The main purpose of web hosting is to maintain the 24/7 online presence of web server networks that keep the files, databases, and code essential to the publication of websites, as well as associated domain services like email, available for use by people anywhere in the world over the internet. As covered in the previous section, this begins with the Domain Name System (DNS) and I.P. addresses, but includes a number of different web standards that are grouped together in the Internet Protocol Suite:
- TCP/IP: Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) & Internet Protocol (IP)
- Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP)
- Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP)
- File Transfer Protocol (FTP)
- Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP)
- Post Office Protocol (POP)
- Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP)
Looking at these standards together, they illustrate the range of services that combine in web hosting and that are integral to the management of a web server network for internet use. The TCP standards govern how data is transferred in packets between computers on the web, which includes, for example, the use of server hardware to transmit web page files to any number of different remote clients, such as desktop computers, tablets, and mobile devices. The IP standards establish the numerical addressing fundamentals of this data transfer between machines, as well as the associated relationship with the use of domain names in URLs for file transfer, email, and web publishing.
Web servers are configured with IP addresses for multi-domain support in file transfer (FTP), email (SMTP, POP3, & IMAP), and web publishing (HTTP) according to the DHCP standards. These protocols establish the main services that web hosting companies offer their clients in association with domain names, to which they also add database and programming language support on the servers which extend the range of what is possible with HTML publishing. From this generalized overview, web standards can be further categorized into those that are used in a web browser, file transfer, email, and web server to more clearly understand the relationship between web hosting and website publishing.
WEB BROWSER STANDARDS
The World Wide Web (WWW) is primarily composed of HTML web pages hosted on web servers that are configured according to internet protocols using TCP/IP, HTTP, URLs, etc. for the transmission of data between networked computers. Tim Berners-Lee is given primary credit for “inventing” the World Wide Web while working at CERN in Switzerland in 1989, though the networking protocols, computer hardware, and diverse number of software platforms used in the internet have a much wider scope of authorship and history of development. The creation of the first web browser, Mosaic, by a team led by Marc Andreessen at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (NCSA-UIUC) in 1993 is regarded as enabling a much wider range of applications for the World Wide Web. From the innovations produced in this era, the entire web design, web development, web publishing, web hosting, cloud computing, search engine, and mobile application industries have developed, with all of the attendant ecommerce and communication facilities.
HTML meta tags are placed in the head of a web page to communicate to the browser and other access clients like web spiders or robots information about the document. This can include a page description that is used by search engines in display results, as well as the author, main keywords, or viewport configuration. Twitter Card reference tags and Facebook’s Open Graph protocols work in the same manner as HTML meta tags, defining the title of the page, the summary description used when the URL link is shared, and also an image to be used in thumbnails when a web page is shared on social media.
Extensible Markup Language or XML is another web programming language governed by the W3C, which is primarily used to transmit data between devices with machine-readable semantic context tagging. RSS is one of the primary implementations of XML, which is also used in generated site maps that are submitted as indexes of a web site content pages to search engines.
RSS is technically an abbreviation for Rich Site Summary but more often referred to as Really Simple Syndication. RSS is a primary implementation of XML that is used for subscribing to syndication news feeds from a website that include lists of dynamic content that catalog newly published articles or blog posts with summary text, thumbnails, author information, etc. The use of RSS feeds has declined with the rise of social media websites like Twitter and Facebook that fulfill a similar function to news readers.
Semantic web standards are other frameworks for coding rich information into web pages whose development is overseen by the W3C. Semantic tags are intended to provide more meaningful descriptive information for web document data that may be dynamically generated from databases than HTML div, class, or anchor tags provide. Semantically tagged data can be better used by APIs, search engines, or other types of machine learning to make document and database values more easily referenced and understood across a variety of platforms when published. RDF (Resource Description Framework), SPARQL, Turtle (Terse RDF Triple Language), OWL (Web Ontology Language), etc. are all examples of semantic web protocols, most of which operate as a form of XML. Semantic web standards are still evolving and are not currently widely used in web publishing.
File standards are arguably more simple than web programming languages, used collectively to define the way data is encoded for storage and transmission between computers as text documents, images, videos, music, animation, or other forms of media. MIME types or Media types are standardized by IANA as part of ICANN for internet publishing and programming requirements, providing the means to define text files as HTML, PHP, ASP.net., etc. on servers; register image files in different formats; or share PDF files, send form data, etc. on websites. MHTML is not common in internet applications but used by some browsers for saving or archiving web pages into a single file with all of the embedded media included in the HTML output into one source. File standards are often related to academic groups, corporations, or professional trade associations, reflecting the latest industry research and development in IT sectors.
The three main image file formats used on the web are GIF, JPEG, and PNG, with Bitmap (.bmp) and Scalable Vector Graphic (.svg) images much less commonly found. The Graphic Interchange Format (.gif) image standard was developed by Compuserve in 1987 and popular in the early days of the internet. GIF images support 8 bits per pixel, up to 256 colors, and use LZW (Lempel–Ziv–Welch) compression. JPEG images (.jpg or .jpeg) were developed as a file format by the Joint Photographic Experts Group and launched in 1992. JPEG images support 24 bits per pixel and up to 16.8 million colors, but use a lossy compression algorithm. JPEG images can be progressive, loading in different layers, while GIF images can be animated with different frame rates and transition effects. Portable Network Graphics (.png) or PNG files can be either 24-bit RGB, 32-bit RGBA, grayscale, or transparent. The standard was released by the PNG Working Group in 1996. PNG file compression is lossless, leading to certain advantages over JPEGs when used in web design. The Tagged Image File Format (.tif or .tiff) is also sometimes used on the web.
There are many video file formats used on the web, all of which required an associated media player to be viewed in a web browser until the introduction of the HTML5 <video> tag. The different video file formats generally relate to the various codecs used with each standard, which may be dependent on the company developing the recording device or the specific media player used for the transmission. Previously, Flash video (.flv or .swf), AVI video (.avi), Quicktime (.mov or .qt), RealMedia (.rm or .rmvb), MPEG video (.mpeg or .mpg), and Windows Media (.wmv) were all used with different proprietary or open source media players in web development popularly. Many of these formats are still commonly found on the web today. However, with the advent of the HTML5 <video> tag, there is increasing standardization around MP4 (.mp4), WebM (.webm), and Ogg (.ogv or .ogg) video which can be played across multiple web browsers with open source or publicly licensed codecs using built-in media player support. It should be noted there is significant debate over video file formats and the codecs supported by web browsers that is conducted by media industry representatives and open source advocates over the standards implemented in this field.
Similar to video files, support for music or audio files on the web previously included many formats based on compression and playback standards with cross-browser support being developed in the industry with the launch of the HTML5 <audio> tag. Popular web audio file formats are MP3 (.mp3), Sun or Java audio (.au), WAV files (.wav), Windows Media (.wma), RealAudio (.ra or .rm), the Advanced Audio Coding format (.aac), True Audio (.tta), MPEG-4 files (.m4a, .m4b, & .m4p), FLAC or Free Lossless Audio Codec files (.flac), and AIFF files (.aiff). With HTML5 audio, there is still not consistent implementation of cross-browser playback support, but MP3, Wav, and Ogg files are the most accepted standards. MP4 audio (.mp4, .m4a, & .aac) is basically using the video codec for music playback in a web browser. Many web publishers still use proprietary solutions to broadcast streaming media online.
Adobe Flash files (.flv or .swf) were previously the preferred choice in web development for publishing animations, video, audio, and other scripted forms of multimedia. However, following the introduction of the iPhone and Apple’s refusal to support Flash on Safari for the device, the development of the mobile web has subsequently led to a decline in the overall use of Adobe Flash in web design. Steve Jobs claimed this was due to the overuse by Flash of system resources like RAM and CPU processing power on client devices. The Flash platform includes Shockwave, ActionScript, ColdFusion, and Adobe Air, among other development tools and standards. The use of Flash files in a web browser requires the additional installation of a proprietary plugin (Flash Player) extension to render. Flash is currently most popular for the scripting of browser-based video games, though the standard is still also often found in web banner advertisements, animation graphics, or audio and video playback support in web browsers.
Another Adobe file standard that attained widespread support on the internet is the PDF or Portable Document Format file (.pdf). Adobe initially launched the PDF file format in 1993, and it has become a web standard for document publishing, storage, and transmission. PDF files are traditionally popular in that they provided more opportunities for font usage and graphic layout design then typical in a web page. PDF files require a browser plugin, embedded script support, or a desktop reader application to display. The format is frequently used by magazines, ebooks, brochures, and academic publications.
File transfer protocols are important in web design, web development, and web hosting as they allow web publishers, programmers, and developers to upload the required code, image, multimedia, etc. files required to publish web pages from a local computer to a web server. Whereas the HTTP standards govern the transfer of information between a web server and a client web browser for public data that is shared using URLs in web design, FTP and other file transfer methods are primarily used to upload files in web development to a server on a private and secure basis. File permissions on the web server determine which folders and individual documents or media files can be viewed by the public. File transfer methods can be categorized into those that work using FTP software applications, those that operate through cPanel or AMP software, command line tools, and version control utilities.
FTP / FTPS / SFTP / FXP
FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is the most common method of file transfer in web design and web hosting. Using FTP a registered user connects to a web server from a local computer client to upload HTML, PHP, image files, or other forms of multimedia, scripts, and documents in order to make them publicly accessible for use in web publishing with a domain name. Although FTP requires a user name and password for connections, it is not considered an altogether secure means of network communication, thus leading to the development of alternative standards for file transfers such as FTPS and SFTP which include the use of data encryption in the protocols.
- FTPS (or S-FTP) is distinguished by using SSL/TLS encryption on data transmissions between the client computer and web server. This is also referred to as FTP Secure.
- SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol or Secure File Transfer Protocol) uses the data encryption capabilities of a Secure Shell connection to transfer files between a client and web server.
- FXP (File eXchange Protocol) is file transfer that occurs between two remote computers or web servers conducted by a third (i.e. desktop/laptop) local client.
All FTP transfers require use of a third-party software application to communicate with the web server. FTP software can be open source, proprietary, browser-based extensions, desktop applications, or operating system specific utilities. Some examples of popular FTP applications are FileZilla, WS_FTP, FireFTP, SmartFTP, CuteFTP, WinSCP, Fetch, WebDrive, FTP Explorer, FlashFXP, and FTPRush. Most web hosting plans include a master FTP account with root server access, as well as the ability to configure multiple FTP users for specific domains using cPanel or proprietary account administration tools.
File Manager is part of the cPanel toolset and allows for users to upload, download, zip/unzip, and change permissions on the files used on a web server as an alternative to FTP applications. File Manager works through the web browser, including a GUI with an easy to navigate tree structure of all available files and folders registered to client domains on a particular web hosting account. Some web hosting companies provide a proprietary alternative to File Manager with through a custom AMP (Account Management Panel). Plesk, Webmin, and Virtualmin all offer similar File Manager functionality in their control panel implementations for web server management.
The file permission system on Linux servers developed out of UNIX standards and consists of a set of parameters designating who can access all of the files and folders hosted on a web server. There are three main access categories: the file owner, the group the file or folder belongs to, and “other” which is equivalent to a public setting. Each of these variables can be further set with the values: read, write, and execute. These values are set using chmod commands through a FTP program, File Manager in cPanel, or the command line over SSH access to a server. Learn more about file permissions on Linux by reading the Debian and Ubuntu documentation information.
