If you manage a website, you’ll know that navigating the complex world of web hosting is a fact of digital life.

Where, and who you host with is an important consideration. When weighing up hosting options, asking potential providers the below questions will stand you in good stead for handing over your most precious digital asset.

Does your hosting package include regular backups?

Any good provider should be able to perform scheduled backups of your data. Without a backup process in place, all website data will be lost in the event of a crash or malicious hack. 

Butterfly often assists clients whose hosting providers have not made regular backups of their site. Sometimes, the best we can do to get a site back up and running is to revert to a legacy version from when the site was first built – hardly an ideal situation.

…And if so, what is the frequency, and turnaround time to perform a restoration?

The regularity of the scheduled backups will depend on your hosting package. If an e-commerce solution or any form of data collection is present on your site, back-ups should be performed daily.  It also pays to run a test restore with your provider. This allows you to check that they are backing-up the site as per agreed specifications, and helps to determine how long it would take to restore the site if something goes wrong.

What are the uptime guarantees?

An uptime guarantee is the percentage of time in a month or a year that the provider guarantees your site will be live (this excludes scheduled downtime to perform upgrades or maintenance to a server). Simply put, if your website’s not live it won’t generate business.

At Butterfly, our uptime guarantees vary, depending on your service level agreement. The minimum is 99% uptime over a 12 month period.

Do you have access to fast, reliable support? What support levels are available?

The support team are the people you’ll need to call if your site goes down, if your traffic goes up, or if the need for a special server requirement arises.

We recently built an online consumer facing form for a client. The size of the form required an increase in server capacity in order to process. A request was logged with the (well-known and large) hosting company to implement the server increase. It took them almost three months to take action.

This request would most certainly have resulted in more income for the provider – and we wondered how long they would take to respond if things went wrong (for example if your site goes down!)?

Some providers offer service level agreements, with priority access and guaranteed response times. If your website has business critical functionality, this could be a worthwhile investment.

What happens to your site if traffic increases?

This doesn’t just mean your provider taking your site down if you go over your monthly traffic hosting limit (though the best option is to have them charge you “overs” so your site is always live).

If you run a popular promotion, or one of your blogs goes viral, hundreds (or thousands) of users might try to access your site simultaneously. This is great – as long as your site limit can be increased to cope with the traffic! This one works both ways – you should let your provider know if you anticipate an increase, but they should be able to implement this quickly and easily.

… and what will it cost if I go over?

Some hosts charge by the MB when a customer goes over the limit, which can be extremely expensive, not to mention unexpected. Always read the fine print and find out what a sudden burst of popularity could cost you.

How often is the server software upgraded?

You upgrade your computer’s operating system (who uses Windows 95 anymore?), and hopefully you upgrade your content management system too (if you don’t, here’s why you should -  http://www.butterfly.com.au/what/we-re-talking-about/entry/upgrade-to-joomla-2-5-to-stay-safe).

The server where you host your site has various software which should also be regularly upgraded. If not, the best case scenario is that new features on your site won’t work properly. Worst case – failure to upgrade poses a security risk and your site could become a target for malicious hacking groups.  

This leads me to the next question you should ask…

What security assurances does the provider supply?

The security of the physical server is very important. Do you know where it’s kept? What assurances do you have about the protection of your data? If you take payments through your website, is the server environment PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant?

How can people access your server? Is it accessible through a Cpanel and therefore more likely to be the victim of hacking? (Cpanel can provide unauthorised “backdoor” access if it is not secured properly and last year, popular server software Plesk was found to have a zero-day vulnerability).

Ask your provider for a rundown on their security protocols. If they can’t give you one or their response is flimsy – look elsewhere.

Exercising a little bit of diligence when researching hosting providers will ensure one of your organisation’s most valuable assets won’t fall victim to horror story hosting!

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