There is nothing more frustrating to an Internet user than trying to visit a site and find that is either unavailable, or is displaying one of the annoying “under construction” signs. Every business leader knows that maintaining a vibrant, up-to-date online presence is essential to succeeding in today’s global economy. A company’s website may be the first and last contact a potential client ever has with that business, and it’s important that it is online and functional at all times. Yet many people do not know how to begin or to maintain that first line of communication.

This is where a Web Hosting Provider comes in.

A Web Hosting Provider is essentially a company that provides computers (servers) that are always available to browsers on the Internet. They sell or lease space and software on these servers to clients who lack either the time or technical expertise needed to maintain a server of their own. Clients can then upload (save files) to the server, including webpages, documents and multimedia files. Additionally, they can use the available software packages to create dynamic, database-driven websites or virtual stores.

One of the most important functions of a service provider is to be online and available to the surfing public twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year. Often you will see hosting providers advertising “up-time,” which means the percentage of time that the computers are available on the Internet. Almost any provider will go down briefly on occasion, due to power outages, hardware failures or other technical issues, but most of the top sites will have 98-99% uptime. This means that a server is down less than one hour a month on average. If a provider’s uptime is anything lower than 90%, keep looking.

A second important function is redundancy, which basically means that your website and data are stored in more than one physical location. In other words, if a natural disaster hits one location, your information is safely backed-up somewhere else. Almost all providers have some sort of redundancy service, with backups frequently stored on different continents.

Despite these similarities, not all hosting providers are created equally. It is important to select a provider that will meet your individual needs and budget. Providers vary widely on the fees they charge and the services they provide. There are four basic aspects to consider: storage space, bandwidth allocation, platform, and server-side scripting languages. Some of these services are very similar among providers, and some can be quite different, so be sure to research your potential host carefully.

Storage space is usually indicated in gigabytes. Think of storage space like a hard drive on the Internet that is accessible to anyone. In the not too distant past, one gigabyte was considered ample space for any website. These days, the proliferation of multimedia files, particularly interactive animated files, means that ten gigabytes is more often the minimum, and fifty or a hundred gigs is fairly common. Just like your home computer, you might be surprised at how fast you fill up that space. Fortunately, most sites will provide substantially more storage for not much extra cash, so it’s usually better to purchase more than you think you might need to allow for future expansion.

Bandwidth allocation is the amount of information that is either uploaded or downloaded from your site. For example, if you upload a picture that is 10 MB (megabytes), and then 200 people download that picture, you would have used 2010 MB of your bandwidth allocation. In the past, hosting companies often charged hefty fees for going over your bandwidth allocation, or even shut the site down for a period of time. Fortunately, many hosting companies have started offering unlimited bandwidth use, so look for one of those if possible.

Server Platforms and server-side scripting aspects usually go hand-in-hand. The most common platform is LINUX, which allows for a wide range of server side languages, including PHP, Perl, and Ruby on Rails. One of the most common combinations is the LAMP configuration, which means a Linux platform running Apache, MySQL, and PHP. The LAMP configuration is particularly popular because all the components (except for hardware) is open-source and essentially cost-free. However, Windows servers are also fairly common, and run ASP.NET and Classic ASP in addition to these other server-side languages. However, there is considerably more expense involved in using Windows, and it is generally used in companies or institutions that maintain their own servers.

Whatever platform you decide on, it’s important to realize that there is often a steep learning curve to begin using these software packages. Many of the server-side scripting options are full-featured programming languages, and take a considerable investment of time to master. Fortunately, many hosting providers now do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, and it is now possible to fill out a few simple forms and have a fully functional website in a matter of minutes. This is an excellent option for individuals and companies that just want to get their name out on the web, or maybe a small shopping site. Some hosting providers can even create multimedia content on the fly, turning static information into a dynamic presentation of your company.

It used to require several professional programmers, or even a whole department, just to maintain a website. The rapid expansion of full-service Hosting Providers means that even the most basic mom-and-pop business can be a full participant in the global economy.

With the growth of out-of-the-box web hosting, you no longer need the expertise or professional staff that was once required to have a fully functional online presence. It is vital in today’s market for every business to have an attractive, accessible website, and the web hosting providers available make it simple for even the most basic user to produce a professional looking site in a very short amount of time.