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Shared Hosting...Getting Started

I have just started getting into shared hosting with some of the clients I work with. If you're new to the concept, shared hosting is when a server hosts several websites, and users manage their own sites and can host many sites using their account. For example, I signed up for an account with Dreamhost (after a poor experience with GoDaddy...more to come) and now I can host multiple websites using that account.

I have had some interesting experiences over the last few days and wanted to document them.

Switching Hosts
My brother runs a business that assists clients in selling their car, motorcycle or truck. The business is very successful. However, if you clicked on the link and couldn't find the website, read on to discover why.

First, let me explain the difference between hosting a site and transferring a domain. Owning a domain means having control of a domain, like steelsmith.org. I own this domain, which means I have control over the contact information and where the user is directed to when they type in www.steelsmith.org.

Domains are managed by registrars. A registrar provides an interface between the owner of the domain, and the people that control what basically is the internet. No one entity "controls" the internet, but there are organizations responsible for delegating IP addresses and other highly confusing tasks outside the scope of this. Basically, a registrar handles all of that for you, secures your domain from unauthorized transfers and gives you an nice interface to manage the contact information, name server delegation, etc. One of the best registrars, in my opinion is GoDaddy, and one of the worst registrars is Melbourne IT, mainly due to lack of technical support, a poorly designed and implemented website, and a shabby control panel.

A host, is a company or individual that hosts the files your website is made up (and the databases, mail servers, etc) and makes them available to the public. I, being the client, can login to my host and control my website through a web-based control panel and manage the server using SSH or FTP. There are a few differences between shared hosting and dedicated hosting besides sharing a server with someone else, one of them being a huge difference in price.

A name server is a computer that directs a client to the correct computer hosting the site. The name server entries for corresponding domains are stored around the internet in DNS servers. You control the name server of your host using the registrar. When you change the name server entries in the domain record, it takes up to 48 hours.

Switching hosts requires these steps:

1. Setup the new hosting account, mirroring the old site including email settings.
2. Change the name servers in the domain record.
3. After two or three days, it should be safe to delete the site from the old host.

If there is a database involved, as there is in this blog, one may want to hold off on any changes to the site until the 3 day waiting period, or export the old data into the new site (something that should have been done in step 1). As one can imagine, this could be messy as during the waiting period, some people get the old site and some people get the new one.

Transferring domains between registrars is a little more involved. First, the domain must be unlocked using the current registrar if it is locked. Locked prevents unauthorized transfers, a problem which many websites faced in the early days of the internet. Second, if the host of this site is being changed, the name servers must be changed at this time. Next, the transfer must be started with the new registrar. The old registrar has 5 days to deny the transfer, but does not have to approve it, before the domain is transfered. Once the transfer is started, no changes can be made to the domain, such as name servers. This was the issue with my brother's site. Nothing could be done until the site transfer was completed.

Hopefully, I can save someone the migraine I'm now recovering from....