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Security! security! security!
Ask for a detailed description of hosting company's security protocols. They should provide adequate protection from everyday denial-of-service attacks and various hacks and cracks that will be attempted on your server. Make sure that your host is responsible for upgrading and maintaining these measures - do you really have hours to spend hours reviewing server logs and updating software? The only thing worse than having no security is thinking you have some.
You get what you pay for
When shopping for a host, you'll find that they vary widely in terms of target and pricing. Some hosts skew their servers to accommodate many small sites, while others prefer to take on fewer, high-volume sites. If you inadvertently exceed monthly "cap" on your site's permitted volume, you could quickly find that a little success can be your worst enemy, as your monthly fees make a significant jump. Be sure to strike a good balance between price and volume flexibility.
Don't commit right away
Many hosts will quote you a monthly fee, but bill in larger increments. You could sign on for a month, and find yourself promptly billed for a year's service. Ask about billing period, and initially sign on for a small service term (60-90 days). If you're happy with service after this trial period, extend term.
Treat your Web host like you would treat any other supplier for your business. If they can't provide service and reliability you need, why keep them? Their competitors will be happy to have your business.
Of course service you will get from a host is important. But you should do some extra digging if you are to feel secure with your new host:
Master your apps
While a standard host with a large amount of disk space and a few fast machines is adequate for static HTML pages, certain sites will make greater demands on host's CPU and will consequently run slower - and slow down every other site on server as well. Streaming video and audio, discussion forums and message boards, online surveys, and high-level animation all require huge amounts of memory and fast access to main server. If you can't afford a dedicated or colocated server, at least find one that has experience in integrating these more complex elements.
Don't be OS-tracized
Trying to put square pegs in round holes is ultimately futile, so let your applications be your guide. Don't assume that you need to use Windows NT to run your site with Frontpage extensions. Many applications created for Windows NT will actually be more efficient if they are rewritten for a UNIX environment. Don't worry about figuring this out yourself, but bear in mind that a host who offers both Windows NT and UNIX will be more flexible.
Don't make leaps of faith with your data
You probably have backups of your HTML data, as you created them locally and uploaded them to your host's server. But what about other files? User logs, product databases, order tracking logs, server-side scripts, etc., probably only exist on your host's drives and could be lost in event of a failure. Request ability to back up these files.
Be master of your domain
Query Whois database (www.whois.net) to ensure that your company is both administrative and technical contact for your domain. If your host is listed as both of these contacts, it is registrant of domain, not you. Unless you are registrant, your domain could be held for ransom if there is a dispute between you and your host.
Dealing with user complaints
Many hosts have a zero-tolerance policy with regard to spam and pornography, and don't always subject customer complaints to proper scrutiny. As such, a customer complaint, regardless of its validity, could cause plug to be unceremoniously pulled on your business. Find out what recourses are open to you, and if terms are not acceptable, find another provider. Make sure your interests are protected as well as host's.
You wouldn't hire a CTO without checking his or her references, would you? But that's what you'll be doing if you don't do a bit of digging before handing over your site to a host. Ask for a list of Webmasters who run similar sites off host's server. Call them. E-mail them. Write them. If your host is unwilling to give you this list, go elsewhere.
Read their diary
There's nothing wrong with doing a little snooping to find out what type of people you are committing your property to. Query Whois database and find business address of server. Use a tracing program to view path to machine in Whois database. If another ISP's server pops up, chances are you're dealing with a reseller rather than an actual host. Check out other sites on their server. If most of them are spam sites, banner click-through pages or porn sites, being associated with them could have a negative impact on your business.
Listen to other Webmasters
There are ways to discover what other professionals are saying about your host. Try alt.www.webmasters newsgroup, and post list about your potential host. It is a little time-consuming, but investment is well worth it.
Accolades are meaningless
Ratings by various hosting "associations" are meaningless. While many members of Web Hosting Guild are highly regarded companies, some are held in very low esteem by Webmasters. Ratings and awards can also be outdated, and might not reflect a host's current state of service.
Read fine print
Make sure terms and conditions of your service agreement are clear. Have a business lawyer review your contract before you sign. Carefully evaluate clauses that relate to copyright ownership, complaint protocol, fee renewals, and notification procedures regarding renewal or service discontinuation.
The bottom line is that you need a host to succeed in today's eCommerce world. But keep in mind that this still a world in its infancy, and is continually reinventing itself to suit ever-changing face of eBusiness. As in any other market, you should expect constant change, improvement, and occasional leap in performance or cost-effectiveness. As such, you must always be vigilant, and constantly evaluate service you're getting, and what it's costing you. Remember, it takes years to build a reputation for your business and brand, and only two seconds to lose it.
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