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Choosing a ColdFusion Web Host

Choosing a ColdFusion Web Host

So you need a ColdFusion Web host. Typically, your first question would be: "Who do I choose?" More important, I believe, is the question: "Why am I choosing?" This statement may not seem relevant until you look at the "whys" of choosing a ColdFusion Web host.

There are many things to consider. What type of site will you need hosting for? Will your focus be mainly business or personal? Are you launching an e-commerce or online store? Maybe even a corporate presence site? What are your predictions for visitor traffic? What features will you need to successfully deploy your site? These are just the basic things to consider. So let's start at the top of my "why" list.

ColdFusion Version
Existing sites may depend on a certain version of ColdFusion Application Server. There have been many changes to existing tags as well as added features between ColdFusion 4 and ColdFusion 4.5. If your site has been coded for ColdFusion 4, you may have to make code changes (depending on which tags you use) if you choose a host that offers only ColdFusion 4.5. You can view the complete list of new features at ftp://ftp.allaire.com/kbftp/Cold-Fusion/new.htm. In addition to the tag and feature changes, there's a difference in the way ColdFusion 4 and ColdFusion 4.5 use server resources. Occasionally a site that ran fine on ColdFusion 4 will consume more resources on ColdFusion 4.5. If you haven't developed your site yet, compare the differences in ColdFusion 4 and ColdFusion 4.5 to see which is right for you. Note that ColdFusion Application Server 4 is no longer offered by Allaire, and therefore Allaire support may be limited.

Database Needs
There have been many great articles in ColdFusion Developer's Jour- nal and other resources about choosing a database, so I won't venture into that territory. Whichever database you've chosen, your host must offer it and be fairly knowledgeable in supporting it. Along with the choice of database comes the choice of version. Bear in mind that with the release of a new version of a product, support for the previous version becomes limited or obsolete. If a problem arises with the database at your web host and they can't get support for the product, you may face making this decision all over again. That can lead to extended downtime and/or more expense.

ColdFusion Functionality and Custom Tags
Will your site need the use of CFFile, CFDirectory, CFContent, or some of the other "high risk" yet powerful tags in ColdFusion? Many shared hosting providers don't offer the use of these tags as they present a security risk on the server. Suppose a user decides to use the tag CFFile to locate, then delete, important files from the server? Disaster! Also, consider whether your site will use any custom tags. Although you can use any .cfm custom tag by placing it in the directory that will be calling it, there are many useful and timesaving CFX custom tags available. A CFX tag is a Windows component (.dll), which must be registered in the ColdFusion Ad-ministrator before use. If either of these features is important to your site, you'll need a host that will provide them.

Server Platform
Along with the above considerations, the server platform is especially relevant for an existing site. Which platform you choose depends on your personal choice, whether your site is already developed or you'll be developing it from scratch, and the database you plan to use. The ColdFusion Application Server software has been tested with several platforms: Windows (NT or 2000), HP-UX, Linux, and Solaris.

Pricing will affect your decision depending on your budget, the features you want/need, and the hosts you investigate. Some hosts offer rock-bottom pricing because their plans and/or resources are rock bottom (i.e., low dollars for low features). Does the host offer a variety of plans? What bandwidth do they offer? What are the transfer limits and disk space allowed? If you have more than one domain, will you need additional accounts? Do they have a money-back guarantee? How much do they charge for setup fees? What type of payments do they accept (ACH check draft, invoice, credit card)? Do they offer discounts for prepaid lengths, such as three, six, or 12 months? These are all options you must weigh depending on your situation.

DataCenter/Server Room Specifics
When choosing a host, an important consideration is the equipment they use and the environment in which it's kept. Many larger hosts utilize a data center, where the servers can be kept in a building separate from the offices. Some hosts use an isolated area commonly referred to as a server room. If your site is mainly for fun, the following points may not be as important. But if your site is mission-critical, say, an e-commerce site your business depends on, then the answers to the following questions should weigh heavily in your decision.

Questions to ask about their data center/server room can include the following:

  • What types or brands of servers are they using?
  • Are environmental controls in place, such as temperature control, static reduction, and moisture elimination?
  • What fire prevention/suppression plans do they have?
  • How do they handle power failures?
  • What type of physical access security do they have in place?
  • How often are backups performed?
  • What is their overall disaster recovery plan?
Another factor in your decision concerns support. What type of support are you mainly concerned with? E-mail? Telephone? Live chat? Will you need support after business hours or on the weekends? What type of support does your prospective host offer? Do they have a toll-free telephone number? How long is their average response time? Are customers given honest, easy-to-understand explanations if there's a problem? What level of knowledge does the host require of the support team? As with each of these choices, individual needs will be your deciding factor.

When you think of e-mail choices, you must think beyond your current needs. E-mail can be an ever-growing part of your application. Does your prospective host offer your own domain e-mail addresses? Will you need mailing lists or auto responders? How about a catchall or default account? Does your prospective host offer a web-based administrative interface? Will you be able to easily create additional e-mail accounts, aliases, or forwards? What brand of e-mail server software are they offering?

Other Application Needs
In addition to ColdFusion, do you have other application needs? Do you plan on using ASP, CGI, Perl, or even PHP? If you'd like to use any Java-based applications, your host must be able to support those as well.

If your application does any type of credit card information gathering or processing, you'll need a secure connection. That's where SSL (Secured Socket Layer) comes in. This protocol encrypts the information from the browser to the web server and back. Without this security in place, you may lose a substantial amount of business due to concerns about credit card fraud. If you need SSL you can purchase your own certificate, which is usually linked to your domain name. Some providers offer a shared SSL certificate. Basically this is a certificate that was purchased by the host for all users on the server to use if they desire. There can be differences between a shared SSL and a domain-specific SSL in your site's secure url.

Now that we've gone over many of the "why" questions, let's talk a little about the "who." When you've gathered the answers to your "why" questions, you'll then have a list of prospective "whos." When comparing each host, you should research the following info as well.

How long has the host been in business? How many users do they have? Do they have any testimonials available? Do you know anyone who's currently hosting with them? If so, what has their experience been? Search through the different Web host rating sites for comments about the prospective host, such as superiorhosts.com, hostindex.com, webhostdir.com, tophosts.com, or any of the many host review sites. Also take into consideration any partnerships or alliances they have with software producers, such as Allaire, Microsoft, Compaq, Cisco, or Sun. These partnerships/alliances can keep a host well informed about the products they offer and can usually ensure they have adequate product support if they need it.

Now that you have a good list of questions to consider when choosing a host, the next step is to compare the features you need, the questions you have, and the plans each host has to offer. This may seem like a daunting task and you may feel pressured to "just choose one." Remember that if your business or your client's business depends on the site, you must choose carefully. Taking the extra time before making a choice can save you time, money, and frustration down the line.

More Stories By Stephenie Hamilton

Stephenie Hamilton is the senior ColdFusion administrator for CFXHosting. She has been involved in the development of an advanced shared hosting environment that allows access to the ColdFusion Administrator and many other features not found in a typical shared environment.

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