Web hosting: How are you being served?

In choosing a web host, it doesn't always pay to go for the cheapest option, says Suzy Bashford.

The best advice to bear in mind when looking for a web-hosting provider is that, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. With such a surplus of suppliers, there is no shortage of these dream offers.

As web hosting is a relatively easy market to enter, it's essential to search for a reliable partner.

Identify your requirements to determine how much you need to invest.

How critical is your web site to your business? At the cheapest end of the market is shared hosting, where your site is run on shared, virtual servers alongside other clients. Unless you pay extra, customer support is likely to be restricted and others may adversely affect your site.

At the expensive end are managed services, where you get a dedicated server and higher level of support. Costs vary wildly depending on service levels.

Co-location web-hosting is another option, where clients own the servers, looked after at the host's premises. This can be the cheaper option if you have in-house IT expertise. You won't have to pay the premiums associated with making changes to the web site as you can gain access at any time and make them yourself. However, the co-locator will shoulder the costs associated with keeping the site functional, such as ensuring it is fire-protected and air-conditioned.

This option is generally taken by SMEs that have in-house IT expertise but aren't big enough to justify bringing hosting in-house completely. "Co-location is a good compromise," says Corin Flett, Demon product manager, hosting, at Thus. "It provides a dedicated internet connection and secure environment, and companies can keep control of their own servers."

Shared hosting is sufficient if you only want your site to act as an online brochure and you'll not suffer serious consequences if it doesn't work for a few hours or even days. Plenty of providers offer packages for a few hundred pounds a year, often referred to as 'web sites in a box' and favoured by consumers. Beware: they often offer little more than web space, lack back-up systems and don't offer support if anything goes wrong.

Certain firms specialise in web-hosting for SMEs at the lower end, such as SiteWizard, which recently won the Orange Bright Business Award for providing a low-cost, all-in-one solution for SMEs. It has more than 5,000 customers and can get your site designed and running for an initial £70, followed by a monthly charge of £14.99 + VAT. Clients are given the chance to make minor changes to their site, a domain name and a tailored email address so visitors can email them. No major applications are included, such as the ability to take online payments or a comprehensive database.

"We target companies that know they need to be on the web, but don't need to spend thousands," says Adrian Reeves, managing director of SiteWizard.

Counselling organisation Relate appointed SiteWizard after it realised it had been paying too much for its hosting. "Clients are led to believe they always need the all-singing, all-dancing solution that will cost the earth, or people won't see them as serious businesses. That's rubbish.

Why pay more for something you don't need?" says Reeves.

Netbenefit is one of the larger web hosts, which has been in the business for 10 years and counts The Liberal Democrats among its clients. It offers a range of packages, starting from the basic online brochure for £99 per year, which is popular with clients such as bar owners and courier companies.

The danger of cheaper low-end hosts is that customers who really need a higher level of service and sophisticated technology are reluctant to pay for it. Patrick Kennedy, head of technology at agency CMW Interactive, comments: "Clients ask us for hosting and we give them a quote based on our research. They then say 'but I've seen a pop-up ad for $10 and you get X, Y and Z'. We've had to educate them about what such a limited service would actually mean when things go wrong, but they're still reluctant to fork out for technology. It's a black art to them and they cannot see what their money is buying."

If your web site is business-critical and any downtime will adversely affect profits or the running of your company, you need to invest significantly in good technology and a sufficient level of support. In most cases, that will mean a managed service, typically costing £10,000 to £25,000 a year, but the sky's the limit depending on the service level you pick. Examples of business-critical web sites are those that take online transactions or disseminate essential information.

Even if you pay top-dollar and choose a premium technology provider, don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Rackspace Managed Hosting Europe is the largest player in the US and its UK base has leapt from four staff in 2001 to 50. Managing director Dominic Monkhouse admits: "This is it - it's going to go wrong and, when it does, you want people who know about it, putting their entire weight behind it."

You should go through the Service Level Agreement (SLA) you sign with your web host with a fine toothcomb, so you know what you're buying. Be sure of the jargon - technological and legal. As a general rule, the more time the provider agrees to put into your business to ensure there are no failures, the more they're going to justifiably charge. But, as with all industries, IT lawyers have found clever ways to sound like they're going to deliver an impressive service in all situations, when there are actually some hidden loopholes.

