from the same one. The most important functions are:

  • Registration of your domain name, which is how your users will visit your site.
  • Storage of your site files, which can be either static HTML content or the files that make up a content management system.
  • Maintaining a technology stack to support websites and applications, including databases and programming languages such as PHP.
  • Ancillary tools such as email hosting, marketing support, and website analytics.
  • Administrative services such as user management and payments.

Let's look at each one of these in turn.

Web Hosting & Domain Name Management

Pinging domain names to get IP addresses

You're probably aware the internet, at a basic level, knows nothing about domain names. Rather, it works on the basis of IP addresses. Domain names are simply a shortcut that allows you to remember something easy, such as lifewire.com, instead of something harder, like 151.101.2.114.

Web hosts are a convenient place to acquire and manage your domain names because you should have one before you get ready to launch a site. Not only do web hosting companies make it easy to search for and purchase domain names, many of them even include it as a step in their registration process. There are even web hosts out there that will even give a domain name one for free if you agree to purchase their service for a year. If the host is someone you like and would use anyway, why not take advantage of it?

Your web host's control panel also has tools to help manage your domain name, including:

  • Where it should point, which could be to a web site with the same company, a different company, or simply redirect it to another existing site.
  • Help migrating your domain name's management to another company, if you're leaving your current web host.
  • Help migrating a domain name you own to this provider, so you can host your site with them.

Web Hosting & Site Storage

In the early days of the internet, web sites were comprised of text and images. The text was HTML, and comprised the pages your browser would render for you. The images aren't much different from what we have today: GIFs, JPEGs, and maybe a few BMPs back then. The point is, to have a web site all you needed was somewhere to store it.

The same applies today. In the past, it was common to store your site on a Unix-style host, in your home directory's public folder. Today's web hosts do things in a very similar way, granting hosting customers accounts on their Linux-based networks. Then, they also manage the association of a website domain name with some of those files in your account. So if I have two websites, lifewirerules.com and aaronpeters.org, they'd reside in my hosting account in something like home/apeters4234/public/lifewirerules.com and home/apeters4234/public/aaronpeters.org.

But instead of those static HTML and image files, your website is probably run through a content management system. Applications like WordPress enable dynamic sites, and allow you to manage your website using point-and-click tools, rather than having to craft HTML code by hand. And web hosting companies are keen to the advantages of a CMS. Most hosts offer some sort of way to automate the process of getting a CMS set up, although you can still go old-school and use a static site (for example, by using a static site generator).

Web Hosting Technology Stacks

phpMyAdmin, a database management interface

If you were to want WordPress to run your site, you (or your web host) would start by downloading the application's files and placing them in a designated directory. But just having the files there isn't enough. WordPress is written in the PHP programming language, and in order to run it, your web server needs support for it. You also need access to a database. So your web hosting provider will equip their servers with the necessary technology, such as:

  • Databases like MySQL or PostreSQL.
  • Programming languages such as PHP, Python, and Ruby.
  • Web programming frameworks, e.g. the currently popular Node.js.

If you ran your own server such as a VPS Server, these are things you'd need to install (and update, and troubleshoot, etc.) yourself. But your web host takes care of all that. All you need to do is make sure that the hosting company supports whatever combination of technology is required by the app you want to use.

Web Hosting Ancillary Tools

Web host email and analytics tools

In addition to your actual website, hosting companies also help you to manage certain 'website-adjacent' items. Email is the most common example. Hosting email comes with its own set of challenges, but since these companies are experts in important areas like server administration and network management, it's relatively easy for them to offer these services as an add-on. One thing to be aware of however is that these email services will likely use traditional protocols like POP3 or IMAP. A few hosting companies offer integrated Gmail or Office 365-based email, but it's typically not free.

Other tools web hosts provide include:

  • Tools to purchase security-related items like SSL certificates.
  • File storage over protocols like FTP, if you're hosting large volume of files that don't make sense to display as links on your site.
  • Development tools like the Git version control system.
  • Site analytics that measure your site's viewership.

Web Hosting Administrative Services

Finally, web hosting companies provide some administrative services to make your life as a site owner easier. They include some of the following:

  • Account information, such as your contact information, which is required to register your domain name.
  • Payment methods, because unfortunately, your hosting company will want to be paid for the services you use.
  • User management, allowing you to grant access to other people (sometimes in a configurable way) to your web hosting account.
  • Hosting tools that allow you to upgrade, downgrade, or cancel your service.
  • Reminders of important dates, such as domain renewals.

Your Hosting Company Is Your Partner in Site Management

While there are some web hosts out there that can get you on the web for literally pennies, it's important to think through your options before you select one. While a different host may charge a little more, they may have the support that one day helps you recover from an outage. Your hosting company is your partner in more ways than one, and you should look for hosts that give you the best deal considering all the items discussed above.