What is Web Hosting and How Does It Work?
A Beginner's Guide To Understanding Web Hosting

Dale McManus

Co-Founder & Web Developer

Jun. 20, 2018

Hey, my name is Dale! My partner Alex and I have helped tens of thousands of people build beautiful websites around the world. In this simple, step-by-step guide, I'll explain what web hosting is, why it's important, and how to set it up. Let's dive in!

  • Level of Expertise:
    Beginner
  • Time To Complete:
    20 Minutes
  • What You Get:
    Working Knowledge

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What’s up, Internet!? Today we’re going to be answering the question of what is web hosting and going over a little bit about how it works.

As always, we have a video guide for this available on our YouTube Channel and below:

If you liked the video and want more tutorials on creating a professional website you can also subscribe to our YouTube channel!

We’ll let you know about some great places to sign up for web hosting in case you’re looking to start a website for your blog, portfolio, business, or whatever else you’re dreaming up.

Let's hop into the article…

What is Web Hosting?

To help you understand what web hosting is, let’s walk through an example.

Imagine you just came up with a new business idea, say to sell blue widgets, and you want to open up a store somewhere in your town.

You can register store’s name, get a logo, even make a few widgets.

But none of that will matter unless you rent a physical space to set up your shop, and that’s what web hosting is all about.

Web hosting is just a service where you’re able to rent space on the internet, fill it with all your files and media (your digital “goods”), then open your doors by publishing your website live to the world.

When you start a website, all your text, videos, photos, buttons, etc. have to be stored physically somewhere on a web server – basically a commercial grade computer that’s connected to the internet 99.9% of the time (unlike your laptop, for example).

Web hosting companies have buildings filled with these servers and people to keep them running,

They’ll even provide you with design platforms, customer support, security, and all sorts of useful tools to make creating and sharing your website easy.

When learning about what it takes to start a website, be careful not to confuse buying web hosting with buying a domain name.

Basically, a domain name is just an address where your shop/website will be set up.

Web hosting is like the land and infrastructure that lets you set up that shop and make it accessible to anyone in the world.

And your website is like your actual shop, with all the goods you sell inside.

So if you get a domain name without hosting, you’ll just see a page that says “parked” – all you have is an address, but it doesn’t lead anywhere.

And if you buy hosting without a domain name, then you’ll have a place for people to go, but they won’t be able to find it.

We wrote a whole post that goes in-depth on domain names, how they work, and how to pick a good one for your website – if you’re interested check that out here.

Types of Web Hosting

When it comes to building websites, there are a few different types of web hosting you’ll see, based on the kinds of web servers used and what your skills/needs/budget are.

  • Shared Hosting
  • VPS Hosting
  • Cloud Hosting
  • WordPress Hosting
  • Dedicated Hosting

While all these types of servers will act as a storage center for your website – holding all your website code and data while letting the world access it – each offers a different amount of storage capacity, control, speed, and reliability.

When you’re starting out, you want to stick with shared hosting as it’s the lowest cost option and has everything a small starter site needs.

But as you grow, you’ll want to look into other types of hosting to be able to support increases in traffic, so let’s take a look at the different types of web hosting so you’ll know a bit about the benefits of each.

Shared Hosting

With shared hosting, your website is placed on one server with a bunch of other sites – from a few hundred to thousands of other sites.

All of these websites share the server’s resources, including memory and processing power, which leads to cost savings that the hosting company then passes on to you.

The disadvantage of this is that the server will struggle to keep websites that run a lot of code or get a lot of traffic online.

But as we said, when you’re starting out this won’t be an issue and the ease of setup and low cost are more than worth the tradeoffs.

Shared Hosting Pros

  • Lowest cost (best place to start)
  • Fairly simple to use (need to learn a few things but no super-advanced tech knowledge needed)
  • No messing with server options (you can tweak a few things you might need but most of the server-side of things is set up for you)
  • Built-in control panel (so you can make technical changes with buttons/form fills not command lines and code)
  • Server maintenance is taken care of for you

Shared Hosting Cons

  • Very little control over server configuration (you have complete control of your website, just not some very technical parts of how your website’s server operates)
  • Not able to handle large volumes of traffic

Virtual Private Server (VPS) Hosting

Virtual private server hosting (VPS) uses technology to digitally divide one server into multiple “virtual” servers.

