What is web hosting?

The other day, someone asked me: “What is web hosting?”

I love trying to de-mystify web jargon so I thought I’d share my – very simplified – answer, in case it’s useful to anyone else.

A website is made up of a bunch of files and often a database – which is essentially just a special type of file. These files are all stored on a computer somewhere. That could be your own computer, but generally that would mean that only you would be able to see it, because your personal computer is not set up to share your files with everyone on the internet – in fact, for security reasons, it’s probably configured to stop that!

For the public to see a website, it needs to be on a computer that’s set up in a specific way, which has the right code to make the website behave like a website, rather than just a bunch of files, and which lets it share files and data with multiple other computers. That type of computer is called a web server. There are other types of server too, for email, printers, gaming and so on.

Website servers
Close-up of Dell web server computers

If you wanted, you could have your own web server in your home or office with your website sitting on it and then you wouldn’t need to buy web hosting. Larger companies often do this. But most individuals and small businesses don’t know how to set up a server, let alone maintain it and protect it from hacker attacks and spam and all the other nasty things that can happen to servers.

Instead, we pay some other company to do all that stuff for us. We upload (i.e. copy) our files to their servers, and they make it possible for anyone connected to the internet to see our websites.

And that’s web hosting.

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    • Alice Gardiner says

      Hi Robert,

      If you’re feeling keen, yes, absolutely. In fact, unless you’re expecting lots of traffic, you shouldn’t even need a particularly highly-spec’d computer. There are lots of online tutorials which will tell you how to set up your own server – just do a search and you’ll find several.

      (Massive disclaimer: I’ve never done this myself – and don’t intend to try – so all this is purely theoretical!)