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Media Hosting Introduction
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. How much is a video worth? A million? The internet started out as a way to share documents — text documents. It wasn't long before people want to share other forms of content: pictures, music, video. Today, a website is as likely to carry non-text media as it is likely to carry text content. So if you are planning a media-heavy website, what hosting considerations do you need to take into account?
Types of Media
Technically everything is media of one sort or another, but when we talk about media in terms of web hosting we're usually talking about one or more of the following:
Moreover, "media hosting" suggests a siteowner storing and delivering a lot of image, audio files, and videos, and providing them to an audience as the primary content — as opposed to only a few resources which are supplemental to primarily text-based content.
It may seem obvious, but there are two ways to handle media hosting:
- host the media content yourself
- host it somewhere else
Offsite Media Storage
It can often be advantageous to host your media content somewhere else, with a service provider other than your own web hosting account. There's no one single media hosting service that works well for all types of media — each format has its own primary service:
- video — YouTube or Vimeo
- images — Flickr
- audio — SoundCloud
All of these services provide ways of embedding media hosted with them into your own website, and they all have integrations with the most popular Content Management Systems such as WordPress and Drupal.
There are a lot of benefits to hosting media at a third party provider. The biggest is that you save on bandwidth and storage. If you are on a VPS plan, you likely pay for both of those, or have a monthly quota. On so-called unlimited shared hosting, you might not be told what your bandwidth limit is, but you almost certainly have one. If your site gets a lot of traffic, and those visitors are watching a lot of videos, you'll hit your limit pretty quickly.
Off loading your media to third party providers also usually means it will get served much faster than if you hosted it from your own site. This is for two reasons:
- Loading content from two places is faster than loading from just one, because the browser can connect load resources from two sources at the same time, instead of having to wait to download each individually
- usually, the major media providers have a much faster connection than you are going to be able to get on a web hosting plan
Besides speed, there's also major convenience with regards to format. Video providers YouTube and Vimeo automatically generate multiple versions of each video — different resolutions and sizes — to load on different devices or with different download speeds. Replicating this kind of behavior on your own — generating different video formats, serving them responsively based on media queries — would be a major undertaking. Flickr provides a similar feature, generating multiple image sizes for each uploaded image.
Another benefit to third-party hosting is that it provides a means by which new people can discover your content and, ultimately, you. All of the media hosts have built-in social sharing, search, and browsing features that make it possible for your media to end up in front of people who otherwise would never see it.
It's also possible that this will provide an SEO benefit. Spreading your content around to well respected media sites gives you the opportunity to place links back to your site along with your content. It isn't clear how much weight search engines place on this sort of thing, but it seems reasonable that it would provide at least some benefit.
Things to Consider
If you are determined to host your media content on your own hosting account, you'll need to keep a few things in mind:
- content management
Bandwidth and storage are a function of your hosting plan — you will want to steer clear of discount shared hosting providers, as they will not scale well if you are serving up a lot of videos or audio. A VPS plan will usually be a better plan — especially a scalable cloud hosting type of plan that will allow you to grow your traffic.
Content management is a function of the software that you use. The major content management systems — WordPress and Drupal have good support for media management. ZenPhoto is a good option if all you want to do is display your pictures. MediaWiki works well if you want to build a media library within the context of an open source community effort.
The last thing to consider with media hosting is a Content Delivery Network. If you integrate your CMS or hosting plan with a CDN, you can manage your media as if it were being hosted on your own site, but actually have it delivered via CDN. This provides some of the benefits of third party hosting (speed and bandwidth savings), while letting you keep control of your media.
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