The first choice to consider in selecting an ASP.NET Host is to select between Shared Hosting, VPS Hosting, and Dedicated Server Hosting:
ASP.NET Shared Hosting
(typical price $5 – $25 per month)
In shared hosting the web host allocates a portion of a server to your hosting plan. Typically you are given a fixed amount of disk space and bandwidth but no other resources (such as memory or CPU) are dedicated to your plan. A shared hosting will not allow for any access to the root OS, therefore you will not be able to install programs (such as backup software) on the Windows Server OS that runs the site, nor will you be able to configure IIS to your exact needs (IIS tasks can often be handled by the control panel you will be given but note that some IIS functions such as dynamic compression make not be available on your shared hosting plan).
There should also be at least one SQL Server database included in the package (be sure to check the cost of adding additional SQL Server databases as this cost varies a lot between hosts). Also note the size of the database which should be 100MB for a starter plan. Always check with your host if you will be able to connect to your SQL Server database via SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS) as this is very important in administering the database. Note that when you set up your SQL Server database be sure to set the Recovery Model to Simple and Auto-Shrink to True in the Properties > Options of the database in SQL Server Management Studio. This will dramatically cuts the size of your database.
Shared hosting will normally be administered through a control panel. Plesk is generally considered to be the best of the bunch of control panels although it is often charged at a premium to other control panels. In my experience most control panels will do the job just fine since you will have a limited amount of control that any shared hosting can have over the operation system. Most of the time you will connecting with your host by FTP’ing the files to the server.
Most shared hosts offer unlimited domains to be setup on your plan, although you should check the limit if you plan on running a large number of sites. Note that although the hosts will allow you to register domains with them you should always register the domain with a third party (such as GoDaddy) as it will be much easier to move hosts when the domain is with a separate registrar.
Shared hosting is the most difficult form of hosting to evaluate from just the specs provided by the hosting providers since there are no resources dedicated to your individual plan and you have actually no idea how many sites are stuffed onto the server you share, or the hardware of the server or how the shared SQL Server is configured – in short it is impossible to guess the quality of hosting you are being offered. The only way to evaluate shared hosting is to sign up for a month and check the performance of your ASP.NET web app. The paid version of Pingdom is a good tool for this as it provides a graph of the responsiveness of your app over time, if you dont wish to use the paid version you can enter a URL from your site in the Pingdom load time test (which is free) and then manually compare the response times.
One issue to consider in shared hosting is backups. Since you won’t have access to the OS you won’t be able to install third party backup software. In addition, SSMS may be restricted in making backups since they need to be stored on a physical directory on the server. This is one issue you will need to ask the web host provider about. Ideally you should be able to schedule a regular offsite backup of the site files and database.
ASP.NET VPS Hosting
(typical price $35 – $75 per month)
Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting is the next step up on the ASP.NET Hosting ladder. Since the introduction of Hyper-V (Microsoft’s virtualization technology for Windows Server) ASP.NET VPS hosting has developed a lot and VPS Hosting is now the main entry point into ASP.NET Hosting. A VPS is essentially a fully isolated instance of a Windows Server operating system with its own dedicated resources which sits alongside other VPSs on the same server. Thus you would be fully isolated from other users on the same server and be able to Remote Desktop into your server and install apps such as backup utilities and setup IIS and SQL Server.
As such a VPS Hosting plan will provide a full compliment of dedicated resources such as disk space, bandwidth, memory and CPU. Note, however, that the CPU allocation for a VPS is not always very clear – many providers simply quote the specs of the actual server CPU (such as 2 Dual Core Xeon processors) without quantifying how much is dedicated to each VPS plan (part of the problem in this is that there is no agreed upon standard quoting a CPU resource).
In reality the CPU allocation is often of little consequence as most of the performance will come from the hard drive, the memory and the network on which the physical server sits. Since the quality of the network cannot be acertained from the hosting provider’s specs you should look at the memory and hard drive. In general you try get the maximum amount of memory possible, especially if you will be running SQL Server – on my previous host (a dedicated host). It is surprising the amount of memory which can be consumed if it is available. I previously ran an app on 4GB RAM server of which the system utilized about 3.6 GBs when I moved host I rented a server with 8GB memory and 7.5 GB is currently used by the exact same app with almost all the increase being taken by SQL Server (despite the app using caching where possible). Needless to say the app’s responsiveness increased dramatically.
The disk specs are not always disclosed by the hosting provider, ideally this would be SAS storage although SATA (hopefully 7200 RPM) would also do a good job.
VPS is sometimes termed Virtual Dedicated Hosting (VDS) although normally it is the same principal. Just ensure that all the system resources are dedicated to your ‘VPS’.
ASP.NET Dedicated Server Hosting
A VPS plan will normally be suitable for a small to medium sized enterprise, but if your app(s) have a very high resource utilization you should consider a dedicated server. For example I run SQL Server Performance.com which serves about 30,000 pages a day as well as DerivativesONE.com which prices complex financial derivatives. Running both of these on a high-spec VPS gave generally poor results in terms of the responsiveness of both sites. A major limiting factor of a VPS is that although the memory is dedicated, the CPU and disk I/O are in reality shared resources with all the other VPS plans across the server farm. In most other respects a dedicated server is very similar to a VPS and should be evaluated in a similar manner.
One issue to be aware of for dedicated hosting is the contract. You should always look carefully at the contract clauses, especially the renewal of the contract – some of the smaller web hosting providers require signed annual contracts which automatically renew without a prior cancellation.
ASP.NET Cloud Hosting
A comprehensive overview of ASP.NET hosting wouldn’t be complete without a mention of cloud hosting. Cloud hosting is the latest buzz in web hosting but unfortunately, in my experience, there is little to recommend it for hosting ASP.NET applications/sites. Most of the major cloud hosting providers such as RackSpace Cloud or Amazon Web Services (AWS) are focused on providing solutions for developers building on the LAMP Stack and so there are major omissions in their cloud offerings, for example neither RackSpace or AWS offer an easy install of SQL Server.
Windows Azure is Microsoft’s Windows cloud hosting offering but it is not fully compatible with existing ASP.NET web apps and so is more suitable for apps which are built from the ground up to run on Azure.
SQL Server is most expensive part of the Windows stack which will run your web app, so it deserves careful attention. SQL Server is licensed on a per-processor basis and so when selecting you sever specs always prefer a more powerful Quad-Core to two Dual-Cores since the Quad-Caore will half your SQL Server cost.
Also ensure that if you are using VPS or dedicated servers that the providers offers the SQL Server Web-Edition, several do not publicize this since it will only be about $25 per month as opposed to over $300 for the WorkGroup edition but it in most cases works equally well in a web environment.
If your host charges by size of the database make such it is optimized for size- AutoShrink on, Simple Recovery etc
General Issues across all Hosting Plans
There are a few other factors which are common to any hosting plan which you should consider:
- .NET Specialization : You should always prefer hosts which focus solely on .NET hosting. Hosts who specialize in ASP.NET will be much better able to support your issues and are usually quicker to upgrade to the latest versions of the .NET platform.
- Support : Difficult to determine in advance since all hosts claim fantastic performance, but one thing that will always come in useful in 24/7 chat which works great for quickly getting support on small issues such as reboots etc.
- Test for a month first : Don’t commit for a year before you have tried the host for a month at least. As noted above some of the factors such as the network speed of the hosting provider’s network are not disclosed (or can’t be quantified).
- IP Addresses : If you are running multiple sites, it is advisable to have each on a separate IP Address, check how many IP’s the plan comes with and the cost of additional IPs.
Anything I missed out? Any experiences to share? Please leave a comment and let us know.