Matrix Hosting: How do I choose a good provider?

So you want to build a personal web page or perhaps you need to build a corporate web page, but do not know where to start. This article describes how web hosting works, defines terms which you will need to choose a provider.

Finding the right home for your web page is probably one of the most difficult decisions you are going to have to face in your journey to building an online presence. This will seem daunting at first, but once you understand all the technical terms, making a decision will be much easier.

When you first start shopping for a hosting provider you will notice that the main selling points are disk space and bandwidth so let us talk about data types first. Before we can talk about bandwidth and disk space, you must first understand the units by which both are measured. When we talk about data, you have most likely heard the terms bits, bytes, megabytes, gigabytes, so what so all those mean? The whole data counting system is derived from binary where everything can be represented in 0’s and 1’s. To a computer everything is in the form of binary, and thus data must be measured in it. Much like you would count by tens, hundreds, thousands, and millions, binary is counted similarly by bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, etc. The smallest unit in binary that can be counted is a 'bit', and that can be represented by a 0 or a 1. If you combine 8 bits, you will get a byte. One byte is generally one character, for example, the letter ‘A’, can be represented by a single byte. Here is the binary counting conversion chart:

1 bit (b) is equal to 0 or 1
1 byte (B) is equal to 8 bits
1 kilobyte (KB) is equal to 1024 bytes
1 megabyte (MB) is equal to 1024 kilobytes
1 gigabyte (GB) is equal to 1024 megabytes
1 terabyte (TB) is equal to 1024 gigabytes

With this knowledge in hand, we can now begin comparing apples to apples. Understanding the conversions will ultimately help you find the best value for your money, as well as understand what you are being billed for.

The first major selling point in web hosting is bandwidth. Bandwidth is a networking term describing how much data can be transferred between your web site and the person viewing it. Let me refer to an example. Bandwidth is probably most similar to paying your water bill. Each month you are charged by the gallon, and generally, there is no limit to how many gallons you can pay for. Some houses have small pipes going into them and some houses have large pipes going into them. It all depends on your needs. If you have a large house that is going to have many people in it, you need a large pipe and many gallons of water to use. With bandwidth, it is just like water only you are charged by the megabyte (MB) instead of by the gallon, and what they are selling is the data, not water. For most hosting providers they have a huge pipe coming in and out of their facilities, so they usually bill you by how many megabytes you use each month, and not by the size of the pipe. Although some providers may charge you by the how large the pipe is, generally in web site hosting, they only charge by what you use.

Disk Space
Disk space is usually the second major selling point of web hosting. Disk space is the hard drive in the server where your web page is stored. If you have a large web page, the larger the storage you will need to house it. Here is an example. When you rent a self-storage unit, you usually rent it by the size of the storage space. Some garages have 100 square feet and some have 50 square feet, so you generally want more space for less money. In web hosting, the storage space you rent is usually measured in megabytes instead of square feet, but can sometimes be measured in gigabytes. As we have mentioned before, a gigabyte (GB) is approximately 1024 megabytes, so let us do our first data conversion. If one hosting provider offers 2000MB storage, and one hosting provider offers 2GB storage for the same price, which provider has the better deal? If you remember, a gigabyte (GB) is equal to 1024 megabytes (MB), so the second provider is offering 48 MB more space for the same money. The point of this illustration is not to stress that 48MB is a lot of space to barter over, but more to illustrate that you just need to compare apples to apples.

Bandwidth + Disk Space = Data
Bandwidth and disk space seem like two very different subjects, but when they are in the form of data, they are much the same thing. The data you have stored on your disk space will soon travel over your bandwidth to reach a customer, and you are going to be billed for every byte of it. To give you an idea of how to quantify bandwidth and storage, let me use another example. A standard page of content will probably have 20 KB worth of pictures, 4KB worth of text, and 1 KB worth of miscellaneous data. That means that one viewing page is approximately equal to 25KB worth of data. If you are looking at a provider which allocates 1GB of transfer to your web page each month, that is about 34 MB worth of transfer per day. If each page a customer views is 25 KB worth of data, and each customer views approximately 5 pages of your site, that is about 125 KB of data per customer. At 34 MB per day, if you do the math, would mean that you will only be able to accommodate about 278 customers per day, or 11 per hour. Although you can try to make estimates on how much bandwidth you will use, ultimately you will probably not know how much your site will actually use until you have it live on the internet for a few months.

