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Free or low cost website hosting could be a liability for your nonprofit

Web hosting is more than just making your site available to the web. It's keeping it available. This involves performance, monitoring, disaster recovery, and support.


August 16th, 2022
By Seth Giammanco

This article is for you if you don’t know much about hosting a website. It’s not a tutorial to become a webmaster. It's a guide to help you make sure you get a great hosting package for your nonprofit’s website. The article explore website hosting needs for sites powered by content management systems like WordPress or our platform of choice, Craft CMS.

In our experience, many of the nonprofits we come to work with don’t know a lot about website hosting. Why should they? Many put their trust in us to set them up well or to help educate them so they can make informed decisions.

We hope this article helps you make informed decisions about your organization's hosting.

Basic needs for hosting a website

Let’s start with the essentials.

  • Registrar and Domain - Your domain is your address on the web. A domains is purchased at and managed by a Registrar. A domain gets onto the web via a domain name server. This server helps to make sure your domain connects to various services. This server helps make sure your domain works for your website, your email, and more.
  • Web Server - The web server hosts the website code and assets to deliver your website to a user’s web browser. This can include a database server to power your content management platform. It can also include an email server to handle things like your admin's forgot your password.

That’s it. These are the essentials. A service to manage your website’s address and a service that offers a web server to host your website and what it requires to run.

Beyond basic needs and why your organization needs them

The following are some more advanced features of hosting a website. These include making sure your website peforms well to helping with disaster recovery. Often basic hosting setups don’t include these.

Performance & Optimization

There are many moving parts to hosting a website. In particular a CMS powered website like CraftCMS or WordPress. There is a webserver, database server, dns, and cache software to name a few. Each can be optimized to handle different types of website technology. Optimizations are very technical. These range from memory allocation to cache settings. When possible you want to make sure your web host partner knows your website platform and how to optimize their hosting stack for your platform. If you are using WordPress for example your web host should help run it well.

Image Optimization

A key component of many a website design are images. Image files can get very large using the most accessible of photographic devices — our phones. Left untreated these images can significantly impact the performance of your website. Users would have to wait to load large images making your site experience sluggish. This is particularly true with mobile devices on lower speed connections. Poor site performance dings your search engine optimization, your user experience, and brand. As such, it is a serious consideration.

There are many ways to optimize images automatically. Some are done at the website software level. There are also services like imgix.com that can optimize images and host them on their global content delivery network (CDN). A CDN caches versions of your images closer geographically to site visitors.

For example, if your webserver is in New York but a visitor is in California the images can come from a server on the west coast. This cuts down network transfer time and makes site load faster.

Backups

Things go wrong with website hosting. When then do you want to make to sure to have a strategy to troubleshoot and get them back online. Part of an emergency plan is to make sure there are backups in place.

Consider the following backups.

  • Database - If your site has a database you want to make sure you are saving regular database backups. A daily backup stored each evening is a great start. Storing 1-2 months worth of snapshots is helpful.
  • Site Files - Storing the files and code needed to run your website is a good practice as well. We recommend daily snapshots over a period of time like databases.
  • Asset Files (images, pdfs, ….) - The images and assets you upload to your website should have a backup as well. Since this is content you upload, we recommend your organization have a stored folder in Google Drive, Dropbox, or similar services where you store a backup of these assets. Making a backup from a webserver of these is an option, but can be resource intensive given the size of assets.

Backups should be stored off server. If the server goes offline you want to be able to access your backups elsewhere. Many backup services such as ottomatik.io or snapshooter.com exist to help automate database and site file backups. Sometimes hosting solutions have backup features as well. This is definitely something to inquire about.

Uptime Monitoring

Is your website online? You don’t want to wait for that board member or supporter to email you to tell you it’s not. Uptime monitoring pings your website on a regular schedule (every 5 min for example). When it can’t access your website it can notify you. This heads up allows for more pro-active action when there is a site issue.

Uptime services such as uptimerobot.com and others are an important tool for your web team to monitor your site.

Transactional Email Delivery

Your website technology can send emails for a variety of different reasons. At the most simplest, it can send a forgot your password email when you are having trouble remembering your admin credentials. For more advanced sites, there may be further uses of transactional emails. You may want to send a form submission confirmation or notify your team when a new comment is posted.

These types of emails are transactional. They send based on an action done on your website.