SCP is Secure Copy Protocol that works over SSH connections and allows files to be copied, moved, or transferred between folders on a web server using the command line. Many web hosting companies have traditionally provided FTP services to users of shared hosting accounts but not permitted them to manage files or server settings over the command line. Because of this, SCP is frequently used by system administrators and FTP is more common in web design, with version control frameworks becoming more popular with contemporary web development teams.
If the cURL library is installed on a web server, it provides the ability to use a wide number of different file transfer protocols using the command line for server management. cURL can be installed on Linux, Windows, iOS, FreeBSD, and most other operating systems. Some of the many file transfer protocols supported by cURL include: FTP, FTPS, HTTP, HTTPS, IMAP, IMAPS, LDAP, LDAPS, POP3, POP3S, RTMP, RTSP, SCP, SFTP, TFTP, SMB, SMTP, SMTPS, DICT, FILE, SSL, HTTP/2, Telnet, & Gopher.
Git was developed by Linus Torvalds in 2005 as an alternative to CVS and BitKeeper for software version control and patching updates to the various Linux kernel projects being developed by the open source community. Git allows web developers and programmers working on local desktop computers to publish changes made to software code to a central repository, like the files stored on a server for web publishing. Code changes made by other members of a development team can also be synched back to local copies across registered users on a network with records kept of all the different versions of the software files published through change logs. In this manner, Git operates as an alternative to FTP in web development and is used for file management on web servers in programming teams primarily.
There are a wide number of different version control platforms available with functionality similar to Git that are used in project management, software development, and web publishing. Some examples of popular version control frameworks are CVS, Subversion, BitKeeper, Mercurial, Bazaar, and Veracity.
Where the configuration of a server for shared, VPS, or dedicated web hosting must support the Domain Name System (DNS), HTTP, FTP, and other internet protocols for web publishing requirements, email communication associated with domain names remains one of the oldest and most important applications on the web. Almost all web hosting companies allow for the configuration of email accounts with a domain name, and email communication conducted through desktop software applications predated even web browsers on the internet. There are a few main email protocols that are important to understand in web hosting, primarily SMTP, POP3, and IMAP. Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and Mozilla Thunderbird are the most popular desktop email applications. cPanel provides webmail support with Horde, RoundCube, and SquirrelMail. Google’s gMail offers the ability to forward domain name registered email addresses configured through a web hosting account server to their in-box service. Most consumers prefer the simplicity of browser-based webmail providers in comparison to managing an email server for a domain and using a desktop application for email communication.
Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) has been in operation since 1982 and is used as a standard for sending email communications between network servers. It is through SMTP that the use of the “@” symbol in email addresses (firstname.lastname@example.org) is established. The Microsoft Exchange Server platform, along with sendmail, Postfix, and Exim represent over 90% of the total implementation of SMTP email services on the internet today. Most web hosting companies use SMTP for sending email between servers and then either POP or IMAP for managing registered domain client email uploads and downloads. SMTP mail is usually sent without the use of encryption. STARTTLS is a SMTP extension that allows for email to be exchanged between servers using a SSL/TLS connection. Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) can also be used for platform level public-key security encryption on SMTP email communication, or individual solutions like PGP can be maintained that prevent email from being read by third-parties in transit.
Post Office Protocol (POP) is a web standard used for the transmission of email between a server and a desktop client or other remote application. The POP3 standard was published in 1988 and is still supported by many email service providers, though many consider it obsolete. POP3 has been replaced with IMAP on most of the email servers offered by web hosting companies, making the use of IMAP4 for email management now more representative of contemporary industry practices than POP3.
The Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) dates to 1986, and the most prevalent standard (IMAP4) has been in use since the early 1990s. Like POP, IMAP allows for users to connect to an email server and send or receive files according to SMTP addressing requirements. Some web hosts allow for IMAP communication to be made over a SSL/TLS connection for better security using encrypted data transmissions. IMAP provides the basic means through which individual email accounts or inboxes are operated and managed by registered users on a web hosting account in association with a domain name. Webmail services like gMail, Outlook, and Yahoo all commonly support IMAP communication.
