Christopher Boyd discusses website hosting basics and how to maintain control over your own site.

It would seem that my recent blogs are inspired by questions posted on Facebook groups.  At Musitex we rely heavily on questions people ask in order to generate our content, so please use 

https://pd4music.com/contact-us/

or

 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PD4Music/

If you have questions and we’ll be happy to try to answer them.  Today, I responded to someone looking to change their website from Weebly to something new.  I figured the answer deserved more detail and information than a reply or message. I know there’s a lot of technical information that I’m about to present, but try to muddle through it.

Basic Website Architecture

The first thing about websites to try to understand is the basic architecture.  We access a web page through a URL (Universal Resource Locator).  In this case, you got to this page through https://pd4music.com/what-does-having-my-own-website-mean/

Let’s break that down: “https://” is the scheme.  It basically tells the server what kind of information the browser is expecting so that the browser can display the information correctly.  There are plenty of other schemes, and, in fact, the “s” tells us that the site has been secured by encrypting the data sent between the bowser and server.  The “pd4music.com” is the domain.  You might notice that our domain has no preceding “www.” If it did, the “www” would be a subdomain.  Our https://courses.pd4music.com/ has a subdomain of “courses” because we run different LMS software on that site, so it needs to be a different host. The “/blog/” is where the “index” (default page for the directory) is loaded.  Finally the “what-does-having-my-own-website-mean” is the actual html page content you are looking at.

Where am I?

When you typed in the URL (or followed a link to it), your computer went out to the cloud and asked “who can tell me who knows where pd4music.com is?”  In our case, the cloud responded “DNS1.NAMECHEAPHOSTING.COM can tell you“.  The computer then asks dns1.namecheaphosting.com “where can I find pd4music.com” or even “where can I find courses.pd4music.com?” to which dns1.namecheaphosting.com would provide the ip address “198.54.114.133”  Just to throw a little more complexity to the situation, we use a shared hosting company, so if you go to http://198.54.114.133 you will get an error. The server at that ip address needs the FQDN (fully qualified domain name) in order to direct the correct virtual host to respond – as in, it doesn’t know if ,you’re looking for pd4music.com, courses.pd4music.com, georgehessmusic.com, or any number of other completely unrelated websites that share the same server.

What am I paying for?

To recap, so far we have a domain (pd4music.com) – it’s kinda like me paying every year for a PA driver’s license.  We have a registrar (Namecheap, Inc) – for my driver’s license it would be the State of Pennsylvania.  We have a domain name service or DNS (dns1.namecheaphosting.com) – basically the department of motor vehicles database for the state of PA. And we have a host for our web page (198.54.114.133) – using the driver’s license metaphor, that would be my house (my driver’s license tells someone where I live).  In the case of pd4music.com, they are all handled by the same company.  On the other hand, for my master’s project website (http://mtke.boyd-arts.com/), they are all separate: Network solutions is my registrar, Infinite Media handles my DNS (and hosts http://www.boyd-arts.com/), and Digital Ocean hosts my mtke web server.

A La Carte

All of this only gets us to the web server.  The server has the hard drive that contains the data for the web site as well as the software that controls how and what people see.  In the case of http://www.boyd-arts.com/ that software is simple HTML, static web files.  In the case of http://mtke.boyd-arts.com/, I run my own LAMP server (linux, apache, mysql, & php) that uses packages of software to create more dynamic pages.  In the case of https://courses.pd4music.com/, we use an LMS (learning management system) called moodle. An LMS adds several educational-based utilities to a CMS (content management system).  In the case of https://pd4music.com/, we use an open-source CMS called WordPress.

One Stop Shopping

One of the things that makes a lot of this confusing is the fact that there are very popular website building platforms that do all of this wrapped into one:  Wix, Weebly, Google Sites, SquareSpace, etc.  One of the other advantages of using an all-in-one package is that if you need E-commerce, they can handle all of the additional stuff for that on your behalf (not the least of which is securing customer data).  They also handle a lot of the more technical back end stuff and you can pay for various degrees of support in getting started and solving future problems.  Basically, they maintain a lot of control – particularly on the back end – so that you can’t screw it up (which can be not so hard to do).  Keep in mind, however, that most of these one-stop-shops maintain enough control and ownership that if you want to move to a new host, you have to basically re-build from scratch.

Content Management

The next step up from web building sites is shared hosting. If you are going to use shared hosting, you are likely going to want to use a CMS – and that CMS will probably be a WordPress site.  Most hosting sites provide a relatively easy path to starting a WordPress site, and as wordpress.com proudly proclaims, 36% of the web is based on wordpress.  WordPress is open source – which means that the software itself is free.  It also means that, while there is a lot of development, it’s not all good.  The whole platform is designed around plugins – software packages that enhance the look and functionality of the base WordPress system.  There are a lot of free plugins, and even more “freemium” ones – plugins that are free but provide enhanced functionality by paying for it.  The other advantage of WordPress is that it is so popular.  Popularity means there is a lot of help out there – of course, buyer beware: you sometimes get what you pay (or don’t pay) for. 

But… What do I want?

Everywhere you turn, there are hosting services – at just about every price point you can imagine. WordPress (the company, not the open source software) in fact, offers WordPress hosting services: https://wordpress.com/.  As previously mentioned, we use https://www.namecheap.com/, but I have also been really happy with https://www.bluehost.com/.  Hosting services offer shared hosting, virtual servers, dedicated servers, distributed servers, and a lot of other configuration options.  There are other places to learn about these things, but unless you have A LOT of traffic or need a lot of customized back end services, shared hosting is probably a good balance between price and ease of use.  Virtual servers are often similarly priced but require a bit more knowledge on the back end to maintain.

Maintain Control

One final note of caution if you decide to hire help to get you online: Control your access.  With all of the pieces, confusion can cause frustration leading to wanting to pay someone else to just do it for you.  Your domain name (pd4music.com) is the most important piece to own.  Make sure it is registered to you (or your company) and that contact information for you includes an email address that is outside of your domain (as in, the primary contact email address for my registration of boyd-arts.com is not @boyd-arts.com).  The next most important piece to own is access to your hosting account.  If you are hiring someone to help you, it is best to provide them separate access with their own credentials instead of sharing your login with them (one of the reasons I like BlueHost is that they recognize me with a single log in and then allow me to manage multiple accounts).  If you need to share login information, make sure that you know how to forcibly take it back if the credentials are compromised.  The same goes for wordpress administration.  If someone needs access to your wordpress account, give them separate login credentials and know how to forcibly remove them – or at least confirm with someone else that you will be able to if necessary.  I have seen problems many times where people pay someone to do their website and then get it held hostage when there is a falling out with the developer.

I know there is a lot of information here and a lot of it is rather technical, but take your time to digest it, read it again, and ask questions (not just of us).  Again, you can reach out to us using the “Contact Us” page, or use our Facebook Page.

A quick shameless plug here, not that you know me from Adam, but I do offer my services to teach you to secure your digital assets and help maintain access control: https://pd4music.com/product/private-instruction-1-hr/ will get you started and/or reach out directly and we can discuss it.

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