If you would have told me when I graduated from college that I would need to understand the high-level ins and outs of a hosting environment, I would have said you were a few servers shy of a data center. But let’s face it. Today, most marketers have to have some basic understanding of the infrastructure that underpins our technology.
Consider this: year after year, marketing budgets increase. Of those marketing budgets, more and more are dedicated to technology. According to Gartner, 33 percent of marketing budgets go to technology and 28 percent of that is actually used for technology infrastructure—like hosting costs.
As marketers, we are always aware of the customer experience and importance of the website in the buying cycle. If our website is not available, we are essentially missing opportunities to do business with key audiences.
If you have a website, you actually need to care about hosting. Your website is no good if nobody can get to it. There’s also the unfortunate reality of hackers.
A hosting environment is a place where all the assets for your website are stored. Traffic is directed to those assets. There are a few different kinds of hosting options, complete with easy-to-understand metaphors. Because, who doesn’t love housing metaphors?
- Shared - Your website is placed on the same server as other websites. Think of this by comparing it to sharing an apartment with roommates.
- Upside: Cheaper
- Downside: Your site can be impacted by others, and it may not be able to handle lots of traffic.
- Dedicated Server - Your website(s) is the only website stored on the server. Think of this pricey option as owning your very own McMansion.
- Upside: You don’t have to worry about other “shared” sites impacting your site.
- Downside: Expensive
- Cloud - A team of servers (called a cloud) work together to host a group of websites. Here, you’re renting a luxury condo that someone else owns and maintains. (Shameless plug: We use Microsoft Azure at One North)
- Upside: You essentially get access to premier hosting infrastructure at a lower total price.
- Downside: It is possible that you could be impacted by “noise” from other websites.
More and more people are choosing the cloud option for the simple fact that you get top-of-the-line infrastructure without actually having to physically build, buy or house it.
Hosting Realities: When Something Goes Wrong
The thing about technology is, best laid plans and all, sometimes it doesn’t work. It is just like a car, one day everything is great, and then the next day you realize you need a new muffler or to replace a tail light or you unexpectedly get side-swiped.
Most of the time, if something does in fact happen, it typically can be quickly addressed, getting your site up and running soon after the initial issue.
There are a few types of these hiccups:
- Process: Miscommunication or deviation from process as a result of something being missed, overlooked or tested. This might happen in new environments, new team members or in rapidly growing environments.
- Software/Technology Update: Just like any other type of technology, hosting environments need upgrades or updates (think iPhone or Office updates). Whenever you introduce anything new within a technology environment, you run the risk of disturbing or impacting existing servers or software.
What you and your provider should do to mitigate this:
- You always want to have some sort of communication plan for any sort of outage.
- Make sure you have a clear “phone tree” between you and your provider.
- Make sure you understand how the provider will communicate with you should this happen.
During any type of maintenance outage, your provider is going through the process of trying to identify what happened and why. Typically, this means they have to reboot something or roll an update back. This takes a little bit of time, but you should be up and running within an hour or two at the very most.
Deliberate or Unforeseen Outages
Unfortunately, we live in a world where bad things happen. There exists the real possibility that some bad person or entity of bad people try to attack you. Or that some sort of disaster occurs. These types of scenarios may include the following:
- Hacking: Someone penetrates the security of your hosting environment and/or site - yep - just like in the TV shows. Obviously, this becomes more problematic if you have sensitive data like ecommerce details or customer info.
- Denial of Service: This is an attack by which the attacker is rendering a machine or environment unusable, thereby bringing down your site. Most commonly you hear of attackers driving so much traffic to a site or environment that it (figuratively) brings it to its knees.
- Unforeseen Disasters: Natural disasters or other man-made threats can occur. These can upset or impact a hosting environment. For instance, a hurricane could wipe out power in the Southeast, possibly impacting the availability of a hosting environment.
What you and your provider should do to mitigate this:
- You should always ask your hosting provider if they have had a penetration test and if they can produce documentation around that test. This helps you understand how secure they are.
- You also need to understand what the disaster recovery options are. For instance, if a data center/hosting environment is in the Southeast, can they quickly switch you to another environment on the West Coast? Alternatively, can they redirect traffic to a back-up copy of your site? If they can, when do they do back-ups?
- For your own purposes, you should also know what is tied to your website and what systems or data might be at risk. You need to have your own emergency plan should something happen to that data or those systems.
These types of outages are obviously more severe than the first group. This is likely going to be something that is going to take some time to resolve (days). However, having an immediate go-to back-up/disaster recovery plan lessens the negative impact on your clients and business. In these instances, although you may not know the root cause for a few days or weeks, if you have a good disaster recovery plan, you can revert to a back-up of your site or to another environment and be up and running within hours at the latest.
Your To-Do List
1. Have an emergency plan for communications as it relates to your website. In particular, how will you communicate within your business if there is an outage? How would you deal with any major disasters or data breaches?
2. Coordinate a communication plan with your hosting partner. Do they know who should be contacted? Do you know how they will contact you and with what frequency?
3. Understand what your options are as it relates to disaster recovery. Will you be able to revert to a previous version of your site? Can you switch over to another hosting center if your primary center is out of commission?
4. Ask for information about security and penetration tests (“pen test,” if you want to sound like you know what you are talking about.) It is important that your partner has taken the effort to try and find any vulnerabilities and address them.
Final thought: As you compare hosting providers and explore your options, one critical component to understand is how much maintenance and care your partner will provide. In some circumstances, you pay less for the hosting package, but the onus is on you to alert your hosting partner if you are experiencing any sort of disturbance.
For some folks, this trade off is worth it. For others, they want the partner to proactively monitor and maintain their hosted applications, and alert them if something is wrong. For clients who choose this option, they really want a full-service approach and are comfortable investing more in this type of service. I would recommend being honest with yourself, and choose the option that really fits your needs, because the last thing you want is to find yourself in a situation that you haven’t planned for.
The technology we use to market our businesses have become an extension of our brand and the experience we are trying to create. As marketers and communicators, it is our job to ensure that we do everything we can to control these experiences, but also to be prepared should something out of our control impact our applications, and as a result our brand.
Written under the guidance of Hosting Expert Extraordinaire, Zach Peer.