Getting Started: The Nature of Websites, and What You Will Need to Create Yours

Serving Your Website

he unique character of the Internet means that the production, hosting, and distribution of a website can be geographically dispersed with essentially no impact on the experience of the visitor. A web page can be written in one place, uploaded onto a server in another place, and accessed virtually anywhere else. The companion website to Not For Ourselves Alone, the historical documentary about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the women’s suffrage movement made by Ken Burns (who lives in New Hampshire) and Paul Barnes (who lives in Vermont), was designed and “built” in Portland, Oregon, and is hosted on a server in Arlington, Virginia.18 The options for where to put your website are therefore nearly limitless. The type of “hosting” situation may not be, however, depending on the genre of your website and its associated technical needs.

Almost any server will suffice for those who are building a relatively small site (say, under a hundred pages) that won’t change frequently and doesn’t involve databases or multimedia. Academic institutions sometimes provide a small area of their web server (or servers), generally around 5–100 megabytes, for affiliated students, faculty, and staff. If you are associated with such an institution, you should explore this possibility since academic web space is almost always free, the server software is already set up (and often includes at least a modicum of technical support), and is likely to be highly reliable because the institution’s functioning depends on it. In most cases, the allotment provided is more than enough for a lifetime of course syllabi, a personal website for your work and family, and even another small site or two. If your marquee project ends up being much larger than you expected, the institution may be willing to allocate you more disk space (a cheap commodity)

A second possibility for hosting your website is your ISP, or Internet service provider. If you access the Internet from your home, your ISP may offer space for you on one of its web servers. As with institutional hosting, this space tends to be somewhat limited but still adequate for most uses (again, excepting websites that require a database or multimedia). The amount of technical support provided varies widely by the ISP, but is generally less than in an institutional setting where you can walk into someone’s office if something goes wrong. (You can probably walk into the technical support office of an ISP too, but if you live in the United States it will probably require a very long journey because ISPs tend to outsource their technical support overseas.)

A third possibility is a commercial web host. This option usually involves a monthly cost ranging from around $5 for an amount of hard drive space comparable to that provided by an institution or ISP, to hundreds of dollars for enormous amounts of storage for extremely large sites. (“Free” web hosts, such as Yahoo’s GeoCities, exist as well, though they will surround your material with advertisements.) Hundreds of companies offer this service; you can locate them through services like the Web Host Directory, but word of mouth from people you know is obviously better than trusting online reviews. The amount of data you transfer to visitors each month—rather than the amount you store on the web server—is generally the more important factor in your site’s monthly cost on a commercial server. (One of the nice things about university servers is that they often do not restrict this data flow.) If you have a site heavy in multimedia files or are planning on thousands of visitors per day, you could end up owing hundreds of dollars per month in additional &38220;bandwidth” costs if you don’t plan ahead. But only the largest, most visited history sites will probably encounter such costs. Commercial hosts offer around 25-50 GB of data transfer a month for about $10, far more than most historical websites will require. (Data transfer of 50 GB in a single month is roughly equivalent to a twenty-page site with small images and no multimedia being thoroughly examined by 50,000 visitors.)19

Figure 17: The advertising inserted at the top of every page by this site’s free web host, Netfirms, detracts significantly from its serious historical tone. An inexpensive web plan from another Internet service provider (for less than $10 per month) would remove these “banner” ads.

If you are confident that you will receive a high volume of traffic to your site (tens of thousands of visitors per day or more), you should investigate the possibility of a commercial service with just a few sites on one server, or in extreme cases, only one site per server. The latter option is called “dedicated” hosting, and obviously is the most expensive option. You have the advantage of total control of a server—all of its hard drive space, every tick of its processor, the entirety of its wire out to the network. Unfortunately even the most inexpensive plans for high-quality dedicated hosting begin at around $200 per month, and go up sharply from there for faster machines and a faster connection to the Internet. For a major site with extensive databases, lots of multimedia, and significant traffic, this cost could easily top $1,000 per month, including technical support. For instance, at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) we transfer about 300 GB of information per month to visitors, and need about 150 GB of hard drive space to hold our various websites and associated content. Although we currently run our own server, we have explored the possibility of outsourcing it to a commercial host; unfortunately it would cost us at least $15,000 per year for the same type of server and amount of bandwidth.

