How Websites Are Hosted: A Brief Guide For Beginners

One of the final steps of putting a website up on the Internet is getting web hosting. You can build a new website from scratch using only your laptop, but if you want other people to be able to visit it over the web, you need to get it hosted somewhere. So how does web hosting work, exactly?

Below you’ll learn how websites are hosted and what web hosting services really do. Plus, we’ll go over the different types of web hosting today, along with tips on which type to get for your website.

How Websites Work

To properly explain how websites are hosted, we first need to go over what websites are and what happens when you visit a website or click a link in your browser.

Websites are a collection of files, with each file being either a page in the website or an element in a page. These files are organized and kept in a single folder inside a computer. When you visit a website, you’re accessing its folder and grabbing the text, images, videos, and other code that make up the page you’re looking for. Your browser does all these for you, including putting all the files together and showing you the final result.

To illustrate, when you type in Wikipedia.org in Chrome or Safari, you’re telling the browser to access the Wikipedia folder over the Internet, download the files needed for the exact web page you’re visiting, and then display the page on your screen. The same thing happens when you click on a link, too.

So the next question is, where are those website folders located? That’s where hosting comes in.

How Are Websites Hosted?

How Websites Are Hosted - web hosting service

The folder containing all of a website’s files need to be stored somewhere people can access it over the Internet. Web servers are built exactly for this purpose. They’re powerful computers with lots of storage space, but unlike your PC or laptop, they don’t typically have displays, keyboards, or mice. They’re connected to the Internet, though, and are always turned on in order to do their job 24/7.

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Adding more detail to our earlier illustration, your browser will find and communicate with the server where the website is stored, requesting the files that make up the page you’re visiting. The server responds to your request by ‘serving’ those files, sending them over as fast as it can. It does this for all requests, so just imagine how busy web servers are for popular websites such as Facebook or YouTube.

Hosting a website essentially means keeping all of its files in a web server, which is always on standby to respond to requests. As such, even if you can technically set up your own web server at home with your PC, you’ll need to have it turned on round the clock since turning it off will make your website unavailable. Moreover, home connections are typically not fast enough to deliver a good experience to visitors, especially when there are lots of them.

What is Web Hosting?

How Websites Are Hosted - Servers in a data center

Web hosting is a service provided by companies to its customers, letting them store their website in a publicly accessible location. Web hosting providers buy, set up, and maintain servers, often housing hundreds of them, neatly stacked in racks, in a physical office space or building. They’ve got a super fast Internet connection, and each server is connected with actual cables to the entire infrastructure.

So when you pay for a web hosting plan, you’re renting out storage space on one of those servers. You’ll be granted access to that space, allowing you to build and store your website in it. The web hosting company takes care of running the servers, securing them from unauthorized access, and updating software as needed. There are plenty more that they do to add more value to their services, too.

Today, web hosting companies have grown to provide nearly everything you need to start a brand new website, from the domain name and website builder software to the actual hosting itself.

Types of Web Hosting

There are different ways on how websites are hosted. It’s important to understand the differences between them if you’re looking to get a website hosted. Here’s a handy illustration of the types described in more detail below.

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How Websites Are Hosted - Types of web hosting

Shared hosting

Shared hosting works exactly how it sounds. You’re sharing a server with multiple other web hosting customers. A web server can have enough space to host hundreds of websites. You’ll only be able to access your own account within that server, but you’ll be sharing its CPU and bandwidth and you can’t configure the server yourself.

This is the cheapest and most common type of web hosting since it allocates the least amount of resources per website. As you can imagine, each website will be competing for those resources, resulting in slower speeds for visitors, especially if the server receives a lot of traffic. It’s a cost-efficient solution if you want a small website hosted.

Dedicated hosting

Just as you can share server space with other websites, you can rent out an entire server for yourself. Dedicated hosting lets you have complete control over a server, so you have full access to its resources. You can install any niche software, tweak its OS and configurations, etc. However, it also means you’re responsible for managing the server’s software and fixing conflicts or issues that may result from your actions.

Larger websites and web applications require this kind of web hosting, and they’re appropriately more expensive as well. A website with dedicated hosting will be much faster and more secure. Enterprises with a team of developers usually benefit the most from dedicated hosting and they can afford its costs too.

Virtual private server hosting

VPS hosting is a mix of shared and dedicated hosting. You’ll be sharing a server with other accounts, but there are a lot fewer of you and each account functions as a dedicated server. So rather than a physical dedicated server, it’s a virtual machine that you have full control over.

In practice, VPS hosting works just like dedicated hosting but it costs less. It’s more secure than shared hosting since the account is encapsulated in its own environment separate from the others. In a way, it combines the best traits of those two types.

Cloud hosting

Even though dedicated and VPS hosting can handle large amounts of traffic, their servers still have physical limitations. These computers still have a finite amount of storage, RAM and CPU power, so sites that receive hundreds of thousands of visits a day can stagger from the traffic. Content that suddenly becomes viral can also result in huge traffic spikes that a single server can’t handle.

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To solve this, web hosting companies have developed cloud hosting. Also called scalable VPS hosting or scalable cloud-based hosting, this type houses a website in a cloud โ€” a large cluster of computers โ€” instead of a single server. This network of servers pool their resources and make them available to the websites stored in it.

Managed hosting

Rather than being another way that a website is hosted, managed hosting instead describes the range of additional services that a hosting provider adds. This can cover dedicated and VPS hosting plans, and most cloud-based hosting as well. Most notably, this involves the hosting company providing proactive technical support, such as software setup, server configuration, ongoing security monitoring, etc.

Managed hosting plans can also specialize in a single application, such as WordPress. In this case, their servers are optimized for WordPress, and their expertise and support is focused on the platform.

How to Get Your Website Hosted

How Websites Are Hosted - Summary

Getting a website hosted nowadays can be as simple as signing up for a hosting plan from a web hosting company. Most web hosts already provide the full complement of services to help customers build a new site from the ground up.

First though, you’ll want to decide what type of hosting your website will need. Once you’ve figured out your target audience and how much traffic you’re expecting, you can start shopping for hosting plans that match your needs and budget.

Selecting a web hosting company out of the dozens out there is a bigger undertaking and one you should make only after researching as much as you can. Personal sites or small business websites can start off with cheap shared hosting plans from Bluehost, Dreamhost, SiteGround, etc. If you’re developing a site for a larger company, VPS hosting might be a cost-effective solution. Dedicated hosting and cloud hosting are typically only needed once a site has established itself and continues to attract a growing audience base.

There are of course a lot more layers and details involved, but this should provide you a more concrete understanding of how websites are hosted.

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