In this setup, your website code runs as if it’s on a separate physical server from any other website, though in reality, it’s actually sharing the physical resources (memory, processing power) with a few other websites (much fewer than shared hosting).

The benefit of this is that you can customize your website backend a lot more to better handle complex code and higher traffic.

But, taking advantage of this requires technical expertise and you’ll pay more for this.

As your website grows and you can afford to pay someone to help you with the coding stuff, this can be a helpful upgrade to maintain a great experience for your visitors (fast loading times, smooth functioning).

VPS Hosting Pros

  • Root access to your server (do whatever you want with it)
  • Dedicated server space – no one else to share with
  • Traffic surges on other people’s sites won’t affect yours
  • Very scaleable to meet more traffic to your site

VPS Hosting Cons

  • More expensive than shared hosting
  • You have to know how to do technical server management tasks

Cloud Hosting

Cloud hosting is sort of a variation on VPS and Shared hosting.

Instead of having your site on one physical server along with a bunch of other sites, your site is run form a “cluster” of servers that make up a “cloud,” along with a bunch of other websites that also share some resources on that server cluster.

The benefit is that if one of the physical servers that your website is on has a problem or gets overloaded, your website traffic is automatically sent to another server in the cluster.

This gives you some of the benefits of VPS hosting in that you’re not as limited by what other people’s websites are doing or just one servers’ resources.

Pros

  • Server failures don’t affect your website
  • Little downtime
  • Resources are allocated to your site where and as needed to keep it running smoothly
  • Can more easily scale to handle more traffic than other hosting

Cons

  • More expensive than shared hosting
  • You don’t have full control over the server setup

WordPress Hosting

WordPress hosting is a kind of shared hosting built specifically for WordPress websites (imagine that!).

These servers are specifically configured for making WordPress sites perform like a dream and you often get technical support that can also help you with WordPress problems (whereas with other hosting, they can help you with server/other hosting problems but if something is broken in your WordPress site they’ll often leave you at “good luck”).

Pros

  • Low cost
  • Good performance for WordPress sites
  • WordPress customer support

Cons

  • Only good for WordPress sites
  • Usually more expensive than simple Shared hosting

Dedicated Server Hosting

Dedicated server hosting offers maximum control over the server your website is stored on and run from – you’re exclusively renting an entire server, no other websites will be hosted on it.

This provides you maximum ability to optimize your website’s performance and handle a lot of traffic, but you’ll pay for it.

Pros

  • Complete control over your server
  • Highly reliable and secure

Cons

  • This is the most expensive type of hosting (usually it’s only used by large businesses)
  • You have to have advanced technical knowledge of server setup/maintenance

Website Hosting Costs

Web hosting is one of the many costs of starting a website.

Typically you’ll pay a monthly fee, with discounts for paying months in advance (sometimes up to 3 years).

Prices vary from host to host but here’s what you can typically expect to spend:

  • Shared Hosting: As little as $3.95/month to $10/month
  • Virtual Private Server: $20-60/month plus customization costs (assuming you pay someone to do that for you)
  • Dedicated Server: $80+/month including hosting and customization/maintenance costs.

As we mentioned above, shared hosting is more than enough to get started; as your website gets more traffic and holds more files, photos, etc. you’ll want to consider upgrading (but should be making more than enough money from the site to cover the additional costs).

Bonus Tip: You can actually host a simple website for free on Dropbox or Google Drive (this is mostly for fun, definitely not the way to create a pro website).

Web Hosting features to look for

We’ve got a really in-depth look at what to look for in web hosting in our best web hosting services post.

Definitely go check that out if you want the full low down!

Here are a few bullet points for a brief overview:

  • Speed/Uptime – how fast will your hosting be able to load your website and how often will it be unavailable (if at all)?
  • Traffic/Bandwidth – are there any limitations on how much data your host will share/how much traffic your site can receive?
  • Support – how good and available is their technical support?
  • Features – email accounts, FTP access, hosting for multiple sites, an easy to use control panel – do these things come included?
  • Cost – obviously; does the amount hosting costs makes sense for what you can spend?

