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What is File Hosting?

Do you need to host your files online? Not the files for your website, but just files. Personal files, documents. If so, you don’t need “web hosting,” you need file hosting.

In the early days of the internet, we didn’t have the ideas we have now about web pages or dynamically generated content. A “site” was just a directory of files on someone’s computer which they had made publicly available on the network. A homepage was just an index of those files.

A lot of the infrastructure of the web has changed since then, along with the way we use it. Some artifacts remain — the way browsers handle requests, the notion of “resources” — but we tend to think about websites as something other than simply a collection of files. It’s a site, a place, a dynamic application.

The funny thing about that is people do still need a way to simply put their files online and make them available to other people. New tools make this easier than ever.

Hosting Files the Old Fashioned Way

If you have access to a server connected to the internet (which you do if you have a web hosting account of any kind), you can simply use a single public directory there to hold your files. Upload them via FTP and you can access them from any browser. Assuming you set the read permissions properly, anyone who knows the URL of the directory would have access to them.

If you need to keep those files private, you could make the directory not readable. If you did that, then you’d have to use FTP or a similar tool to access them, you wouldn’t be able to get to them from a normal browser.

This sounds like a reasonable and inexpensive way to do things, but there are some drawbacks.

Permissioning in this context is a bit crude. It’s not easy to decide who specifically gets to see which files if you have a mix of things which you want to be public or private. There’s no built-in sharing features to send file links to people. There’s also no syncing capability; it’s easy to get version mismatch if you’re frequently accessing and editing files from different locations.

Even more problematically, most shared hosting plans and some VPS plans specifically disallow file hosting within your account. The hosting companies set their pricing based on the expectation of someone using an amount of bandwidth and file storage space appropriate to a normal website. They are not prepared for someone hosting a large number of personal files (especially media files — videos, music, images). You can usually get away with this if its a small enough number of files, but if you are trying to use it as a backup of your own computer’s files (or a backup of a website’s files and database) you’ll usually run afoul of the hosting companies Terms of Service.

Self-hosted File Hosting Apps

If you are on a VPS or Dedicated Server plan that has no restrictions on hosting non-website files, there are still better ways to host and share your documents and media than simply uploading them via FTP.

There are a number of self-hosted Open Source applications that will manage and sync files to multiple computers, provide an easy to use web or desktop interface, and give you access to sharing features such as link-sending, invitations, and fine-grained user permissioning.

Tools like this include ownCloud, Syncany, and Syncthing.

The benefit to using these apps is that they are completely yours. You control everything about them. This is good for privacy and ensures you’ll always have access to your own things. On the other hand this also means more responsibility for setting up and managing your file system.

You also still need web hosting, and as mentioned above, you often cannot use shared hosting plans to run apps like this. You would need your own VPS account with few restrictions, or your own server. Because of the economics of scale, if you have to pay for space and bandwidth it might be a lot less expensive to use a free or premium subscription service.

Subscription File Hosting Services

If you don’t want the hassle of setting up your own software and managing a remote server, you can use a subscription file hosting service like Dropbox or Google Drive.

These services allow you to upload files to a cloud-based storage system that you don’t have to manage or think about; you simply move them into a folder and things work.

You can usually set up apps on several systems which will all sync the files automatically with the central server. You can access files from a sync folder on any of your devices, or from a web-based interface. There are sharing and permissioning features also.

These services are often free up to a certain limit, and then require premium plans for high usage. They are often subsidized by ads.

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