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Among the ample fodder for comics and satirists served up during the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton's "phone ringing at 3 a.m." commercial stands out. The legacy of the 30-second spot, unveiled before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, is a rich trove of parodies that by now are much easier to find on YouTube than the original ad that inspired them.

Yuks aside, it turns out Clinton's communication people may have unwittingly aired an ad that's pitch-perfect for senior technology managers in charge of selecting a Web hosting provider for their companies. Consider how Chris Paino, CTO of Atlanta-based eVestment, made his decision back in 2001.

"Basically, I did the 3 a.m. test," says Paino. "We had a list of hosting companies we were interested in, and I woke up at 3 a.m. and called them. Most of the calls rolled over to voice-mail boxes or you got someone who was at an answering service."

However, in the case of INetU, the hosting provider Paino eventually selected, a trained technician picked up on the second ring. Paino asked a few questions and was pleased that tech's answers showed a goodly amount of server savvy. Today, Paino remains happy with his choice, adding that even though INetU's offices are 800 miles away in Allentown, Pa., calling the hosting provider "is like we're calling our server team down the hallway."

Paino's well-intentioned ruse seems a good way to at least begin to differentiate the crowded field of hosting providers. It's an industry segment that remains hopelessly cluttered by firms ranging from Fortune 500 stalwarts to a raft of much smaller companies serving mostly local and regional markets.

Generally, the bigger the hosting project, the bigger the hosting vendor, and time was when there was no shortage of stories about hosting heroics of U.S.-based tech multinationals. In a press release issued after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, IBM included a somewhat breathless quote by Tom Furey, then general manager of the company's worldwide Olympics technology, that building and managing the technology infrastructure for the Sydney Games was the "largest, most complex information technology challenge in the world."

So large and complex, perhaps, that IBM hasn't had a lick to do with hosting official Olympic websites ever since. To handle the website for the Beijing 2008 Games, the International Olympic Committee contracted, a sprawling Chinese entertainment and communication company that likely is obscure to many U.S. CIOs., which also offers proprietary search technology that competes directly with Google, will deploy more than 600 servers running quad core Intel Xeon chips and will maintain a reserve of 300 additional Xeon based servers as backups.

Just as it's no longer a fait accompli that the most challenging hosting projects will go to a pedigreed company that's a fixture in the technology industry, so too is it true that these same big companies no longer automatically eschew the website needs of small businesses. Indeed, perhaps the most significant hosting story of 2008 is Microsoft's relaunch of Office Live Small Business (OLSB), which focuses on the Web needs of small businesses, including the 70 percent of sole proprietorships in the nation that haven't yet hung out any sort of virtual shingle.

OLSB, with no-coding-required tools for designing and hosting a site, e-mailing customers, and conducting e-commerce, provides free website hosting with 500MB of storage. And the new OLSB shows an openness that's unusual for Microsoft. It's now easy enough (and also free) to set up an online presence using Firefox and to use custom website designs rather than Microsoft's canned versions. The New York Times tech columnist and author David Pogue writes in a Feb. 14, 2008, article that the tools show that "innovation still thrives in pockets" at Microsoft.

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