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How to choose an ecommerce web host

Whether you’re launching a new on-premise ecommerce website on a platform like Magento or X-Cart or evaluating hosting options for an existing site, there are a lot of important factors to consider. It can be easy to get caught in the trap of trying to compare hardware, but the performance of the hosting account and success of your website will rest on much more than which vendor was the cheapest or promised the most GB of resources.

While no one wants to have hosting issues, ecommerce store owners need to be even more aware of short-term and long-term impacts of errors and deficiencies of their hosting accounts since such problems can cost them immediate customers and can chase away shoppers for good.

Here’s a quick list of topics to evaluate before making a selection:

Security

It’s no secret that if you’re on an open source or other hosted ecommerce solution, you should be leveraging a hosting environment that has your back when it comes to PCI Compliance and general security. ecommerce sites are, by their very nature, bigger targets than other types of websites. It’s extremely important to have your hosting software patched and up to date and your firewall well-configured and monitored.

A proactive approach to security should include taking steps like locking down admin areas of your website to only be accessible from approved IP addresses. Some security options will be more unique to your business, such as geo-blocking traffic from countries with which you don’t do business in order to limit your exposure to security threats.

It’s ideal to use modern tech, like a Web Application Firewall (WAF) with application specific rules built around the security requirements of your ecommerce platform. It’s also important to follow principles of least privileged access. Access to features, functionalities, and resources should only be granted when it’s necessary in order to keep your hosting account as locked down as possible from hackers.

Hardware Quality

When you’re looking at Hard Drives, for instance, it’s not all about the GB. You also have to consider the quality of the hardware. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are much faster than conventional spinning disk drives. If you want your site to load quickly, be wary of hosts that will offer you antiquated or obsolete solutions.

Hardware should also be optimized for a specific purpose. For instance, a web server will have very different CPU and RAM needs than a database server will. A good host will be able to recommend and supply hardware that’s consistent with your needs, whether physical or virtual. They should also have good policies in terms of being ready and able to quickly swap out failed hardware and spin up additional resources as you grow.

Scalability

If you find out that you’re going to encounter a spike in traffic, how will your host help? A good host can assist with load testing to identify how many concurrent shoppers your ecommerce website can support. A good host can also assist with providing load balancers and additional web nodes, as well as managing advanced clouds like AWS that can help support large bursts of website visitors.

Optimized Software Stack

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Your hosting account will be running software like a Linux operating system, Apache or Nginx, PHP, MySQL or Percona, Varnish or Redis, Composer, and various other software and extensions, such as CloudFlare or Akamai as a Content Delivery Network (CDN). Having these server software and development tools properly installed and configured is crucial. Whether it’s configuring a caching software like Varnish or adjusting PHP.ini settings, you’ll need your host to optimize your account for your unique needs.  

Support

A good host will provide 24/7/365 support by ticket and by phone. You’ll want a host that will respond quickly and meaningfully. When you’re having a problem, and need help, there’s nothing worse than having to leave voicemail messages and wait all day for a qualified technician who understands your problem to get to your ticket.

Some hosts will even provide dedicated account managers, so that there’s someone that knows you and your ecommerce website, and can help make long-term recommendations.

SLA & Historical Downtime

A service level agreement (SLA) defines important facets of your relationship with your host and their responsibilities to you. It may define guaranteed uptime at as high a rate as 100%. In other words, a host may be so sure of their services and redundancies that they can promise that they won’t go down. That’s not to say that there can’t be a regional outage that makes your site inaccessible to some users or some other calamity, but it’s important.

Keep in mind that even with the strongest of SLA’s, should your hosting account go down, you may face losses that are greater than what they’re obligated to credit you, so it’s also good to check into historical outages and downtime.

Root Access

If you’re self-managing your hosting, you’ll want Root level access to the hosting account. Otherwise, your host should not be willing to provide you with root access. This top-level access should remain with the host. Otherwise, they can’t provide a meaningful SLA. If they’re the ones responsible for maintenance, upkeep, and 24/7 support, then Root should be their responsibility.

You should, however, have secure access to the file system of your ecommerce website, databases, and a control panel if one is provided… you are paying for a working environment after all. If you’re paying to rent or lease a property or product, the least that you can expect is basic access to use it. Be extra careful if a potential hosting vendor isn’t willing to provide basics like SSH access.

Ratings and Reviews

Checking the ratings and reviews with organizations like the BBB, Facebook, and other neutral parties is a good idea too. In the service industry, it’s likely that they’ll have some complaints, but it’s good to see if their volume of unhappy customers has been high in recent time, and how they’ve responded to complaints.

Specialization & Region

There are lots of hosts out there. It’s best to choose one that will host your website on the continent that a majority of your shoppers are on, even if they’ll be using a CDN. It’s also good to understand who will be providing you with support. Is it employees of the hosting company? Or a 3rd party call center?

It’s equally important to know what platforms they specialize in. If most of their customers hire them for email hosting or hosting ERP platforms on Windows servers, for instance, the majority of their support team may not be in a great position to support your Linux based hosting account, and the specific ecommerce hosting support that you rely upon.

Speed Optimization

Lots of hosts advertise that they’ll have your ecommerce website loading quickly. Maybe they use good hardware and software. However, will they optimize your hosting account around the particulars of your website? If you really want your site to load the way that it should, look for a white-glove service that’s prepared to put time into customizing your hosting environment for you.

Backups

Let’s face it, stuff happens. Whether it’s because files became corrupted, you’ve suffered from an instance of hacking, or an employee (or former employee) had a bad day, you need a way to recover your website and bring it back to a very recent healthy state. Even some of the largest web hosts don’t always include backups, so it’s important to make sure that this is included in your hosting platform and that it will be properly configured.

A good host should provide automatic offsite backups, keeping copies of your site in a remote location in case of a catastrophic failure, like a fire at the data center where your website is hosted. When it comes to backups for your ecommerce website, an ounce of prevention will be worth an ounce of cure.

Proactivity & Monitoring

If your site goes down, will your host know? If they see that your site isn’t up to date with security patches will they reach out to you? From time to time, will they contact you to make recommendations?

With hosting, you really don’t want to wait until there’s a problem. While most hosting service providers have a reactive approach, keep an eye out for one that’s proactive. You want a team that will recommend hosting updates that will have a positive impact on your business and help keep you safe and competitive.

Choosing a Plan

Many hosts will suggest that you sign up for a plan on their website. This can feel like a doctor telling you to write your own Rx script. A good host will evaluate your traffic, API usage, storage needs, and other factors in order recommend an appropriate hosting account.

With ecommerce, it’s highly advisable to avoid any plans that are “shared.” You really should strive to have your own dedicated resources (RAM, CPU), whether those resources are provided on dedicated servers, a Cloud like AWS, or a mix of the two. Otherwise, should another site in your shared environment have traffic spikes, security issues, or other problems, you could easily see your website negatively impacted.

Contracts

Lots of companies are in a rush to sign you up for a long-term contract. That’s great for them, but that puts you in a tough spot if you’re unhappy. Whether you’re spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a month on hosting, it’s always ideal to start out month-to-month. Besides, most hosts will let you negotiate a long-term contract at any time if you want to change your relationship. In essence, don’t go straight from introductions to marriage. Go on a few dates first. You’ll thank me later!

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