Picking a webhost for eCommerce

Published by Dan Lowe on

Picking the right webhost for your business is akin to picking the right location. In 2009 Amazon discovered that for every 100ms of latency, it cost them 1% in sales, Google found that every additional half second it took to generate a search page dropped traffic by 20%. If anything, users of the internet are more demanding than in 2009 and quicker to move on. Picking your web host is vital.

There are some key considerations: Type, Costs, Contracts, Performance & Scalability, Bandwidth, and Customer Service in this blog I will address each of these considerations and talk of our experience of both hosting, and using hosts.

Type

There are limitless hosting packages, but there are some broad “Types” that can be chosen that I’ll refer to later in this article, I’ve mentioned some examples, but please be aware most companies offer most if not all of the services below – I’ve grouped them next to what they’re well-known for. Marketing terms also confuse matters – i.e. “Cloud” can be attached to anything (I’m looking at you, Krystal).

Shared Hosting: Hosting is on a shared platform all competing for resources. It’s been around forever, and on the low-end you could be sharing a server with hundreds of other websites. Usually dedicated eCommerce hosts (EKM, Shopify) won’t be so highly contested and optimise their servers for their platform.

RAW Technologies use cases:
We provide our own shared hosting services to a couple of lower-traffic eCommerce clients, and some of our clients are non-eCommerce clients use shared hosting to minimise costs.

Examples: GoDaddy, 1&1 Ionos (Previously “1&1”), Krystal, Shopify, EKM

Dedicated Server: A physical server to yourself and generally well equipped to handle most things that can be thrown at it. Best suited to consistent, predictable traffic and has issues with significantly large peaks of traffic. Often in two further flavours: Managed or Unmanaged where you decide if you want the hosts to “Manage” the server by keeping the server up-to-date and other important tasks. If you opt for cheaper, unmanaged servers you will need yourself, staff, or an agency to manage it on your behalf.

RAW Technologies use cases:
These days, our larger clients often use Dedicated Servers as staging/development servers. Some medium-large eCommerce clients still have individual or clusters of dedicated servers. We have several Dedicated Servers ourselves for various services like shared hosting, our ticket and time logging systems, and other development work.
Typically our clients might use a dedicated server for their eCommerce site if they also need “something else”, such as running warehouse systems or require special setups.

These days you are probably less likely to go with this option over the below Scalable Cloud options, but it has its place being fixed-cost hosting or employed as a secondary platform that maybe handles tasks such as development/staging server, backups, databases, etc.

Examples: OVH, Rackspace, UK Fasthosts

Scalable Cloud Computing Platform: A few variations of exactly how this works, but fundamentally designed to increase and lower resources with demand. Often, but not always, complicated billing structures, and can scale from the smallest sites to the largest with relative ease. Almost certainly this is the future of hosting large websites.

RAW Technologies use cases:
Our largest Magento clients are on the Sonassi platform, it has been built specifically for their needs and has an excellent reputation, offers great support and superb performance. We have also used Azure, AWS, Google Cloud and other companies cloud services in various projects. Our largest turnover clients all now use Cloud Hosting, and we have helped most of them make the move once they outgrew their existing hosting solution. If you’re thinking it might be time to explore your options with Scalable Cloud Hosting, we can help.

It has significant advantages over traditional dedicated server routes such as the ability to only pay for what you need (no need to future-proof or predict needs) and the ability to seemlessly expand as and when you need. A hallmark of a quality Scalable Cloud provider is the ability easily and quickly increase your websites capacity as and when you need it.

Examples: Sonassi, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud

Worthy mentions – But a topic for another day:

VPS: in many ways, Virtual Private Servers are a mix between Dedicated and Scalable Cloud Servers, cheaper than dedicated servers, may or may not be scalable. I will avoid mentioning them further as they’re increasingly being called “instances” under Scalable Cloud hosting and the line is blurring.

CDN: While not a Webhost, Content Delivery Networks like Cloudflare duplicate all or parts of your websites on servers all around the world. This helps protect against Denial of Service (DOS) attacks and improves performance. They allow a larger number of users and improve loading times, particularly to people geographically further away from your actual hosting services. CDNs are something that all large websites eventually need to explore, and we will talk about these and other important services in future articles.

