Johnson: How to pick a Web hosting provider

Plenty of companies are looking to outside providers to host their Web sites, which is why the Web hosting market reportedly is growing at a healthy clip. In some cases these are simple marketing sites; in others, they’re complex business-to-business transaction environments or application portals.

When looking for an outside hosting provider, consider this criteria:

– Bandwidth and Internet connectivity. Network connectivity is an important component of performance. If your site will be trafficked heavily, ask the provider for a schematic detailing the peering arrangements and Internet connectivity. Many providers will boast of their “OC-3 connections.” That’s nice. But OC-3 connections to what? If the answer is a fifth-tier ISP, high bandwidth doesn’t buy you much because latency and congestion at the peering points can slow down your traffic big time.

– Server and data centre architecture. Most providers will distinguish between Windows NT and Unix, and shared or dedicated servers. You also should know how many servers they have, how well connected they are and what type of storage subsystems are in use. Are the servers symmetric multiprocessing machines? Are they clustered? How often are files backed up? The answers will give you insight into the reliability and performance of your site.

– Security. If your site contains more than marketing information, you’ll need to consider advanced security measures. Does the provider offer encryption? User authentication beyond simple password protection? Links to two-factor authentication or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol directories for policy information? Depending on the site’s purpose, any or all of these might be applicable.

– Support and service-level agreements. This one’s the real kicker. Committing to a hosting provider means signing on to a potentially long-term relationship. You should know going into the deal what sort of service and support you expect, and get the provider to commit to it in writing. Around-the-clock phone support is a start. But what about mean time to respond and mean time to repair? What commitments will your provider make regarding your site’s online performance? How will the provider notify you if something’s gone wrong? Do you require in-person support? (If so, a local provider might be the best bet.)

There’s no single correct answer to which provider is best. The right provider for your organization depends on your relative weighting of these and other requirements.

Organizations needing a high degree of security should consider providers such as ServerVault, which specializes in secure hosting.

Organizations that want personalized service and support often find that local outfits do the best job.

Still other companies turn by default to their telecom providers, even though telephone companies don’t always live up to their potential as hosting providers.

Your best bet is to create a weighted list of your requirements and rate prospective providers against it.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached