We asked nine nonprofit internet specialists to share some of the Web hosting providers that have worked well for them, and some tips for hosting everything from a basic website to a powerhouse web application.  Fully verified and updated in June 2008.

 Is your nonprofit’s Web site running off a server in your 15-year-old nephew’s closet? Does your Web designer charge you $150 a month for hosting when you’ve heard that $15 a month will get you everything you need? Would you like to use a particular software package that your hosting provider just won’t let you install?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to consider looking for a new Web hosting provider.

At its most basic, a Web hosting provider stores the files that make up your Web site, and reliably connects them to the Internet so your constituents can see your site. Good providers specialize in Web hosting, with dozens or hundreds of servers, all protected by carefully designed security, climate, power, and backup systems to ensure that your site stays up and running.

But how do you find a reliable provider that meets your organization’s needs — especially when there are thousands of hosting services out there, a plethora of features and tools to choose from, and pricing options ranging anywhere from $5 to $500 or more per month?

Idealware asked nine nonprofit technology consultants to share their favorite Web hosting providers and to offer some guidance on navigating the options. We’ve consolidated their advice in this primer on Web hosting services.

Your 15-Year-Old Nephew is Not a Hosting Provider

While it’s technically possible to host a Web site on any computer with a permanent connection to the Internet, it’s rarely a good idea. Letting one of your IT staff, a board member, or an acquaintance host your site from his or her closet or garage may seem like a good way to save money, but it’s seldom worth the risk. Power outages, crashes, hackers, and even well-meaning staff can all take your site offline for hours — or even days.

In other words, hosting is best left to the professionals, who can offer a variety of safeguards: high-quality, backup Internet connections; emergency power generators; reliable backup systems; strong firewalls; the ability to accommodate sudden spikes in the traffic to your site; and a lot of experience troubleshooting Web servers.

A professional outside hosting service can provide the critical infrastructure and safeguards that few nonprofits can afford. Though rarely free, this cost-effective alternative will offer you peace of mind — and after all, isn’t it worth a small investment to know your Web site is up and running when donors or constituents are looking for it?

Your Web Designer is Not (Usually) a Hosting Provider

Occasionally, the person or company who built your Web site will offer to host it for you. While this may sound convenient, consider the option carefully.

To start, ask your designer where the actual server that hosts your site will reside. Any reputable designer will outsource the actual Web hosting to a professional provider; under this reseller’s agreement, your designer will rent a chunk of hosting space, manage the relationship with the vendor, and bill costs to you.

Be sure to find out the specifics of the hosting package you’re being offered. Will you get the same type of storage, bandwidth, email service, upgrade path, and ability to check Web stats that you would get from working with a reputable outside provider? (See “Basic Shared Hosting,” below.)

Also, keep in mind that hosting with a Web designer can be more expensive than hosting directly with a provider; after all, the more channels you have to go through, the more people there are to take a share of the fees. It’s also important to keep an eye out for unscrupulous resellers who may overcharge you.

In most cases, it’s better to skip the middleman and go straight to the source. However, if you have a long-term relationship with a Web consultant, it might be worth the extra money to have him or her serve as a liaison between you and the hosting company, interpreting any hard-to-understand technical jargon. Some consultants can also offer specialized or customized software that may be harder to obtain elsewhere.

Basic Shared Hosting

The cheapest, easiest way to host a Web site is through what’s called a shared hosting provider. Under this system, your Web site’s files are stored on a server that also hosts a number of other people’s sites. (However, you can typically see and access only your own files.)

Shared hosting providers are set up to allow an organization with basic Web-building skills to administer its own site without involving the hosting company. The organization can upload their own Web site files, and can often check visitor statistics, create new email accounts, and reset passwords — all without involving the staff of the hosting service. This is usually accomplished through a Web-based control panel or via FTP.

What should you look for in a good shared Web hosting provider?

Fixed amount of storage and bandwidth per month

Web site plans tend to vary on 1) the amount of file storage you’re allotted on the server’s hard drive; and 2) the amount of bandwidth your site is allowed per month. You can calculate your average monthly bandwidth by multiplying the number of files that your visitors are likely to access in a month with your site’s average file size. (Be sure to account for increases in visitors and files if you’re expecting a lot of growth in the near future.)

Unless you have a lot of images, videos, or large PDF files, even a very small storage and bandwidth plan is likely to be sufficient. For instance, a 500-page Web site (without video or huge PDF libraries) is unlikely to use more than 100 MB of storage, and at a hundred visitors or so a day, it’s unlikely to use more than about a Gigabyte (GB) of bandwidth. If you’re storing videos, large documents, or many email accounts, however, these numbers can increase quickly.

Ability to control files and passwords

All Web hosting providers let you upload files to the shared server via FTP. Some allow advanced file control through a protocol called SSH, which can provide an easier and more secure way to upload and download files, while others offer Web-based upload tools to clients that don’t want to use either FTP or SSH. Some providers will also allow you to create secure sections of your Web site where you can restrict files to visitors with a given password, create redirects so that a given Web page is available under multiple URLs, and more.

Support for required databases and programming languages

Most shared hosting accounts will support fairly sophisticated databases and languages — but make sure yours supports the specific tools and versions you want to use. The majority of hosts use a setup consisting of a Linux or Unix-like operating system, Apache Web server software, a MySQL database, and a PHP or Perl programming language. This setup is not likely to support Web sites created in ASP or ColdFusion. Likewise, some hosts use a purely Microsoft setup — with Windows as the operating system, Internet Information Server (IIS) as the Web server, SQL Server as the database, and Active Server Pages as the programming language — and this may or may not support PHP and MySQL. To be sure, check with your provider before you sign up.

Ability to install applications designed for a shared hosting environment

A number of applications — and particularly those that are open source — are designed to be installed in a shared hosting environment. Most hosting providers will let you install these as needed, and may even offer a utility to help you install the more common applications. Some applications, however, require more access to the server — to change system files or global settings, for instance — than shared hosting services typically allow. This means you may not be allowed to install some of your organization’s applications on a standard shared host. Again, looking into this before you sign up with a particular provider will save you trouble down the road.

Traffic statistics

Most hosting providers will give you online reports of basic statistics about your site, such as how many visitors you receive daily, where they came from, and where they go on your site. This can be useful, though many nonprofits now track their site statistics through a package like Google Analytics, which does not require anything specific from the hosting provider.

An upgrade path

As your site grows and your online initiatives get more complex, you may need more storage, bandwidth, or flexibility. Look for a provider with upgradeable hosting plans. Otherwise, you’ll have to move your site to a more powerful host when you grow beyond your current hosting plan.

Email accounts

Email accounts are closely tied to Web hosting. While there are a number of options for obtaining email accounts — for instance, through Google Apps — many Web hosts provide you with a number of email accounts that feature the same domain as your Web site (joe@yourorgname.org, for example). These accounts allow you to send and receive email through a Web interface or to download your messages into Outlook or other standards-based email clients. Not all hosting providers offer outstanding email hosting service, however. The quality of virus and spam protection and of Web-based email administration tools can vary widely, and some providers set strict limits on outgoing mail capabilities in an effort to prevent spammers from abusing the system.

Customer service

If you have a problem, will you able to reach someone knowledgeable who can speak to you in language you understand? Customer service varies widely depending on the provider, and is in fact a major differentiator between the $5-a-month hosts and the $30-a-month hosts. Unless you feel very comfortable with hosting concepts and are able to ask precise technical questions, it’s best to pay more for a host that offers better customer service for all levels of technical expertise.

Which is for you?

If you decide that a shared server is for you, which of the thousands of hosting companies should you choose? We certainly haven’t tried them all, but here are several popular providers that our contributors have found to be reliable:

  • DreamHost. DreamHost offers free hosting for nonprofits, a very easy-to-use control panel, and straightforward installation of common software. However, in the past, sites hosted by the company have gone down for minutes or hours without warning, and it doesn’t offer any phone-support options (all support is via email). In general, a free hosting option should only be considered by very low-budget organizations for whom it wouldn’t be a catastrophe if their site went down for short periods of time.
  • Electric Embers. A small hosting company that caters to nonprofits, Electric Embers’ prices are offered on a sliding scale, from $5 to $20 per month. While control-panel functionality is not as advanced as options from some competitors, and customer support isn’t offered around the clock, the Electronic Embers team is approachable, knowledgeable, and committed to nonprofits.
  • Lunarpages. A large hosting company with a number of shared hosting options — including both Linux and Windows servers — starting at about $7 a month. Lunarpages provides a standard setup with support for all the commonly installed applications. Several contributors find the company’s sales staff a bit heavy-handed, and while customer service is reliable, it can be difficult for the less technically inclined to follow.
  • Pair. A high-quality open-source hosting service with great customer support and a terrific reputation for uptime among clients. Pair is a great host for site projects that look to scale in traffic, as their support for higher performance hosting is high quality. Prices are somewhat higher than competitors, starting at about $10 a month.

There are also a number of hosting companies that now use solar, wind, or other forms of renewable energy to power their operations. Ecosky and Thinkhost both offer highly affordable shared hosting plans that can accommodate most sites.