Costs & Contracts

As with everything in life, you can have anything you want, if you’re willing to pay for it, or you can compromise and save. You can get web hosting for a fiver a month, or you could pay many thousands a month. It’s important to watch costs in order to preserve profits, but if your website is preventing sales you may be watching the pennies while losing sight of the pounds.

To get the lowest possible prices for hosting, you’re almost certainly going to have to agree to a contract, usually 12 months. If you want to reduce that contract to month-to-month you might double – or even triple – the price. That’s probably fine if you’re spending a small amount on shared hosting and can cut your losses if you need to move on, however not so great if you have a four-figure multi dedicated server deal.

You may wish to start out on some of the lower-cost sites, but you must accept that part of growth and success, that can mean that your needs – and costs – change.

Performance & Scalability

Back at the beginning of the article I pointed out that delays in loading your pages costs sales, and that means you need your eCommerce site to perform as you can make it, and you don’t want to lose sales as your site grows and it begins to falter under the load. For that reason, it may be entirely reasonable for your site to start out on shared hosting or dedicated servers and progress to scalable cloud hosting as you grow.

A good measure of site speed is “Time to First Byte” (TTFB) which is a useful indication of the responsiveness of your site, there are plenty of tools online to test your site. Generally, you’re looking for sub half a second, aiming for between 100-300ms. There’s a number factors that affect this, the main ones being:

  • Server performance: The hardware being able to handle the request promptly
  • Server connection: The quality, speed and contention of the providers bandwidth
  • Server location: In relation to the person requesting a page. You wouldn’t want to host your UK aimed site outside the UK as that adds unnecessary delays. Many companies host international sites in their local nations or regions to avoid this.

The next measure is the overall size of your pages. Once upon a time sites were a handful of kilobytes and the odd image would be optimized to be viewable on the worst of connections. Nowadays the opposite is true, web pages can easily reach 10mb or even more thanks to high-resolution images.

Not everyone has the fastest internet, or even if they do that doesn’t mean sending huge amounts of data isn’t going to get slowed down somewhere. Often when check in the office you might find that the page will load really click, but maybe you’ll check on your phone and suddenly wonder why your site is so slow?

Making sure that both your Developers and your Graphics teams keep filesize as a priority is vital, sure there are great arguments for “retina” images (over-sizing an image so it looks good on a big display), but not when it demonstrably loses customers and sales. If you plan – or need – to use large image files there’s plenty of ways of sidestepping the initial load time issue – and they must be implemented before letting your Graphics Designers go wild with file sizes!

Now suppose you’re doing everything right, loads of customers and there are no other issues but your site is getting slower and slower. Sometimes you outgrow your hosting and need to scale up. Generally, your options follow like so:

  • Shared Hosting -> Move to improved hosting, Move to Dedicated hosting or Move to Scalable Cloud hosting
  • Dedicated Hosting -> Move to an even larger server, implement clusters or Move to Scalable Cloud hosting
  • Scalable Cloud Hosting -> Assuming it didn’t happen automatically – simply increase your resources.

Moving hosting, while easily done, still needs to be planned and tested in advance. Often Scalable Cloud Hosting has “overflow” servers that spin up as demand increases, meaning your customers don’t experience slowdowns.

Bandwidth

These days, you expect this to be a non-issue with hosts and you expect their capacity to scale as you need it. It’s very hard to tell before-the-fact if your web host can handle the capacity you need, but there shouldn’t be many who cannot.

If you are hitting issues with Bandwidth capacity and your webhost is unable or unwilling to help, you almost certainly should consider this a red flag and consider moving as soon as possible.

Customer Service

One day, something will happen that means you need support from your web host and you need it now. Before you settle on a host have a read of their reviews, ideally on a somewhat more impartial site such as Google or TrustPilot. It might also pay to familiarise yourself with their Service Level Agreement (SLA). Business hosting often costs more because of the improved SLA, it’s no good saving a couple of pennys on hosting just have your site’s hosting go down at 4pm on Friday and not get looked at until some point the following week.

On some low-tier hosting our staff has had experience of (for cheap, personal, usage) hardware replacements on dedicated servers taking over a week, which is unacceptable to a business who expects to trade


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