Hosting your public Web servers on a service provider’s site makes sense for a lot of reasons. Access to your data will be faster, traffic will not affect or be affected by your own internal Internet usage, and it may be easier to implement a security policy that does not mix external and internal traffic.
Carrier best hosting can be much more economical than buying, building and caring for your own system. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to take a hands-off approach to your Web servers.
All of the ISPs we examined provide simple cheap web hosting services. The hardware and system software may vary – UUNET, for example, is exclusively using Intel Pentiums running BSD/OS and a modified Apache HTTP server.
Others use large SGI machines or Digital Alphas. One vendor uses Sun SPARCs running Microsoft Commerce server. For basic Web services, it doesn’t really matter which OS and HTTPD server you are using. But if you want additional services, such as Electronic Commerce, Real Audio and database access, it does matter.
Vendors use a variety of billing strategies, making broad cost comparisons difficult.
Charges may be based on host computer type, number of customers per blog host, the amount of raw disk storage used, number of page hits and number of megabytes transferred.
In the typical configuration, you’ll be sharing a physical server with multiple companies. Usually, you will have your own IP address and domain name (except PSINet, which still does not allow for customer domain names–a major drawback to its services). For a higher fee, you can restrict the number of sites co-located on your server, or have exclusive ownership. Providing your own server doesn’t significantly reduce the price, and in fact may actually increase it.
What type of services do you get? All of the providers we talked to have at least one T3 connection to the Internet in facilities that house the Web server farm. Hosts are kept in a clean data center environment and managed on a 24×7 basis. Many of the Web providers do nightly incremental backups of all hosts, executing total backups once a week. At least one provider was vague on this point. You cannot be lax about backups. Get a service level agreement that specifies daily backups and indicates the maximum amount of time your server would be down in the event of an outage.
All the vendors reviewed had a stated plan for server fallback, mostly using hot spare hosts. What, then, if the whole site goes out? It’s not inconceivable. Only BBN, IBM and HLC offered redundant hosting facilities. Most claimed this would more than double the customer’s cost. HLC, however, offers the service for a mere 25 percent extra.
Beyond cost, redundant hosting has other flaws – Domain Name System (DNS) updates. It may take many hours for local DNS caches to clear themselves and allow your fallback server to be resolved to a new IP address. In that time, the original server may be back up again.
What is the downside of offsite hosting? It’s, well, offsite. Once you get your Web pages online you will soon find out that you need to make the site more interactive with HTML forms, e-mail via forms and other CGI applications. Many of the vendors listed allow you to create your own CGI applications and place them on the server, but you can’t install any program that has access to ROOT – a good security measure. Some providers don’t allow CGI applications that they haven’t written or certified.