A few vendors offer an emerging kind of shared hosting, sometimes called grid hosting. This model works much like the options above, but instead of hosting your Web site on a single server, grid hosting supports your Web site (and many others) with a distributed network of servers. While still quite new, in theory this model is more stable (if one server goes down, there’s still a number more to support your site), more scalable to sudden surges of traffic (in the happy circumstance that your organization is mentioned on Oprah, for instance), and can potentially support multiple programming languages — such as both PHP and ASP — for the same site. Our contributors recommended MediaTemple as a good option for grid hosting.

When Is a Shared Host Not the Best Option?

A shared host is a typical, affordable way to go. Why would you want something else?

  • Ability to install any application. The most common reason to look beyond a shared host is the desire to install software that isn’t compatible with a shared hosting environment. Unless an application has been specifically designed to work in such an environment — more typical of open-source than commercial applications — you’ll usually need more access to the server, which means upgrading your hosting account.
  • Security. If you have particularly sensitive data, a shared hosting situation is somewhat more susceptible to attack than other options, simply because so many different users are working on the same server.
  • Processing power. If your Web site gets a high volume of traffic (that is to say, thousands of visits a day) and is running unusually complicated code, it’s possible that you’ll exceed the memory and processor resources of a shared server.

On the other hand, more sophisticated hosting options often require more technical knowledge from your own staff or consultants in order to manage and update your Web site. Make sure that you know who you’ll turn to for this technical knowledge, both now and into the future (what happens if your one Web-savvy staff member leaves?) before choosing an advanced hosting option.

Specialty Software Hosting Providers

If you want to ensure a host can support a particular software package, it’s often a good idea to start with that as your primary criteria. While there are too many specialty Web hosting options to cover here, it’s fairly easy to narrow in on reliable ones suited to your needs. Begin by contacting your software’s Web site or support team to see what hosting providers they recommend. Often the content management systems Web consultants will use to build your site may install and run better on certain Web hosts that cater their services more to these needs — check with the vendor or your consultant on the best options in this case.

Virtual Private Servers

If a shared server doesn’t offer enough power or flexibility for you, but you don’t want to pay several hundred dollars a month for a dedicated server (as described below), consider using a managed virtual private server. This setup allows you to share server hardware with others, but offers you your own, dedicated virtual operating system, set up in a way that functions independently of other users’ software.

You can install anything you’d like on your virtual private server, making this choice particularly useful for those who’d like to use more complex applications or frameworks — like proprietary software, Plone, or Ruby on Rails — but don’t need the processing power of a full server.

Virtual private servers are considerably cheaper than the dedicated server options described next (where you essentially lease or buy your own server), and generally run about $15 to $60 a month, depending on the processing power needed. Our contributors recommended MediaTemple as a solid option for virtual private server hosting services. WebFaction offers shared hosting that functions much like a virtual private server, and might also be worth a look.

Dedicated Servers

Dedicated servers are the Cadillac of the hosting world. As the name implies, a dedicated server is yours alone, and you can configure it and install anything on it that you like.

  • CrystalTech Provides either Linux or Microsoft servers, with a large menu of managed services. CrystalTech’s rates start at $79 a month, but many important services are offered as add-ons that can accumulate quickly, meaning you should expect to pay at least $200 a month.
  • Rackspace Widely known in both the corporate and nonprofit spheres, Rackspace provides reliable managed servers with excellent support starting at about $350 a month.
  • Hedgehog Hosting A very good provider of managed Web hosting that specializes in large nonprofit Web sites. Offers excellent, personalized service, but is generally more expensive than the other options listed here.

Moving Forward

How do you make a final selection? Like many decisions, choosing a Web hosting provider often comes down to budget and features. Begin your search by making a list of your requirements. How much disk space and bandwidth do you need? What about programming languages? Do you require phone support, or are you happy receiving help via email? If you have a small budget, are you willing to compromise on customer service? Is it critical that your Web site never goes down — or are a couple of minutes of downtime here and there acceptable?

Carefully examine the features listed on the Web sites of the providers you’re considering, and call to ask any additional questions. Remember to consider not only your current hosting needs, but also your future requirements. And don’t forget to ask for references or talk to organizations similar to your own that are using the host you are considering.

Most importantly, don’t leave your Web site in a precarious situation. There are a lot of hosting providers out there, and navigating the options may seem daunting. But with a little research, you can find an affordable provider that will help ensure that your Web site is up and running when your donors and constituents come calling.

Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit professionals who contributed:

The article was edited by Idealware; the contributors to this article are not responsible for any errors or omissions.