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What is web hosting? All you need to know about choosing the right provider

man working at computer with web hosting graphic superimposed on screen
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

To create a website, a few things need to happen. First, you need to have an idea for what it will be about and what its content will be. Then you need to design and build it. And finally, you need to organize website hosting, so that everyone can access it. But what is web hosting?

Websites are made up of a series of different files. Some are images and videos which you might have taken yourself or had done professionally, but most are special types of text documents containing code. When you're building a website, all of these files exist on someone’s computer, just like you might store Word documents or PDFs.

When you want the website to be accessible to the general public, you need a special type of computer called a web server. This is essentially another computer, but with higher specifications than most personal computers, and with a dedicated, high-speed link to the internet.

We explain below what web hosting is, and what you need to know: once you've read this, have a look at our guide to the best web hosting services to find out which providers are recommended by us. It's also worth looking at our guide to the best website builders as well when you're creating your website.

IP, IP, IP, hurray 

laptop on a desk by a monitor, with code displayed on the laptop screen

Web hosting ties together websites and the internet (Image credit: Christopher Gower)

The dedicated link to the internet is known as a static internet protocol (IP) address. Most home internet connections have dynamic IPs, which means they change periodically. For ordinary home usage, this isn’t a problem. For a web server, though, it can lead to downtime and the websites hosted on it being inaccessible.

Static IPs avoid that risk, and allow web servers to use the file transfer protocol (FTP). This enables you to easily move files from one computer to another, such as when you upload files for a website from the computer they were created on to a web server. 

Having a static IP also means the server can have a secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate, which we cover in our article looking at how you can evaluate and improve your website security.

The process of setting up static IP addresses and configuring computers to be web servers is called web hosting. A whole industry has formed around the business of selling web hosting services, which is essentially like renting disk space on these specially configured computers. 

Web hosting is usually sold on a subscription basis, which also covers the cost of the power required to run the computers and the bandwidth they use.

Computers with superpowers

a server rack with its security door unlocked in a data center

Server racks like these make up data centers, which host websites (Image credit: Timofeev Vladimir/Shutterstock)

Web servers are stored in large, specially built structures called data centers, which are temperature-controlled and extra secure. A data center will have many rooms, filled with rows upon rows of computer towers side by side. It’s on these special computers that all the files that make up a website are stored.

As mentioned, a web server is similar to a home or work computer, but with more power and a faster internet connection. You can actually use your own home computer to run a web server, but it’s unlikely that the websites hosted from it will be as fast as those stored on dedicated hosting computers.

It’s also not something we’d recommend for those who don’t have a large amount of time to devote to the task. Running a web server is a complicated and time-consuming pursuit that requires specialist knowledge. That’s why hosting companies have their own DevOps (software development and IT operations) specialists, who ensure that web servers are always online, secure, and performing at their peak. 

Website owners are better off focusing their efforts on the content and marketing of the site and leaving the hosting to companies who specialize in that area. Yes, you have to pay for web hosting, but doing so will actually save you time and money in the long run.

This is an adapted excerpt from an eBook called "The ultimate guide to web hosting", first published by TechRadar Pro in association with Planet Hippo.

John Faulds

John is a freelance writer and web developer who has been working digitally for 30 years. His experience is in journalism, print design and web development and he has worked in Australia and the UK. His work has been published in Future publications like TechRadar, Tom's Guide, and ITProPortal.