Just about all webhosts will have a means to deliver an email. This said, troubleshooting basic webserver based email can be challenge. This and working to ensure email deliveribility is a need. If your transactional emails impacts your website visitors, it may be wise to consider an email delivery service. Postmarkapp.com is an example of one such service. It provides a great interface to view email sends without technical wrangling. This can be very helpful to troubleshoot potential issues.

Support

It should go without saying that you want your website hosting to have good support. You need a team that is pro-active about managing your website and responsive when questions or issues arise. If you do not have hosting related technology know how within your internal team you will want a service or partner that does.

What we use with our client partners

Minds On Design Lab offers hosting to our clients that we build and/or support websites for. It goes hand in hand with our monthly partnership plans. Our current hosting “stack” uses a collection of technologies and services. As a small and mighty team ourselves, we rely on great tools and partners to allow us to offer quality hosting.

  • DigitalOcean - https://www.digitalocean.com - For each website we set a virtual server powered by Digital Ocean. Digital Ocean has been a fantastic service for many, many years. They have good support and strive to make their complex hosting offerings accessible. These features include being able to scale servers quickly to support more site visitors for example.
  • Ploi - https://ploi.io - Ploi offers many things including server management, backups, and operations services. It helps to configure our DigitalOcean servers to run CraftCMS (our content management system of choice) well. We set up off-server backups of databases and website files with Ploi. It also powers our deployment process. It helps us to deploy code changes to our servers efficiently. These are complex needs and it is fantastic to have a tool that supports us in so many ways.
  • imgIX - https://imgix.com/ - To make the sites we build more performant we love imgIX. ImgIX is integrated into our CraftCMS builds. It can work with many other content management systems as well including WordPress. It helps to optimize images for the web without our clients having to do any image preparation. This is a win for performance and publisher experience. It also hosts cached versions of these optimized images on their global content delivery network. This improves page load speed. Quick sites are good for the user experience and search engine optimization.
  • Postmark - https://postmarkapp.com - To deliver website emails from forgot your password to member registration activation emails we connect our websites to Postmark. Postmark improves email deliverablility. It also makes the email server visible through a agreat interface to help troubleshoot any issues.
  • UptimeRobot - https://uptimerobot.com - This service checks our websites every 5 minutes. When it can't connect to the site it sends us an email as well as posts to our Slack. Once the issue resolves it sends a follow up notification.

If your website is important to you make sure your hosting setup reflects this

Expect that website hosting will have problems at some point. Sites can go down for many reasons, like a car that ultimately will need service to run. You want to make sure your hosting setup is proactively managed to help prevent outages and respond to them efficiently when they happen.

When you are building a new website you need to consider the support you have or need following site launch. Start with these questions.

  1. Do you have your own internal team members who can help support the website and hosting?
  2. Do you have budget to have an ongoing support partner?

Putting together a great hosting package with your internal team or valued partner

If you answer "yes" to #1 or #2 then putting together a great hosting package is possible. The list of questions that follow can help you assess where you are and what you might need.

Use the following to help assess your website hosting package.

Performance

  • Is our web hosting tuned to our website platform?
  • Does our hosting package include image optimization and/or delivery over a CDN (contend delivery network)?

Disaster Preparation

  • Do we have automated backups of our website's database? Files?
  • Do we have an internal process to store our media assets we upload to the website.
  • Are backups stored somewhere else than our main web server?
  • Are we monitoring our website to ensure it is live automatically? Are notifications set up to go to the right people when the site is down?

Email

  • Are we sending emails from the website to any supporters by our website technology? Forgot password? Comments?
  • Do we have resources to troubleshoot email deliverability and is it easy to do?

What do you do when you don't have internal technical resources for hosting or budget to afford a partner?

If you answer "no" to the questions about having your own team or budget to engage a partner, you should consider your website technology.

You want to have something where hosting (and more) is maintenance “free”. You should consider using platforms like https://webflow.com or https://www.squarespace.com to build your website on. While these may have trade-offs compared to CraftCMS or WordPress powered sites, the need to keep maintenance simple offsets them.

With these platforms the web hosting and more is included. They would not require you to have your own support resources to help manage.

Quality website hosting for your social good efforts

Likely, you spent a good amount of money to build your website. Having hosting that helps the site run well and reliably makes a difference. I hope you found this article helpful and let us know if you have any questions or comments via Twitter or email.


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