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Performance-related Hosting Features

In web hosting terms, “Performance” refers to the overall computing power of the hosting server, and most especially to its speed. Unfortunately, there is no single benchmark statistic that can determine which hosting company is going to have the “best” performance, or even the best performance at a particular price point.

You can’t simply look at one number like gigabytes of RAM or CPU processing speed to compare two (or more) hosting companies. You have to look at the overall suite of features and technical specifications in order to get a sense of how one host will compare to another.

Features that affect web hosting performance

APC — Alternative PHP Cache — Caching is the temporary storage of data for the purpose of speeding up future retrievals. When PHP scripts are run (such as in a Content Management System like WordPress), the results can be cached so that the next person requesting the same page does not have to wait for the entire script to be interpreted again.

APC is a PHP module that improves and optimizes the PHP caching engine. It must be compiled into PHP by the server administrator. APC is Free and Open Source, so it should be available from most web hosting companies.

Dedicated IP — The IP address is a computer-readable number that identifies a specific computer to the rest of the internet. It is how browsers find your website (after looking up public DNS records about which IP address goes with the human-readable URL you are looking for). In a shared hosting plan, typically all the customers on single server have the same IP address. 

However, it is possible to get a “Dedicated IP Address” — that is, one used only by your website. This can be added onto a shared hosting plan. Alternatively, VPS (Virtual Private Server) plans and Dedicated Servers will have their own IP addresses automatically.

SSD — Solid State Drive — The hard drives in most computers (probably yours) is a spinning magnetic disk. This is a relatively compact and inexpensive way to store data, but it is not exceptionally speedy.

In order to read or write data, the disk arm has to physically move to the proper location on the disk. Sometimes, because of the way data is spread across a disk, the arm has to move many times in order to read a single file or set of files. This takes time; not much, but it adds up. Solid state drives — like high powered versions of those key-ring sized USB flash drives — are a huge improvement in speed over conventional spinning disks.

Disk Space — Shared hosting plans usually advertise “unlimited” disk space, and VPS plans either have unlimited or “pay as you go” data storage. In either case, the disk drives are usually virtual, sitting on top of a cluster of computers with a large amount of total disk space available. Therefore, most hosting customers do not need to be concerned about disk space. 

However, Dedicated physical servers are limited by the actual hardware on the rack, so disk space is something you need to consider in these types of plans.

Bandwidth — Bandwidth is a measure of how much data is transferred in a given period of time. For hosting plans, it is usually measured on a monthly basis. Shared hosting plans usually have “unlimited” bandwidth, but this is based on an assumption of low-level use. Highly trafficked sites (tens of thousands of visitors) will need a VPS plan with some form of pay-as-you-use bandwidth. 

The important thing here is not trying to figure out how much you might use — this is impossible to know. Rather, you want to look for a plan that has a reasonable per-GB rate and will scale up as your traffic increases. Cheap bandwidth that skyrockets in price if you hit your monthly limit — like cell phone overage charges — can be very expensive indeed.

Server Location — While you might have a specific reason to offshore your web hosting (legal concerns, for example), you usually want your server to be located as close to your main user base as possible, and otherwise very near to major internet trunk lines (very large US cities). It takes time for data to move, and the less it has to travel the faster your website will load.

RAM — Random Access Memory — This is what people are talking about when they just say “memory.” The more of it a computer has, the faster it will run (all other things being equal). While it is not the most important issue anymore — most commercial web servers have a lot more of it than they need — generally speaking, higher numbers are better here.

Reasons to care about performance

The most important outcome of high performance is speed — specifically, the load times of pages on your website. The faster, the better.

Faster web pages decrease abandonment and increase user engagement. Slow page loads — even with only minimal lag — provide a sense of cost to the user. Each click within the site costs a tiny bit of time, and impatient users with an infinite number of other options are not going to explore your site if the cost is too high. 

On the other hand, if the site is nearly instantaneous the cost to click drops to zero. In fact, the speed of a new page load can become its own tiny reward, encouraging users to click and click and keep on clicking, especially if your content is engaging and your design is eye catching.

Faster page load times also provide a benefit to Search Engine Optimization. While high-quality content and legitimate back links will always be the foundation of good SEO practice, the technical side of SEO is still important.

One of the main technical measurements that Google currently looks at for page ranking is load time. They want the internet to run as fast as possible, and so they reward sites that run fast. Additionally, they know that fast sites are more appealing to their search users.

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