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Let's assume that you have decided to publish your web site in Windows environment after careful study. You now need to go looking for a hosting services provider. How do you decide if the provider meets your needs? You must be sure of your requirements; the essentials; the must have features. This is what will tell you if a provider meets the essentials at a cost effective rate. Beyond this, whatever "nice to have" feature offered (without adding to the bill, preferably) is, of course, nice to have! Even in the group of features you must have, there is a subset without which it is meaningless to publish a site! Let's call this group the "Absolutely Essential" set of requirements, to balance the "Essential" set. The top of the chart item is selection of a domain name. This is a topic in itself as choosing a domain name has marketing implications too. Most often you can find a deal where hosting service providers will do a free registration of the domain name. It costs very little in any case.
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The Absolutely Essential Requirements
The most fundamental of requirements is that you find a hosting service provider who can host your site. Hosting primarily means that a HTTP/web server is able to execute in the Windows environment and serve up web pages or data files to the requestor (a visitor). Therefore, you will need to choose a server plan; a dedicated, shared or a virtual private server. Please read my two articles (here and here) on web hosting last month if you need to understand the issues involved.
Storage space made available to you is important as that is the space you can utilize to store all the web pages or the data files corresponding to each page. The trade off is that you need more space if you have large number of pages in the site. Ensure that the provider has adequate backup and disaster recovery plans. Look for uptime guarantees too. It should be better than 99.5%
The next essential item on your list should be the bandwidth made available to you under the service plan. Once the site is set up and hosted, you expect visitors to the site. A service provider provides a connection to the Internet. Each time there's a request for a page the complete data on the page is to be transmitted to the requestor. More visitors would mean more requests for pages. Therefore, over time you would expect that more and more data will have to be supplied to the net at any time. The service provider, typically, will allot a part of his total capacity to you. You must have an estimate of what capacity you are going to need when things stabilize. The bandwidth plan offered should be able to meet this. Alternately, you should be able to upgrade to a higher capacity, when needed. While it does not matter initially, you must be very clear on the bandwidth plan. If you are allocated a limited plan, typically the provider will charge you for additional capacity used. These charges could be significant as your site matures and the number of simultaneous visitors goes up. Many providers will provision unlimited bandwidth these days. Then there are no issues.
Those are the absolutely essential needs for any web site. For e-commerce sites there's an additional need that falls in this absolutely essential category. This is the need for providing your customers with secure payment methods. These need to be certified by trusted organizations for your customers to use their credit cards for purchases. Find out if the service provider will be able to provide you that or if you'll have to organize it yourself. It is your direct responsibility to provide this secure method of payment handling. The service provider may be able to help out and suggest the vendors who could help you. Make sure you are able to meet the PCI standards in securing the payment management.
As one service provider starts looking like any other in terms of what they offer, customer service and technical support could be the most important differentiator. Therefore, you should check around with friends, forums and wherever you can find an opinion on the service provider.
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Other Essential Requirements
Unless you are going to use a professional team of web designers, this may be one of the most important things to check out. What kind of web development tools are provided by the service provider? Since you are looking for Windows environment based development, the tools offered must all be Windows compatible. Whether you are a beginner or using a professional team FTP support is an essential thing. This lets you upload the files to the website after you are done with them.
Database support is an important issue. Typically, SQL Server support is provided by service providers. MySQL also is being provided to keep costs down. Any application that collects data on the site, a form being filled by the visitor for example, will need this support. Getting a visitor to opt-in to your mailing list is something that most sites will need. Dynamic pages, server side scripts etc. are other facilities that make for rich web site experience to visitors. All that and more are available through the ASP.Net set of tools. The FrontPage and the FrontPage extensions support provide the preliminaries. SilverLight support adds to the multimedia content creation. Look for that support too, if you are planning to set up a site now.
Access to FTP and a file manager besides the additional tools described above are provided to you via a control panel. You sign in into this control panel to be able to administer your website. There are several available including free source ones. Parallels Plesk 9.0 and Helm 4.1 are two of popular ones as is the control panel from Ensim. eMail support is the other essential facility available with the providers. This is essential not only as a communication tool for your organization but for customer service as well. That is a very important part of your business set up.
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Described above are some essential facilities you must look for when choosing a service provider. Read the two other articles on hosting that was published here at this site last month for a complete picture on the website hosting scene.