Best Web Hosting Companies

So now that you know the basics of web hosting and how much it costs, how do you choose the right hosting company for your website?

There are dozens of factors to consider when choosing the perfect web hosting company.

When you’re just starting out most of that will be confusing to figure out and the reality is most hosts will be fine for what you need.

If you really want to get into the details, check out our Definitive Guide to the Best Web Hosting Services!

If you don’t want to spend too much time on this (so you can get to building your website faster), here are a few of our favorite web hosts.

HostGator

hostgator website hosting page

While 1&1 and Bluehost are great, HostGator is definitely our favorite hosting service.

HostGator hosts over 8 million other domains and is a solid company for beginner websites with everything you need to get set up fast, including a one-click WordPress installer.

And with a 99.9% uptime guarantee and an industry-leading 45-day money back guarantee, you can trust you’ll be happy with their hosting service.

You can use our free tutorial to get started with HostGator!

Bluehost

bluehost website hosting page

With over 2 million websites built on Bluehost, they’re a great company to work with for your first website. Bluehost sets itself apart in a few ways, including a free domain name when you sign up and daily backups of your site (even on their lowest-priced plans).

With great support and a solid track record, you’ll be just fine by choosing Bluehost as your first hosting provider. They also provide you with a free domain name and SSL certificate.

Hostwinds

hostwinds what is website hosting service

Hostwinds is a newer company to the web hosting game, and we appreciate that.

Especially because they're looking to find their edge by providing better customer support than the bigger companies you'll find (many are fine, some of their support is notoriously bad though).

They nail all the web hosting fundamentals you'll need in a reliable service – solid uptime, good speeds, all the basic features.

Their user interface could be better but if you're the type who likes to support the little guy (which we do in a lot of cases), you'll want to give them a look!

What is web hosting FAQs

How are domain names and hosting related to each other?

Domain names and web hosting are technically separate, but they work together and most web hosts also offer domain name purchasing/hosting.

Basically, the “domain name system” is a gigantic address book that translates domain names humans use (“createaprowebsite.com”) into IP addresses that web servers/browsers use (111.111.11.11)

Without a domain name, people basically can’t find your site; without hosting, your site won’t be available for people to reach over the internet.

Do I need a domain name and hosting to build my website?

For sure!

Buying a domain name gives you the right to use it for as long as you keep paying the renewal fees – but it doesn’t give you any way to create/store/change website files and make them available over the internet.

Hosting does all that.

BUT with just hosting, people would have a complicated time reaching your site (they’d have to remember the IP address, access the right domain name servers… it’s basically not possible except for a few technical wizards and even for them that’s a waste of time).

You can get your domain name on its own from one of the best domain name registrars, then get hosting from one of the best web hosts.

Or you can just get your domain name from your web host when you sign up with a host like HostGator (sometimes they offer a free domain name for one year, then it’s usually more expensive to renew your domain with them compared to the domain name registrars).

Can I move my website to another web hosting service without changing my domain?

If you don’t like your first choice for web hosting for whatever reason, you can definitely change hosts with a bit of time, knowledge, and elbow grease.

Without getting into the full details of how to migrate a website (that’s a post in and of itself), basically you can copy your website files from your old web host to your new web host to take care of that end of things.

Then, you can either transfer your domain name to your new web host, or (if you got your domain name from a domain name registrar separate from your hosting), you can just “point” your domain name from your old hosting servers to your new ones.

There’s More to Creating a Pro Website than Hosting…

Hosting is an essential part of building a website and after reading this post you’ve got the basics under your belt.

But there’s still a lot more to learn!

So if you found this post valuable, go check out our best web hosting companies post to learn more!

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2 Replies to “What is Web Hosting and How Does It Work?
A Beginner's Guide To Understanding Web Hosting

  1. Very informative article. Here are some important things that everyone needs to know. Many thanks for pointing out such significant things.

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