This is part of an introductory guide to buying and owning domain names, written by Mary Gardiner for LinuxChix in 2004. It is no longer being updated but is available for modification and republication under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence.

Buying and owning a domain name

Choosing a domain name host

This lesson will discuss the choice of a host for your domain name. It will discuss two different types of hosting:

  1. Shared hosting
  2. Server hosting

Shared hosting

It is possible to host more than one domain on a single machine, having a single web server program that answers queries for multiple domains, and an email server that handles mail for multiple domains. There are many commercial providers who sell the ability to host your domain on their machines (along with other customers) — this is generally the cheapest type of domain hosting, and all hardware and most software configuration will be their responsibility.

Shared hosting prices vary extremely widely and you should definitely look around. The market is quite competitive, but some providers may charge as much for a mailbox as others do for a website and unlimited mailboxes.

Here's the factors you should look at when choosing between hosts:

  1. Location
  2. Operating system
  3. Access
  4. Bandwidth allocation
  5. Number of website domains and subdomains
  6. Address and mailbox allocation
  7. Disk space
  8. Uptime and service guarantees


There are a number of reasons to choose a hosting provider in your city or country:

However, for many people outside North America there are also good reasons to host in the US or Canada:

These advantages are probably less applicable in Asia and Europe than they are in Australia and New Zealand. I don't know anything about hosting in South America or Africa.

Operating system

Your choice here will be more or less UNIX vs. Windows. Many of the cheap hosting providers use Linux or another free UNIX-like operating system (FreeBSD, OpenBSD...). Linux and *BSD hosts will almost always be using Apache as the webserver, I'm not familiar with Windows hosting but I suspect IIS is the most common webserver.

In general I believe Windows hosting is a premium service and you'd only want to choose it if you're using technologies that won't work on Apache: for example Active Server Pages (ASP) or FrontPage extensions. On the other hand, there are many freely available programs that will work better with or are designed for Apache: PHP, many CGI scripts and so on.

Static HTML pages will work fine with either.


Your host will allow some but possibly not all of the following forms of access:

  1. FTP or SFTP or SCP upload of files (you're almost certain to get one of these, and you should avoid hosts who don't let you upload your own files using one of these standard protocols)
  2. IMAP or POP access to mailboxes (this may be secure IMAP or secure POP). Hosts that want you to download all your mail will often only allow POP.
  3. Shell access via telnet or ssh.

For simple web hosting needs — for example static HTML files — shell access may not be particularly useful for you, but if you want to install and test any scripts it will be invaluable. It can also be useful to have access to log files for your website, particularly if you have any problems getting it to work.

Your host may allow some or all of the following to be hosted on their server:

  1. Static HTML files
  2. Other types of files (I've never heard of a host specifying HTML only)
  3. Dynamic scripts (PHP, CGIs in Perl, Python..., Java applications)
  4. Your own network processes (like IRC bots)

Most hosts will offer 1, 2 and 3 — you'll rarely need 4 and most hosts don't allow it for various reasons, including the potential for someone to use your network process to compromise the machine.

If you're using CGI scripts, check with your host that they have the interpretor for your language installed (or that compiled binaries of, for example, C programs, will run if you need them). Most seem to have Perl, Python and various shells. Ruby is less common but some hosts have it. Many Perl and Python CGIs require extra modules to be installed — ask your host if they are prepared to do this on request.

If you have a Java backend for your website you may want to seek out a host that specialises in Java hosting (there seem to be a lot of them).

Bandwidth allocation

It's hard to tell in advance how popular your website will be. The greater the popularity, the more bandwidth you will use. However, unless you have some particular reason to assume yours will be a very popular site or you will be receiving an unusually large amount of email, it's normally safe to assume your bandwidth needs will be well under 5GB/month, probably around 1GB/month if my experience is anything to go by.

Bandwidth allowance can take a number of different forms:

In the case where your bandwidth use is limited, your provider generally offers one or all of the following options: shutting your site down until the demand dies down; shutting your site down until the end of the billing period (usually a calendar month); or charging you per unit of extra bandwidth used.

In the most common case, where you are charged per unit of extra bandwidth, it's worth briefly considering the worst case scenario, where your site might use 100GB in a month. Could you afford it? If not, you might want to ask your host about shutting down your site if demand suddenly becomes enormous.

Reasons to believe yours might be a popular site include lots of pictures, lots of media files, moving a previously popular site (like an established web comic) to your site, or adult content. In these cases you'll want to increase your estimation. However, there are certain factors outside your control that may suddenly cause your bandwidth to increase. Being linked to from the front page of Slashdot is the most well known and feared cause of bandwidth spikes — it can make your site several hundred times more popular than it otherwise would be, but similar effects happen with links from other popular sites. Keep in mind these are worst case scenarios though.

Number of website domains and subdomains

Some cheaper hosting options will restrict the number of domains and subdomains you can host within a single account. You will want to consider how many separate subdomains you're likely to want before choosing a host that has this restriction.

Address and mailbox allocation

Since you have a domain name, you can create unlimited addresses if your host allows you to. However, some don't.

When considering email addresses, your host will offer two distinct things:

these are data stores where email ends up. Typically, every person who uses email needs one of these to themself. A mailbox will usually be protected by a username and password, and accessible by one or more of IMAP, POP or webmail.
these are addresses: recipes for delivering mail. The server may deliver in any number of ways: it might put it in a mailbox, put it in multiple mailboxes or forward it to another server

Typically people with multiple addresses don't have them delivered to multiple mailboxes. I have about twenty email addresses people commonly use, but they all go to the same mailbox.

