Select a Host for Your E-Commerce Site
If you plan to set up an e-commerce site to sell products and/or services, choosing a service to host your site is one of your most important decisions.
What factors should you consider? Which capabilities are most important?
Hosting Service Uptime
Here's an example of what can go wrong. One of my clients was plagued with a Web site that went down two or three evenings a week. I investigated and discovered that his hosting company's Web server was stored in the closet of a local IT services firm. If a glitch developed during the evening or on the weekend, no one could resolve it
You'll want your Web server's operations monitored 24/7 by on-site technicians who can fix any problems that arise. The most economical way to achieve this objective is to run your site on a server located in a major data center. The data center may maintain hundreds or thousands of servers, and each machine could host many e-commerce sites suitable for small businesses. A large data center can afford around-the-clock staffing because the cost is borne by thousands of business Web sites.
Your e-commerce site should be available to potential customers at all times, so "uptime"--usually expressed as a percentage of the time a site is accessible on the Internet--is important. A good hosting service should be able to consistently deliver an uptime of 99.8 percent
A good Web host should be willing to provide you with recent uptime statistics for the server it will use to host your site. I also recommend that you independently monitor the uptime of your Web site after you select your hosting service. Basic State provides a free uptime monitoring service which checks the availability of your Web site every 15 minutes and alerts you when it's down. Basic State also lists the recent uptime statistics for a number of popular e-commerce sites.
Programming Language and Database Support
Only the most basic e-commerce sites rely on plain HTML Web pages these days. If you sell an array of products and services, you'll need a database, such as MySQL, to store the details. You'll also need a host that
Your host should offer a control panel for administering your site, making it easier for you to track site visitors and manage e-mail accounts. Many control panels offer easy installation of various open-source Web applications, which may be handy to some Webmasters, but I prefer to get an app directly from its source Web site. Doing so ensures that
SSL and Dedicated IP Address
To keep your customers' data secure, sensitive information, such as credit card details, should be encrypted prior to being sent from a customer's Web browser to your e-commerce site's order form. That way, your customers won't be at risk if a snoop happens to pick up the data along the route. Installing a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Certificate on your site will support encryption and
You may purchase an SSL Certificate for an annual fee from your host or from a third party, such as VeriSign. Your SSL certificate must be installed on a Web site hosted on a dedicated IP address (one that is not shared with any other site); most consumer ISP services assign IP addresses dynamically, which is one reason why running a Web-based business from your home isn't a great idea. Most hosts can install the certificate for you and give you a dedicated IP address, though these extras are likely to add a few dollars to your monthly service fee.
Most shared hosting services offer several packages, each with a maximum data-storage capacity and a cap on monthly data transmission (often erroneously referred to as "bandwidth"). On a shared host, your site may share one server's resources with hundreds of other sites. A shared hosting account is probably adequate to start with, if your site is new.
If you're running a busy and established e-commerce site, you may need more server resources than a shared hosting service can provide without compromising the performance of its other customers' sites. One step up from a shared host is a Virtual Private Server. A VPS dedicates a range of memory, storage capacity, and data transmission for your site. Typically a VPS server contains far fewer sites than a shared host.
If your e-commerce site continues to grow, you may want to host it on a dedicated server--one which handles your site and no others. A dedicated server may be either managed or unmanaged. Managed services normally include software and update installations, improved security, and monitoring for performance problems. With an unmanaged server, you handling these tasks on your own.
The monthly fee that your hosting service charges should be competitive--but an unusually low fee for comparable capacity and services is a red flag. It may mean that the service is cramming so many clients on a server that it won't be able to provide good performance. Also, a bargain-basement
Avoid hosts that promise unlimited disk capacity and data transmission for $5 per month, for example. They can't deliver on that promise, since there's no such thing as a hard drive with unlimited capacity.
Monthly fees for a good shared-hosting service should start at about $10 per month. Managed dedicated servers start at several hundred dollars and may cost more than a thousand dollars a month, depending on the hardware and services offered. The cost of a VPS account will fall somewhere in the middle.
This is not the place to cut corners. A solid Web host, with reliable uptime and the services you need, will provide a solid foundation on which to build your online business.
Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your connected small to midsize business via e-mail. PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.