POP Mail Accounts
The third measuring point of some web hosts is POP mail accounts. Essentially these are just regular e-mail accounts. The reason that they call them POP accounts is because these mail accounts transfer mail to your computer via the POP3 protocol. The advantage to having these e-mail accounts with your web hosting provider is mainly to small business, or to anyone who does not want to pay for their own e-mail server. This service will allow you to have your own e-mail addresses that match your domain name. For example, if your website is, your hosting provider can more easily offer e-mail accounts with that domain name. i.e. Depending on your needs, you may or may not need POP accounts from your web-hosting provider, but it is a nice option if they do. When choosing a web host try not to let them bribe you with thousands of POP accounts, because the truth is that you probably wont need that many. Think of it this way. Some providers will give you 2000 POP email accounts. If you had that many employees or people who needed e-mail, odds are that you can probably splurge for your own dedicated e-mail server. In addition, the administrative hassle of keeping 2000 remote POP accounts organized will drive any person crazy.

Webmail is a feature most providers offer in conjunction with POP e-mail accounts. This feature allows you to check your e-mail accounts from any web browser. This is a handy feature because it allows you to check your e-mail from anywhere in the world that has a web browser and an internet connection. Most of the web hosting providers that offer POP e-mail accounts will also have Webmail available to their customers.

Access Types – FTP, SSH, FrontPage, and a Web based Control Panel
Access types are merely the methods that you can use to get your web content from your local computer to the web server. When designing a web page, many people prefer to design their pages on their local PC before they upload them to the web server for the whole world to see. In the web design world we call this ‘publishing’ your web page, because you first design the page then ‘publish’ it to the web server.

FTP is the most common access type and available from most providers. FTP is an acronym for ‘File Transfer Protocol’, and is yet another ‘language’ that your computer uses to talk to the web server. The concept with FTP is simple. First you design your web page and save it to your local hard drive, then you use FTP to transfer that file to the web server for the world to see. There are many ways to use FTP, but many people choose a graphical FTP program SmartFTP. This program allows you to log onto your web server and transfer files to and from it with ease.

SSH is the second type of access to a web server, but beware, this method is reserved for truly advanced users. SSH is short for “Secure Shell” and allows you to log into the server via an encrypted connection. It allows you to manipulate and edit files that reside directly on the server via a text-based window. If you have never worked with UNIX, and are not familiar with issuing UNIX commands, odds are that you will not find much use for SSH.

Microsoft FrontPage is the third type of access that most providers offer, but this is usually something that you have to pay extra for, and is usually not ‘enabled’ by default. Before you can understand how FrontPage works, you must first understand that web pages are created via a programming language called HTML. For those who prefer to have a graphical interface to create web pages instead of programming, FrontPage will generate the HTML programming code automatically, and help you create pages just as you designed them. Now, from within Microsoft FrontPage there is a feature called ‘FrontPage Extensions’. FrontPage extensions allow FrontPage to log directly into your web server to ‘publish’ content. Much like how you can edit a Microsoft Word document and save it to your hard drive, FrontPage allows you to save your web page directly to the web server. For more information about FrontPage, you can visit the Microsoft homepage

Web based control panel is yet other way web-hosting providers will allow you to take control your web page. This feature is different from provider to provider, but in most cases, it will allow you to control your web page and tweak your web server settings from any standard web browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator.  One common web based control panel used by provider is cPanel

Other Common Features
Web Statistics – Web statistics allow you to view how much traffic your web page gets, and also allows you to view demographics of the users which are visiting your page. These are helpful in gathering estimates to predict how much bandwidth you will use, and to determine which days have the highest amount of traffic.

MySQL – MySQL is a relational database you can use in conjunction with your web page used to store data, content or just about anything a standard SQL database can hold. Typically, the data stored in your MySQL database can be accessed by any of the major web scripting languages such as PHP, Perl, and ASP.

HTML - Abbreviation for "HyperText Markup Language". HTML is the coding language used to create Hypertext documents (standard HTML web pages) for your website.  HTML files are intended to be viewed using a browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.

PHP – PHP is a web programming/scripting language used to add advanced features to your web page. PHP is the Linux equivalent to Microsoft’s ASP scripting language, and is embedded into a standard HTML page to provide more advanced features such as database access and dynamic pages. Dynamic pages are called as such because the content will vary based on the results of the script.

Perl –  Perl is another programming language that can add advanced features to your web page. Perl is most well known for its superior text manipulation abilities and its ease of use. Perl is most commonly used in developing CGI (Common Gateway Interface) programs for your web page. you can visit Perl for more information.

CGI-BIN – This is a special directory on a web server which is used in storing your web based CGI programs. CGI is most like Microsoft’s ASP scripting language.

SSI Support - SSI is short for Server Side Include, and it is part of web scripting which allows you to insert dynamic text into your web page. The most common use of Server Side Includes is to show variables such as the “Last Modified Date”. In more advanced techniques it can be used to streamline your web page by capsulation of the headers and footers into their own files, and only ‘including’ them into each page as it is displayed.


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