Posts from category "Leveraging Technology for Not-for Profits"

How to Choose a Web Hosting Provider & Tough Lessons Learnt from Experience

Every nonprofit should own its own domain name (e.g. ".org", "org.sg"). This is not just an invaluable piece of virtual real estate, it is also a critical foundation to build your organisation's branding and visibility. But once you have acquired your domain name comes the next step of selecting a web and email hosting provider.  This is where things may start getting confusing for a lot of nonprofits with all the technical terms being thrown about.

This article aims to demystify the web hosting options out there and try to simplify the key decision factors in choosing a web hosting provider, especially for a nonprofit with budgetary and resource constraints.

First, you can buy or register your domain name with a different vendor from the actual service that ultimately hosts your website. Sometimes, you can acquire your domain name cheaper from a different vendor than the one which actually offers the web hosting. In fact, as the domain name registration is a pretty standard and commoditised offering, you can simply choose a service that offers you the lowest registration fee. Just make sure you choose one which offers free DNS Management so you can decide where to point your domain name after registration.

In contrast, there is a wide range of types of web hosting plans and follow-on services and support that can be offered by a web hosting service provider. This is where it can often be confusing to anyone trying to choose a web hosting provider. 

Types of Web Hosting Plans

Here's my quick table of the 6 most common types of hosting plans.

2 use physical servers, rely on virtual servers and another plan really refers to the type of services bundled with the hosting.

Table summary of types of webhosting services

  1. 1st, the lowest cost option - shared hosting.  This is where your website is hosted on a shared server with many other websites.
  2. VPS hosting is the next level of shared hosting, where a physical server is divided into a limited number of virtual servers each hosting. 
  3. Cloud hosting is really just VPS hosting across a network of servers which may be located in various locations, instead of a single server.
  4. The physical server options of having your own dedicated server or a co-located server (your own server but stored in a shared physical location with other servers) are usually not suitable for nonprofits unless you are very large and have sufficient resources or manage a lot of or highly sensitive data.  Having your own physical server requires technical expertise and trained staff or an outsourced service provider for the day-to-day management of hardware, operating systems and standardised applications.
  5. Managed hosting just means you can choose any of the above hosting plans and have it come bundled with technical support from the web hosting provider, such as hardware and software setup and configuration, maintenance, hardware replacement, technical support, patching, updating and monitoring. Unlike standard dedicated hosting, the hosting provider looks after the   A popular sub-category is WordPress managed hosting.

Pros and Cons of Different Web Hosting Plans

Here is my quick summary of the pros and cons of the various types of hosting plans:

Pros and cons of Shared hosting vs VPS hosting vs Cloud hosting

Pros and cons of dedicated server hosting vs co-location

5 Must-Haves in Choosing Your Web Hosting Provider

Needless to say, you have to ensure any plan you choose fits your requirements in terms of the amount of storage (for both your website content and email needs) and bandwith (remember to factor in both website and email traffic).

Once you have the size of the plan in mind, here are 5 key things to consider before you sign any web hosting contract:

1. Server Reliability, Uptime Scores And Security

This is really a basic requirement for any web hosting service - i.e. minimise the amount of time that your site is offline.  Look for a hosting company with reputable uptime scores, preferably above an annual uptime score of 99.5 per cent.  Do not engage any host with a reported annual uptime score below 99 per cent. 

Your hosting provider must also offer as part of its hosting plan a variety of server security measures that either come as standard or as add-ons to ensure that your website and data are kept safe and accessible at all times,  These include SSL (Secure Socket Layer technology), Web Application Firewalls, vulnerability scanning software.  Web security for nonprrofits is really a topic for a futrue blog.

2. Customer Service

How effective and speedy is the company in providing support for technical problems? Try to choose a host that offers live support to their clients, 24/7. Also look for those who offer chat support, as well as social media visibility as opposed to email and support tickets. Give priority to companies with an in-house customer support department. They have a better grasp of the company operation compared to outsourced customer support service.

3. Availability Of Site Backups

Your website could crash for a vaerity of reasons, including through cyber threats which destory or override your site’s index.php file. Similarly, you might also experience server or local hard disk failures.  You should only engage a host service provider that offers regular web data backup.

4. Upfront, Renewal and Upgrade Costs

Many providers offer attractive hosting deals during signup and then increase their rates upon renewal. To avoid the surprise bill effect at the end of the discount period, check the renewal charges for your preferred package.

Although shared hosting packages would suffice for most nonprofits, you should also consider the cost of VPS and cloud hsoting plans offered by the hosting provider before you sign up.  It it much more time and cost effective to upgrade your plan with your hosting provider instead of chaing hosts and migrating your hosting.

5. Flexibility 

a. Email Options

Does your hosting providing provide email hosting based on your website’s domain name, preferably through an all-in-one control panel such as cPanel  This is important for nonprofits as you need to quickly and easiily set up individual and group emails addresses for your staff as well as board, committee and sub-committee members.

b. Ability To Add Domains and Sub-Domains

As your nonprofit grows, it will start requiring multiple websites, domains and subdomains for it various events, working groups and projects. TThat's why before signing up, you should already find out whether the hosting provider allows for running of multiple websites on a single web hosting account.