Once you begin to consider a dedicated server though a commercial host, you should (like us) probably contemplate the ultimate step of running your own server. For even $200 per month, you could buy a decent server of your own in less than a year. Relatively few historical operations, however, have taken this step. Running your own server entails tremendous advantages and disadvantages. For large sites, a number of hardware and software pieces need to come together, and owning a server gives you full control over this configuration. You can install the exact database, programming language, web server software, hard drive storage, backup scheme, and other elements precisely as you want. You can upgrade any of these pieces when you want, or choose not to if you are worried about the effects an upgrade will have on your existing web pages or other software on the server. You can give out accounts and space to collaborators in other organizations. You can add storage to your server at a relatively low cost.

You can also wake up every day (or fail to sleep through the night) with fear about computer crashes, glitches, patches, upgrades gone wrong, hackers, and power outages. Owning your own server is much like owning a house—you can paint the walls garish colors if you like, but you’re also responsible for the lawn, the roof, and the crumbling staircase that may collapse at any minute. Operators of some large sites need to have such responsibility and have the great resources to accept it. For instance, the exceedingly popular Ellis Island website, which includes the manifest records of ships full of immigrants, is held on Hewlett-Packard servers running Oracle database software and connected to the Internet on high-traffic wires–all top-dollar options. For most small- and medium-sized sites, as well as many large sites that do not have advanced features requiring extensive programming, robust databases, or a high volume of traffic, it is better to outsource the server to someone else. Let a commercial or institutional host worry about all of the headaches so you can focus on the history.

Although the nature of the Internet collapses space and obscures the distinctions between web servers, each of these four possibilities for web hosting (institutional, ISP, commercial, do-it-yourself), as well as particular hosts of each type, has its advantages and disadvantages, which you should assess before making a choice. Technical support, as we’ve already mentioned, can vary widely, though none of the three outsourced host types is uniformly best. Even though you are paying them monthly fees, some commercial web hosts only answer questions via email, and many take a long time to respond (for certain hosts, up to seventy-two hours). On the other hand, commercial services may provide web interfaces that greatly facilitate the uploading and management of your site (versus the file transfer program you generally have to use in an institutional hosting setting), as well as additional services such as a traffic monitor and special site-related email addresses. If you want to know how popular your site is, or to have a distinct email address for queries relating to your history site, those additional services can be worth the price (for more on assessing and communicating with your audience, see Chapter 5). All hosting possibilities other than dedicated hosting and running your own server involve sharing your server with a number of other websites. The computer owned by the commercial hosting company, your ISP, or your institution splits its hard drive space among the many people who are using it as their host. The number of these subdivisions and the volume of traffic to the other sites on the shared server can sometimes affect the speed and responsiveness of your site.20

18 “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,” PBS, ↪link 2.18.

19 Yahoo GeoCities, ↪link 2.19a; Web Host Directory, ↪link 2.19b.

20 For instance, if a university’s web server has 100 gigabytes of hard drive space, and the school gives 10 megabytes of website space to each student or faculty member, they can simultaneously host 10,000 people on that server. Although this is economical for the university, common sense dictates, however, that there may be problems with hosting so many sites on one machine. Not only do those 10,000 students and professors share hard drive space (not really a problem), they also share the total speed, activity, and Internet connection of that computer. Powerful though it may be, if there are 100 very popular sites within the combined production of those 10,000 people (as one would hope at a thriving university), the “traffic” to all of the sites becomes slower, as if everyone in a large lecture hall asked a question of the professor at the same time and waited impatiently for an answer. Generally this is not a big issue given the “question-answering capacity” of modern servers, but it does matter in certain circumstances. If you are worried about the complications of sharing a server, be sure to ask your host (institution, ISP, company) about how many sites or individuals they house on a single server and what the overall server load (“traffic”) is for that server. Also ask for the URLs of a few sites on the server and try them at different times of the day in your browser. How responsive do the sites seem? If you can’t tell the difference and the sites load easily, you should be fine (unless you are planning a major site with major traffic).