Tim Dunger, managing director of Intercea, which prides itself on its "total accountability" approach to web hosting for firms like Cadbury Schweppes, says: "The SLA is a tool for baffling customers. Providers can put in statistics like '99.999 per cent availability', which means it can only be down for a few minutes a month. However, they're often talking about the network. Even if the network is available, the site can be down. These high availability statistics are used a lot in marketing.

Watch out."

Dunger advises checking the SLA for who takes responsibility for 'patching', which involves sorting out system bugs by applying a security file. "Occasionally, if you don't patch a system, it can take a machine down. While we consider patching to be part of our SLA, many providers don't. We have to pay customers compensation if the system goes down," he says.

Rackspace also pledges to incur penalties if service levels are affected.

The only caveat of this arrangement is that the firm has the right to replace an application you're using with one it believes is more stable.

"In this industry, there's a tendency to blame others; a bit like when a plumber looks at your plumbing and says 'I don't know who did this, but it's terrible'. We'll troubleshoot everything, even if we don't control it." E

Check if the provider agrees to respond to any problem that arises or, better, if it is prepared to actively monitor your systems and try to prevent potential problems before they occur. Some will build in the cost of engineers, whose job it is to monitor your system and continually tweak it to improve your site.

The SLA will outline the level of uptime the firm guarantees, how fast it will respond in an emergency, and how many hours a day and days per year the helpline is accessible. Even if it offers round-the-clock support, there may be hidden charges. "Look at the helpline," says Neil Barton, director of Hostway. "Is it a premium-rate number?" That will hike your costs. Firms can also be stung by SLAs that charge for generating more traffic than they anticipate - another clause that can slip in unnoticed.

In theory, SLAs are good as they provide a legal fall-back if your provider doesn't deliver on the agreed terms, but it is much better to pick a provider that lives up to its promises. Checks can easily and quickly be made on your prospective partner. Hostway suggests ringing the helplines or emailing help addresses to see how quickly they respond at various times.

Business-only ISP Altohiway says you can also tell a lot about a web host from the questions it asks when you make an enquiry. "If you are not asked any questions apart from your name, address and credit card, they're obviously not interested in selling you a customer service and are only interested in selling you space," says Chris Wood, sales and marketing director.

The danger of not carrying out checks is that you run the risk of taking on a host that is conducting its business from a bedroom and successfully posing as a sophisticated IT company. Such horror stories have convinced some that the safest bet is to take on a trusted household name, such as BT.

Telcos are often criticised for providing a poor service as web hosting is only one of a raft of add-on services they offer. However, Paul Greeno, senior product manager at BT Global Services, argues: "We focus on improving our customer service, whether a client is big or small.

With our strong relationships with other technology providers, we're always at the cutting-edge of what we can offer."

Digital agencies that source hosts for clients advise picking a mid-sized firm whose core business is web-hosting. As E3's managing director, Stuart Avery, says, it's in the agency's interest to know which host is best: "After all, we'll get the call in the middle of the night if the site goes down. If we pick a poor host, that just makes our life harder. And, if there's anything that rings true in this industry, it's that you get what you pay for."

PLAN INTERNATIONAL PICKS WISELY

As a children's charity, it is vital that Plan International picks suppliers that offer value for money. That doesn't mean the cheapest, as IT applications manager Teresa Hogan found when choosing a host last year.

Web site availability was business-critical as the charity relies on giving information to its fundraising offices worldwide. It also needed to handle huge hikes in traffic. High security was a priority as it holds data related to children and donors.

Hogan opted for managed services. She checked the financial situation of firms and talked to clients before choosing Intercea. It took a month to negotiate the SLA and the firm has quarterly face-to-face reviews.

"The investment has been well worth it," she adds.

Tim Dunger, managing director at Intercea, says: "We're committed to a high quality service. Intercea's competitive business-aligned service levels guarantee round-the-clock support as well as capacity planning.

"Plan can access current information and service statistics through our client extranet. Intercea delivered a substantial charity discount."

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