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What is Website Hosting? – A Guide for Beginners

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We all know how to use the Internet, but few of us know how it works. Why are some websites slow and others fast? What does it mean when a website crashes? How are websites created? What happens when you visit one?

While you might not want to admit your ignorance to your tech-savvy friends, staying in the dark about how the web works won't help. Perhaps you want to start your own website, or maybe you're trying to protect yourself from web scams. You might already have a website that someone else made for you, and you want to take it over but don't know how.

Regardless of your reasons, you want to learn more about website hosting, but you don't know where to turn. In this introduction to website hosting, we'll provide you the information you need to know before you consider creating your own website, modifying your old one or even just trying to figure out exactly what goes on when you visit a website.

What is a web site?

Although the Internet is a virtual place, with its own rules of space and time, it is modeled on the real world. In order to understand how web hosting works, let's consider where many of the concepts come from—your neighborhood map. Whether you're imagining an old printed Rand McNally map, or the Google maps you view on your smartphone, you know what one looks like: there are pictures of streets, buildings, and sometimes landmarks, each slightly different.

The web is similar, except for one crucial difference: The streets, which lead you from place to place, are invisible. Instead, you get from place to place by entering an address in a browser and allowing your computer to be the guide.

On the Internet, these addresses are called IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. Like street addresses, each Internet address points to a single location, which is actually the address of a computer. While this computer has many doors—some, for example, allow you to directly access the documents it keeps—the most popular is the one that allows you to access it via your web browser.

A web site, then, is a series of connected documents that are associated with a single address. Most of the time, you access the web through a kind of nickname, called a domain name, that allows you to enter an address in plain English. For example, book.com is associated with the IP address 270.94.321.49.

What are servers?


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Even though these IP addresses and domain names exist only online, the computers that house the documents that make up websites are real, though you may never see one. The computers that host web sites—often called servers, because they serve the network, or the web—aren't like your typical desktop, laptop or tablet machine.

First, servers are always on. If the power goes out in your house, it's not a big deal. You can always find a few candles in the kitchen drawer and eat cold beans for dinner. But if a server loses power, it means that the web sites it contains won't work. Since we depend on the web for everything from accessing bank accounts to medical records, the servers have to be reliable.

Second, servers have to be connected to the Internet – good Internet. As you know, your home and work Internet connections aren't always the best. We all put up with slow and faulty Internet connections because we can survive being offline for a few hours. Servers can't.

Finally, servers are happier if they're all together. When you use your computer, it doesn't matter if you're at home or at the office, and laptops and tablets are even more portable. But servers work better if they're in a single location, both because they can help each other out (if things get tough for one computer, it's easy to copy files to another) and because they like being in their ideal climate, which is somewhere cool and quiet, with dependable electricity and fast Internet.

What is website hosting?

A website hosting company is, simply, a company that owns servers, often located in one or several places (called server farms) and rents out its services to customers so they can have websites. Website hosting companies keep the servers happy by supplying them with ample power and bandwidth, and keep their customers happy by providing exceptional service and technical support.

As you know, each website is different. Some are big and some are small. Some have video and audio and other extra features, while some just include text and images. Hosting companies help their customers find the right hosting plan by offering a range of options from tiny plans that allow them to share servers to more expensive plans that require them to purchase their own servers.

If you have a small site, you can usually share server resources with the owners of other shared sites. If you have a big web site, you need your own computer, hard drive, power and Internet connection. If you have a giant website, you need a slew of servers—dozens, even thousands of them—all chock-full with your own content.

Web hosting is simple

To recap, website hosting is simply the leasing of computers, or servers, that contain the files that make up the Internet. Most of the files are accessed as websites, which are found by entering a domain name, or nickname, into your web browser, which then finds the proper IP address where your website actually lives.

Although the web seems like a virtual space, website hosting is distinct because it offers customers access to real computers, or servers, that are located in real places, usually in the country where you live. While you may never visit our server farms in Dallas or Detroit, it's their presence that allows you to visit many of the websites you enjoy every day.

More Resources

Wikipedia's entry on web hosting s a good place to start, if you need more comprehensive information.


For a more practical guide, here is some info on how to choose a hosting company.


Next: Hosting Terminology Glossary