What to Look for in a Web Hosting Plan
Support for the web standards related to HTTP, DNS, FTP, and email is considered the most basic or fundamental aspects of a web hosting service provider. The software implementation for TCP/IP support and the other web standards that form the Internet Protocol Suite are installed on computer hardware through web server platforms like Apache, IIS, Microsoft Server, FreeBSD, and other distribution packages. While the details of web server operating systems and software platform extensions will be further discussed in the next section, there are many factors relating to these web standards that will influence the choice of a web hosting company for publishers, developers, programmers, and IT managers for business applications. Some of these are:
Advance Support for New Web Standards
Web hosting companies that consistently support industry innovation through the advancement of web standards are more likely to have qualified technical staff with attention to small, important details that translate into a higher level of overall operational quality of services provided. Since web development is a constantly changing industry with many programming languages, software platforms, and competing web standards to be supported, it is important that web hosting companies continually maintain services that are updated frequently to support the latest protocols. This can be important for the consistent maintenance of web security, higher overall website performance, platform development requirements, and greater flexibility in implementing script or web application extensions.
Data Encryption on Email Transmission
Although it would seem to be a fundamental, many web hosting companies still do not encrypt email data in transmission over the SMTP, POP, and IMAP connections. Many businesses are forced to manage their own email servers internally because of this problem. When evaluating web hosting companies, make sure that the services offered include web encryption on email communications. Because there is not widespread popular support for key encryption among users of email services, the transmission of email data over SSL/TLS connections is a standard option that should be considered for all email accounts operated under a web hosting plan.
SSH Access Provided on the Account
With a shared web hosting plan, there is not always the option provided by the company to offer SSH access on all accounts to customers. Because of the changing requirements of web development, the use of SSH in both script management, version control, and server administration is becoming more widespread. For example, using Drush or WP-CLI can speed up many common security and maintenance tasks in Drupal and WordPress site development. When making a decision between which web hosting plan to choose among the large variety of competitive offerings in the industry, the provision of SSH access on shared accounts can be an important factor to consider.
DNS Server Speed & Website Page Load Times
Because most web hosting companies own and operate their own DNS servers, through which they assign shared or dedicated IP addresses to client websites in large numbers, it can be beneficial to test and benchmark the performance of a web hosting company’s DNS server as part of the evaluation process before signing up for an account. Using Google’s PageSpeed service or other third party analytic software tools, it is possible to test and compare DNS server speeds between web hosting companies. In summary, even differentials of less than a second in DNS server response time will be recorded and factored into current SEO rankings. Over time, this factor can influence website performance and also represents something of a “commitment to service” benchmark factor that can be indicative of the platform-specific performance of a particular company in the web hosting industry.
Platform Support for Image & Video Tools
Another important point to look for when evaluating between competitive web hosting plans is the inclusion of support for all of the image processing and video tools required for web publishing using CMS scripts. Normally, the main requirements are ImageMagick, GD2, and FFmpeg, which most but not all web hosts support, generally depending on their platform-level PHP configuration. ImageMagick and GD2 allow for the dynamic processing and resizing of images as needed for thumbnail generation in CMS publishing, while FFmpeg supports streaming audio and video. Because all of these standards require the installation of an additional library on the server to support, and also generally use more server processing resources than other extensions, not all web hosting accounts include these important tools.
Inclusion of Site Builders & Script Installers
The inclusion of site builders and script installers is another aspect that should be verified on a web hosting plan before signing up with a company. While use of these tools depends on the development preferences of the individual, group, or organization that is publishing a website, many users find them helpful and speeding up development time. Fantastico and Softaculous include support for hundreds of web scripts, some open source and some proprietary, and can be useful for testing different platforms or quickly deploying website frameworks. Site builders vary in quality, but can also be helpful for new users to build a web presence without the costs involved with hiring a professional development team.