These are the common scenarios:

Those are roughly in order of cheapest to most expensive but this seems to vary very widely.

If this is your first domain name, be generous in the number of email addresses you estimate you'll want: you may imagine you'll want one but the lure of having different addresses for different audiences (friends, clients, online vendors) tends to be attractive. You'll almost certainly only need one mailbox for each person (not address) using the domain. If it's just you, then one. If you're intending to let family, friends or employees use it, then one each for them. Remember though that you can forward mail to third party addresses too.

Disk space

Almost every host operates on a model where you have a fixed amount of disk space to store all your web data and email. It seems to range between 200 MB and 2 GB at most hosts, and getting more disk space tends to be more expensive than almost anything else. It's likely you'll only need a few hundred megabytes in this scenario: you're hosting a personal website with a few photos and some data (like a weblog) — typically these are only 20–50MB — and you're downloading all your mail via POP or IMAP.

If you want to leave your mail on the server or if your website is enormous, you'll need more. However, it is quite easy to estimate this by looking at the size of your current website and the amount of email you're storing.

Uptime and service guarantees

Uptime is the percentage of time you can expect your website and email to be available for. You can get as close to 100% uptime as you like by spending more and more money — imagine redundant servers all over the planet in guarded security compounds as a kind of a best case scenario. Downtime happens for all kinds of reasons, in my experience there's a few major ones:

Uptime is often measured in "nines": 99% uptime, 99.9% uptime, 99.99% uptime and so on. I like to think of them in "days down per year" terms: 99% uptime is over three days down per year, 99.9% uptime is about 8 hours, 99.99% is about an hour and 99.999% uptime is about 5 minutes (that's the kind of uptime you like from telecommunications providers).

For personal and small business hosting you will not always get an uptime guarantee and realistically you should expect well over 24 hours of downtime yearly although not all at once. Often you will be given an estimate of downtime though, so have a look. If you're thinking of setting up an online business on a large scale you will want to look at uptime guarantees (but in that case you should also be hiring professionals to develop and maintain your server solution.)

You probably won't get much in the way of service guarantees from a small hosting provider, but there are some good signs:

Now that you're armed with hosting decisions, you can have a look at the following hosting providers. This is by no means a complete list (there are thousands of hosting companies) and is geographically biased. These companies have been mentioned by various LinuxChix and others to me in a positive way in the pat, but obviously do your own research too:

Server hosting

Server hosting involves having a permanently accessible server set up somewhere: there are many companies that provide this service. You install whatever software you need on your server: a webserver, a mailserver, a nameserver, and so on, and configure them yourself.

Again, I won't address the setup here, but I will make some brief comments on advantages and disadvantages of this option, and then describe the different ways you could have a server hosted.

Advantages and disadvantages of server hosting

Advantages of hosting your own server:


For readers of this lesson, there are probably three real reasons why you'd choose this type of hosting:

  1. you either are or would like to be a good sysadmin (and trust me, this is an excellent way to learn how if you're willing to accept that your mistakes may cause downtime or data loss)
  2. you have really heavy duty needs like a custom business application or an enormously popular website
  3. you have particular needs (like wanting several shell accounts) that aren't accounted for in shared hosting pricing models

Many of the same factors apply to your choice of server host as to your choice of shared hosting provider: hardware specifications (in some cases), price, bandwidth, and so on.

Server hosting options

User Mode Linux hosting (or other virtual servers)

There's a terminology confusion here. Shared hosting, as above, is often referred to as "virtual hosting". In contrast, a "virtual server" is a process run on a physical machine that behaves like a real machine. Several of these virtual servers may share a physical machine. On a Linux machine this is done with User Mode Linux (UML), but other UNIX-like operating systems have facilities for doing something similar and products (like vmware) are available to make Windows and other virtual servers too.

Generally virtual server hosts sell access to one of a number of virtual servers running on a single machine. You will generally be given root password to your own virtual server, and the ability to install whatever software and run whatever services you like (within reason, typically CPU intensive applications like SETI@HOME will be banned).

Your virtual server will be sharing a physical server with other virtual machines, although this will be largely invisible to you. This has two main impacts:

  1. you will be sharing a CPU with the other virtual machines, meaning that if someone else runs a CPU intensive process your server will be affected
  2. you will typically have no control over the kernel your machine runs — it will be configured by your host

Virtual servers are the cheapest server hosting option because many virtual servers share a single machine. They are a good first server hosting solution, except in cases where your processes require a lot of dedicated CPU time (simple web serving and email processing will be fine unless your site is exceptionally popular), or you want to control the entire machine for some reason (like security).

Dedicated servers and colocation

In this model, you maintain an entire physical machine that acts as your server. There are a few ways of doing this:

  1. some hosts will sell you a standard model machine, or use of it. Generally repairs to the machine's hardware will be their responsibility, all configuration and installation yours.
  2. some hosts will require that you bring your own server to them (often in a special case called a "rack case"). You will be responsible for hardware maintenance.
  3. you might host your machine non-commercially, for example on your home broadband connection or at yours or a friend's workplace

I call the last solution "buddy hosting", and it will leave you vulnerable to sudden changes of house or employer. For a personal server this is often OK though.