Getting technical with web designer and web host Carl Warrent
Website hosting is something you may or may not need to know anything about as a Marketing Manager. However, in my experience it’s useful to be familiar with some of the technical aspects of hosting and website management.
I first met Carl from Emedias around 7 years ago when he was appointed to redesign the website for Foolproof, the agency I worked for at the time. He’s been designing WordPress (WP) websites full-time for 11 years and hosting sites for 20. He’s my go-to for technical hosting questions and also when I break my own website.
Over the last 20 years what has changed in regard to hosting?
Progress has been steady and slow but in the last few years optimisation of networks, network protocols, and server software optimisations have been rapid.
Security has also become an issue. I’ve acquired many new clients because they’ve been hacked on past hosting platforms. I cannot 100% guarantee a site won’t be hacked but many layers of protection are put in place to help reduce the chance.
WP itself is another potential security risk and, being the most popular website platform, this leads to a large volume of hacking attacks. Most of my clients with a WP website will receive at least 10 to 100 hack attempts every week, while some are receiving up to 5,000.
I conduct free security audits for all my clients as this not only protects them but also my server and other clients.
What are the common terms associated with hosting?
Most hosting for small businesses have a control panel, such as cPanel. Most small businesses I work with don’t need to access the control panel, but this depends on the specific needs of the business and what their level of understanding is. Most commonly, businesses will use the control panel to manage email addresses.
FTP stands for File Protocol Transfer and is usually used to transfer files from the server to your computer or device and vice versa. Most businesses using WP won’t need to use FTP but it’s commonly available as a service. If you are working with a developer, they will likely need to use it. Historically when websites were hand built using HTML, CSS and image files, FTP was used for file transfer. It’s not so commonly used now as some platforms, like WP, have their own file transfer solutions built in.
HTTPS is a secure platform for data interchange and stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure version. Going back 20 years most websites weren’t set up for HTTPS. It was most commonly used by e-commerce sites where personal customer data, such as credit card details, were transferred.
How can I enable HTTPS for my website?
HTTPS with a basic SSL certificate is commonly available free from hosts, but your website may need a few tweaks to make sure it is fully secure. From a customer point of view, you want to make sure your website is secure. It can harm people’s perception of your website if you don’t use HTTPS, by suggesting your website and therefore your business isn’t safe.
What types of hosting are available?
The most common tiers of hosting are shared, VPS or cloud, and dedicated.
Dedicated is an entire physical computer server. Most small businesses won’t need the power and resources of a dedicated server, but this will depend on the complexity and volume of visitors to your website. Depending on your own requirements for a dedicated server, the costs can vary, on average from £60-500 a month.
At the opposite end you have shared. If you think of the dedicated server as one physical server with dedicated resource, a shared server is one box but loaded with lots of client’s domains. An average number might be 200-2000 clients. For small businesses a shared server is a good entry-level option to test the water but be aware of how well your services perform in case you need something more powerful.
The common problem is that some shared solutions are heavily overloaded, so performance of a WP website might be sluggish. You may pay £30, £50 or £100 per year, but performance will be limited by what every other client on that server is doing. In this case it’s advisable to go with a company that offers a WP optimised platform.
VPS sits in the middle. Think of it like a segregation of the dedicated server into more refined segments where each has a guaranteed set of resources available. There can still be complications, but generally speaking you are guaranteed much more resource and power than shared hosting. Most businesses need somewhere above shared up to VPS or just below, such as a WP optimised service like WP Engine.
Cloud servers are generally much like a VPS, though rather than being a separation of resources from one unique physical server they’re often spread across a network of physical servers.
Why would you need a WP optimised host or VPS over shared hosting?
WP can be quite intensive because when you initiate a page load on WP it does a lot of resource hungry interactions every time a page is loaded. You need a host that is powerful enough, but you also need to optimise your website to make it faster. So, while you can optimise your site, a slow host will limit the potential optimisation results of your website.
WP without optimisation (eg caching plugins), which most clients may not be aware of, can be quite intensive and impact load times. Often people can find WP plugins to add functionality to their website but may not be aware of how well those plugins perform or how well they are supported.
You could install a plugin that may cripple the performance of your website and you may not be aware this is happening. There are also complications with security and how often these plugins are updated. Ideally try to choose plugins that are frequently updated, well supported, and potentially have a large or active user base. Support for some plugins with little uptake may be withdrawn.
Aside from performance and security what other considerations are there when choosing a host?
Support. Unfortunately, you won’t know how good the support is, or how responsive they are, until you need it. Try and research reviews and comments for your chosen host and do as much fact finding as you can. You need to also weigh up costs and quality of support vs the impact on your business if the website goes down.
What about backing up websites, is that the role of the host or is there something the business needs to do?
A host should have some form of back-ups as standard, but I recommend you also do your own where possible. For instance, I back up the core hosting account every 24 hours. This back-up is also sent offsite, so if in the extreme case of a fire breaking out in the data centre, the data does exist to then start a restoration process to get you back up and running. The majority of my client sites run on WP, so on top of that, I set up automated WP back-ups for all my clients.
For my clients using WP, I recommend they use Softaculous (software included in their control panel) so they can initiate their own back-ups easily with a couple of clicks. It’s a good idea to run a back-up before applying WP updates so you have a recent version to roll back to if the update goes wrong.
What can we expect to see happening in the next few years?
We’re seeing more optimised hosting solutions and networks from the likes of Google and Amazon and other emerging server tech companies. These are generally well priced, but you tend to need to be more tech-savvy to set them up and manage them so we’re now seeing an influx of easy-to-use server management providers to make the management of these new hosting services much easier for everyone.