At first sight, all hosting services might seem to be about the same thing: providing a web server where your site's content is stored and shared with visitors over the net. However, hosting firms don't all provide their services on the same basis. And there are differences in what the service packages include.
Four basic types of hosting are available:
Type 1: Free hosting
The first thing to understand about 'free' web hosting is that it usually has a price tag of some kind attached. You might need to buy your domain name through the hosting firm to qualify. Or you might have to accept advertising. Some 'free' hosters even want you to share your customer data with them. Hosters who offer a free option often provide paid hosting too. Service quality for free customers is usually lower than for paid customers. Server speeds may be lower, availability may not be as good and you may be last in the queue for technical support. In some cases, you don't get a proper domain name of your own – just a subdomain belonging to the host, which you can't take with you if you move on.
Type 2: Shared hosting
Shared hosting involves a number of websites sharing a server. In other words, the same software, running on the same machine, powers more than one site. Shared hosting is normally cheaper than dedicated hosting, because the hosting firm can spread the hardware costs and running costs across a number of customers. The technical performance of each individual site isn't usually as good, however. Shared hosting is sometimes referred to as 'virtual hosting'. Many shared hosting providers offer good levels of technical support and packages that include a lot of useful ecommerce software. Don't take anything for granted, though. Some offer more than others, so look at the small print as well as the price tag.
Type 3: Dedicated hosting
With dedicated hosting, the web server and the software on it are running a single website. Performance is consequently better, because the server's attention isn't divided. Dedicated hosting packages also tend to come with superior software options, enhanced security and high-level support. All of that does have cost implications, of course.
Type 4: Collocated hosting
Instead of renting server capacity off a hosting service provider, you can buy your own server and get a hosting firm to house and maintain it for you. The big advantage is control: the type and size of server, the software on it, the set-up, the siting, are all up to you. In many ways, it's like having a server in your own building. But with the added advantage that you have the enhanced connectivity, physical security and environmental control of a purpose-specific data centre.