Find out the cost of the unlimited website and subdomain packages and compare it to the rest of industry players and take the time to choose a web host that provides different service plans that allows you to add new domains that allow you to scale up over time as you grow.

c. Account Limitations

Make sure your hosting provider has terms of engagement that set out clearly the specific violation which would result in extra charges, temporal or permanent discontinuation of your hosting service.  Ensure you can abide by these terms before signing up. Also, find out what extra charges there are for reinstatement and what kind of response time you can expect for resintatement. Avoid any with vague powers to limit or suspend your account at its discretion.  

Tough Lessons Learnt from Experience

Here's the truth!

Often, you can never tell until after you have signed on with a webhost and are committed to a 1, 2,3 or even 5 year contract whether the hosting provider will actually live up to all their promises. All you can do is conduct proper research and due diligence by checking out reviews by other users.

I hope that by sharing some of my first-hand experiences, you can avoid some of these costly mistakes.

In my experience, the most common problems faced include:

  • Poor customer service - although most hosting providers claim to offer technical support, many either do not provide 24 x 7 x 365 support or only provide limited or no live support replying instead of automated support technology such as chatbots.  You never know when your website will crash or be hacked, and usually these worst-case scenarios do not happen during office hours!  In addition, nothing beats being able to communicate with a live person n the other end of the line who can appreciate the specifics of the problems you are encountering.  Many of us have faced the frustrating experience of having a one-conversationtion with a chatbot dishing out standard responses that have nothing to do with your questions! 
  • Overselling of server space - this is a situation which arises when a hosting company sells more disk space and bandwidth on a server than is actually available on the assumption that the majority of its clients are only going to use a fraction of the resources allocated to them. Overselling can lead to your website crashing or loading slowly due to insufficient resources actually available for your website.

When I started out, I signed reseller contracts with a few hosting providers that not only did not live up to their hype, they were actually detrimental to my business because I had no proper customer or technical support when my clients's sites crashed due to oversold server space.  One provider only offered support from 9am-6pm on weekdays. Another oversold its server space so my websites crashed frequently but when queried always denied that it did so.  Another big US-based vendor promised 24x7 support but failed to mention you never got to comunicate with a real person, only with robots almost unfailingly dished out a litany of stock responses based on any key words you typed instead of being able to offer an actual solution!

Conclusion & Number 1 Recommendation

With web hosting, you can never tell what kind of service and support you are only to get till you are locked in for at least a 1-year contract.  I have been through a lot of these challenges so perhaps you could benefit from the lessons I learnt the hard way. 

For the past almost 6 years, my business has worked with Serverfreak Technologies to host not just ours but our clients' websites as well.   Not only do they meet all the 5-must-have requirements I set out above, the experience of working with them has also been seamless and professional. 

Here are some reasons why:

  1. They offer 99.9% uptime - our websites have rarely gone offline on their watch, and even when they have, Serverfreak's technical team has been quick in finding out and resolving the issue.
  2. They offer daily web data backup and 24 hour system monitoring. That's peace of mind.
  3. They do not oversell their shared servers -  this is a promise they make!
  4. The technical support we receive has been outstanding as their real-life support team are well trained, very responsive and often go above and beyond to assist with our technical issue and requests. 
  5. For Singapore-based companies and nonprofits, they offer PDPA transfer-compliant hosting solutions.

If your nonprofit deal with any personal data in Singapore, you must comply with the Singapore Personal Data Protection Act.  Guidance has been issued with regards securing personal data in electronic medium as well as what to look out for when engaging data intermediaries (which would include hosting providers) in dealing with personal data collected and managed by your nonprofit.  The transfer obligation requires that any organisation that deals with personal data, is that if you engage IT vendors with servers located outside Singapore, you are required to ensure that the recipient of the personal data outside Singapore is bound by legally enforceable obligations that provide a standard of protection at least comparable to those under the PDPA. Many nonprofits do not have extensive resources to check whether the foreign law that your web hosting service operates out of provides comparable protection or alternatively to put in place contractual obligations on them to comply with the PDPA. The good news is that Serverfreak offers servers based in Singapore and where contracted, they are able to specifically host your website on a Singapore-based server as they do for us.

We have upgraded our hosting plans several times already as our business grew and have also added on a variety of security options such as SSL and Sitelock for our own sites as well as our clients.  They are definitely our go-to web hosting provider! 

If you are looking for a reliable and reputable hosting provider, why not contact Serverfreak Technologies for a discussion today and mention that June Tan from Intellitrain referred you.  Let me know how it goes and I wish you the very best experience in choosing your web hosting service provider!

Or if you are looking for an association management company who will not just manage your web and email hosting, but also assist with maintaining and updating your website content and email accounts, then do contact Intellitrain at intellitech@intelli.asia. Our aim is to free our nonprofit clients from operational and administrative details, so they can focus on the big picture of serving their stakeholders and fulfilling their objectives.

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