April 29, 2012

Beginner's guide: the three parts of web hosting

Updated: December 23, 2014

Setting up a website for the first time can be daunting. I’ve helped a bunch of people do this – and I’ve seen lots of people make mistakes with picking a registrar or hosting provider.

If you’re new to setting up websites, hopefully this guide will point you in the right direction.

There are three services necessary for having a website at your own domain name (e.g. example.com):

  1. Registrar – this is who you buy example.com from.
  2. DNS – this is who points example.com to your server (e.g. 208.94.116.188) so people don’t have to remember that long number (aka IP address) to get to your website.
  3. Hosting – this is the company that owns the server (identified with 208.94.116.188).

Sometimes a host will also provide DNS and domain registration services; registrars often provide some DNS services; and some DNS providers also offer domain registrations.

Regardless of where you get them, all three parts are critical for a website to work.

Recommendations

I’ll start with my recommendations for registrars, DNS, and hosting. If you don’t care about the reasoning, you can stop after this section.

If you’re curious about the reasons behind this advice, keep reading.

The long version

First of all, whatever you do, don’t buy your domain name from the company doing your hosting. Hosting companies have a vested interest in keeping your business, so they may make it difficult to take your domain name with you if you decide to switch hosts.

Registrars

I use Hover for my domain names. They have the best interface for buying and managing domains of any registrar I’ve tried. They also have very good phone and email support.

The one thing they don’t let you do is set up a separate account for someone who’s working on your website. This is important because you don’t want to ever give a third party your registrar username and password. If you had a disagreement, they could take control of your domain name.

Fortunately, there is only one technical change you should ever have to make through your registrar: changing nameservers. This is what you do when you need to switch DNS providers, which happens rarely. If your website person says you need to do this, ask them to email you the new nameservers and contact Hover’s support to make the change yourself.

DNS providers

For the sake of simplicity, I recommend also using Hover for DNS. This comes free with the registration of your domain. Their DNS interface can be confusing, so if you need to make changes I would just talk to their support to have them walk you through.

Again, Hover does not let you set up a separate account for someone else who’s working on your website. DNS changes are much more frequent and complex than registrar changes, so if someone else needs access to your DNS settings you should use DNSimple instead of Hover. DNSimple costs $3/month if you only have 1 or 2 domains (look for the “Bronze plan” on their pricing page – it’s in small type below their other plans). They allow you to give limited DNS admin access to another account.

Hosting

Choosing a host can be complicated, mostly because there are so many options out there and they are hard to compare. With that said, I think this choice boils down to three main factors:

  1. Ease of use – hosting won’t do you any good if you can’t figure out how to use it.
  2. Reliability – hosting is usually the point of failure if a website goes down.
  3. Cost – there is huge variation in monthly fees, and it’s easy to get a terrible deal.

If you don’t have experience with hosting and you aren’t interested in learning or paying a developer, you should use a hosting platform. I think SquareSpace is probably the easiest to use platform with the best templates. But it costs the most ($8-10/month).

If you just want a simple blog, SquareSpace is overkill. Two other good options are:

  1. Tumblr, which is free and has lots of social features, and
  2. PostHaven, which is cheap ($5/month), has more limited (read: less invasive) social features, and is meant to keep your content online forever.

WordPress is another popular option, but I don’t recommend it for anyone who is new to websites. There is just too much confusion around wordpress.org vs. wordpress.com, whether to self-host or use a WordPress platform, dealing with plugins, etc. Unless you know you need a specific feature that WordPress has and SquareSpace/Tumblr/PostHaven doesn’t, I would avoid it. If you do use WordPress, pay for hosting on wordpress.com (self-hosted WordPress sites are a security risk and have a lot of downtime).

All of these hosting platforms should be able to stay online under any amount of traffic to your website.

Securing these services

Making sure your registrar account is secure is critical. If someone got control of your hosting, you could switch hosts by changing your DNS; if someone got control of your DNS, you could switch DNS providers through your registrar. But if someone gets control of your registrar account, you could lose access to your domain names forever.

For this reason, it’s really important to keep tight control over your registrar account and, to a lesser degree, your DNS account. You’ll likely work with a contractor/freelancer/friend/company on your website at some point, so it’s important to consider what access to give them.

Ideally, only a highly trusted person would have access to the registrar. Nothing really needs to be done here except pay the renewal fee every year and possibly change the nameservers (see above).

If possible, create a separate user account for your web person, rather than giving them your username and password. SquareSpace, Tumblr, and PostHaven all allow you to create “contributor” accounts. This is preferable over giving your username and password to third parties. If you do need to give someone else your username and password, make sure you don’t use the same password for any other services.

If you need to give a third party access to your DNS account, I would strongly recommend using DNSimple’s feature for sharing limited admin access with another account as described above.

Again, there is no reason to give anyone your registrar password as long as you are willing to get on the phone with Hover in the rare event a nameserver change needs to be made.


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