Internet hosting — The best of both worlds

Information Technology often involves tradeoffs, such as:

  • affordability versus functionality
  • sophistication versus ease of use
  • initial cost versus life cycle cost

When choosing a server platform for CoTangent to base its open systems offering upon, I was unable to find a single platform that could fulfill the needs of all possible business software environments. However, I was able to narrow it down to two. This may greatly simplify your decision-making process if you haven't yet found an open systems hosting service that matches your business needs perfectly.

These two choices themselves represent a compound tradeoff:

  • flexibility, customizability, and low cost versus
  • simplicity , preinstalled software, and even lower cost.

I reluctantly mention price here since the monthly cost of both of these services is negligible compared to the net costs and returns of implementing an effective marketing strategy. The only two factors that should be considered here are the ease of administration that is required and the range of software that your server will need to outdistance your business far from its competition.

Root access and how to determine if you need it

It is crucial here, if you're unfamiliar with open systems architecture, to understand the concept of root privileges. By default, interaction with the UNIX environment (on which Linux is based) occurs through a user login account whose access is restricted to that user's own files. Many of the best Linux hosting vendors offer "shell access" to use this login remotely over the Internet, to edit files directly on the server or make configuration changes to non-system software.

The root login is unique in that UNIX imposes no limits on the ability of root to modify files anywhere on the system, including those areas that affect system operations (for instance, the configuration of the web server or email system). This level of access, which corresponds to the Administrator user account in Windows, is essential if you wish to be able to install and configure the full range of Linux server software packages available.

Without root access, one's ability to install packages is restricted to those packages which do not require access to system files. You should note here that some hosting services that provide shell access may not allow installation of packages or may require permission beforehand.

With root access, opening a shell login over the Internet can be like sitting down at your server's console in a data center… only in this case, the data center may be thousands of miles away. There are no limits to the extent to which you can customize your server's structure and behaviour other than those imposed by the operating system itself.

Of the two services recommended, the one which offers root is the hosting service used by CoTangent. Having this root privilege has enabled me to:

  • install compilers and language facilities
  • create user groups with custom privilege levels
  • install secure IMAP for mail-reading over encrypted connections
  • optimize system configuration files for a production environment
  • add new data types to those transmissible by the web server
  • … and deploy a package I wrote to manage CoTangent's permission marketing and newsletter delivery mechanism.

All of these things would have been impossible without the degree of control provided by root access. The question for you is: "Will my business need this level of flexibility?"

Less privileges often mean more preconfigured features

If not, or if you haven't decided yet, there is a simpler alternative that doesn't entail the same level of responsibility. CoTangent's alternate web hosting service has a comprehensive offering of features that can satisfy the most common needs. This system is administered through a control panel, so knowing UNIX isn't required.

Beyond the basic features of Linux, this company provides a number of service-wide offerings, such as ColdFusion, RealAudio, web traffic analysis, anti-spam filtering, and a shared security certificate which you can use for secure commerce.

There are also preinstalled CGI scripts that take the place of the most common packages you may have wanted to install, including order forms, visit counters, a search engine, shopping carts, chat room, guestbook, online auctions, and banner ads. You are also free to add your own CGI scripts that you develop yourself or locate over the Internet.

This service gets great reviews for customer service and has a friendly approach towards both business and technical issues. If your business is looking to set up a marketing web site in a hurry and you don't need a customizable back end for your business or a complicated, interactive web site, CoTangent recommends this simpler alternative.

A summary of the fundamental differences

This is far from a comprehensive list. All my domains have been hosted with JohnCompanies for two years: this is something I wouldn't recommend to anyone who didn't have a strong IT professional at their disposal or wasn't one themselves. The support they offer assumes a high level of knowledge about UNIX configuration.

When I told the sales person at LFC Hosting that I had root access to my server through another vendor, he told me I had made an innocent mistake. "You must mean shell access," he said. "Nobody has root access through a web hosting service." If this story doesn't illustrate the difference between the two vendors in a nutshell, I don't know what does. But here are some key points anyway:

Property LFC Hosting JohnCompanies
Monthly cost (USD) $18 $65
Shell access yes yes
Root access no yes
Control panel yes no
Disk space 20 meg 4000 meg
Daily backups 7 days, complete backup, accessible from control panel 3 days, requested directories, archive files available through support request
Internet connection backbone, fast, fault-tolerant backbone, fast, fault-tolerant
Can install packages? with permission without restriction
Can modify system software? no yes
Email addresses, lists, logins 30 POP accounts, 5 mailing lists, one login unlimited
Hostnames and subdomains one IP address, five domains, no subdomains 10 static IP address and your own DNS server if you want
Support friendly toll-free number, good response email support, pages an analyst in an emergency

Notes

About storage space: if 20 megabytes of storage seems like nothing to you, I should tell you that the entire CoTangent web site takes up less than of a megabyte. In my experience you only need a lot of space on your web server if you are making extensive use of multimedia, supporting user postings, providing an archive, or storing personal email on the server (as with IMAP). If you need more space, you can purchase more from either vendor.

When selecting a "lite" hosting vendor, I researched dozens of providers. When I found that LFC Hosting got the highest reviews in customer satisfaction and server reliability, I read about 150 of those reviews. The level of customer happiness was overwhelming compared to even the second runner-up. (JohnCompanies, being a specialty vendor, wasn't included in this survey.)

You are strongly encouraged to contact one or both of these vendors directly with specific requirements. Please be advised that CoTangent does not provide or support Internet services, and that the service provided by each of these two vendors is the result of a service contract between you and that vendor exclusively. Any provisioning or support provided by CoTangent is undertaken on a time and materials basis under separate contract.

When you're ready to move to a server plaform that will impel your business growth like no other, to plan an open systems architecture for your business that will carry it well into the future.

Best regards,

Robert Phair, Principal
CoTangent Marketing Design

2004 Robert Phair

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