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Switching Web Host

By Lasa Information Systems Team

There are lots of reasons you may wish to switch web hosts from one company to another, such as better service and cheaper prices elsewhere. This article outlines the things to consider and what you need to do to make it happen.

Finding the pieces

A website requires two things:

  1. Somewhere the files that make up the site are stored and accessed from – a web server
  2. A domain name that points to that web server

You may also need a scripting language such as PHP and a database such as MySQL installed on the server.

If you want to move your site to a new host, you are going to need to find out how these things are currently dealt with.

In some cases your domain name and web server are managed by the same company.  If you are lucky then they are managed by different companies.  Lucky because this probably means you won’t need to transfer the domain name elsewhere, just change its settings so it points to the new web server.

Finding out who is hosting your domain and web site

Sometimes it has been a long time since the domain and web hosting was set up, and records of who actually manages these things have been lost.  It is possible to find out where your site and domain are hosted using the tools on DNS Stuff.

To find out who hosts your domain name, enter your web address into the box labelled WHOIS and click WHOIS.

Screenshot of WHOIS dialogue on www.dnsstuff.com

This will return a page giving details of the registration of your domain name.  For domain names that end in .uk you will find the hosts name under the heading Registrant’s agent – usually followed by the address of their website.  For domain names ending in .com, .org, .net etc. you will find details under Administrative Contact or Technical Contact.  The Registrar of Record may also be a useful clue.  If you aren’t sure, try putting details of one of these into Google.

N.B. A WHOIS search is also the way to find out whether a domain name you want to buy is available.

To find out who hosts your website, enter the web address into the box labelled DNS Lookup, select ALL (ANY) from the adjacent drop down, and then click Lookup.

Screenshot of DNS Lookup dialogue on www.dnsstuff.com

This will return the DNS record for your domain.

Screenshot of DNS Lookup results on www.dnsstuff.com

You are interested in the line that matches your domain name, and has the type A.  If you click on the number in the Answer column, you will see a page which gives details of the company that uses this IP address.  This is probably the company that hosts your site.  If not it is likely this company will be able to point you in the right direction.

Keeping records

If you have had to go through the above process you will be aware of the importance of keeping records of who hosts what, and any usernames and passwords associated with these services.

If you are working with a web development company, make sure they provide you with this information as soon as possible.

Store this information somewhere you, or your successor will be able to find it!

Choosing a new host

Web Server

Your main interest here is finding a host that provides the services you need.  How much storage space do you get?  How much bandwidth?  What features are included?  Let’s look at each one:

Storage Space

Storage space tends to be the real red herring of selling web-hosting services.  Don’t be tricked into spending extra on a giant chunk of space – you’ll probably only use it if your site includes a lot of audio or video material.  Look at the size of the files that make up your current site and allow this again for growth.  You will always be able to buy more space from your provider should you need it in future.

Transfer limits

Every time someone visits your site, they download some of the files stored on your server.  The transfer limit, sometimes described as bandwidth, describes the limit on the total amount of data you can transfer, usually over a month.  For example, if an average visit to your site means downloading 5Mb of files, then if 100 people visit your website in a month, they will have downloaded a total of 500Mb.  If your bandwidth limit is only 100Mb a month, then you will be charged for the extra 400Mb.  This is really only a big concern for very popular sites, but if you have lots of interesting material that people suddenly want to look at, you could be hampered by a low bandwidth limit.  Look for at least 1 GB of transfers a month.

Backup

Does the web host provide a way of backing up the information on your web site?  This is particularly important if your site is dynamic and stores content in a database, or if your site accepts content from visitors.  If this is the case, ask your web host about getting regular data dumps from your database.

Server Features

Your existing site may have requirements, such as scripting language and/or database for running a CMS.  Your choice will be limited by these requirements.

Also, look out for web log analysis packages that allow you to monitor visits to your site.  Your web host should be able to show you a sample.  Web hosting packages might include (or have as extras) pre-built CMS or blogging features that might be useful.  Assess whether you really need these.

Beware of worthless extras – email space in particular should be avoided unless you are confident you will stay with this web space provider for a long time.  Switching email hosts is far more troublesome than switching web host.

Domain name

When choosing a company to buy and host your domain name, again you should assess your requirements.  Every company provides the basic service, but some will not be suitable for your needs.  Others provide features which add flexibility or make it easy to manage changes.

Ownership

Some domain name hosting companies buy the domain name on your behalf and then lease it to you – your organisation never actually owns the domain name.  Obviously, you want to avoid this wherever possible.

If you are working with a web development company, make sure that any domains they register on your behalf are registered in the name of your organisation.

Free transfers out

Make sure you won’t have to pay should you need to transfer your domain name again.  A provider offering a good service won’t need to play games like this.

“Frame based” domain hosting

Some of the very cheapest deals offer “frame based” hosting of domain names.  This means your site is viewed in a frame on the domain host’s site.  This creates a number of problems – people won’t be able to bookmark or easily link to pages other than your front page for example.  Real domain hosting takes visitors directly to your site.

Self management

Look for domain hosts that offer a control panel through which you can manage all aspects of your domain name.  You should be able to manage your DNS record, enabling you to change which servers host your website, email and other internet services.

Making the switch

Server Issues

The most straightforward part of the process is switching web server.  First, buy some web space from your new hosting provider.  You’ll be provided with the details for getting the files that make up your website onto this server, and probably a temporary URL that will let you test that your site works before you make the change public.

Get a copy of your existing site (or the new one) working on the server before you point the domain name to the new location.

Remember that you (or your server hosting company) need to set up your web server so it knows to accept requests for your domain name(s).

Domain Issues

Switching domain hosts

In general, the company that is taking over your domain name will give you all the instructions you need to make the switch.  Beware of companies that offer to move everything for you in a seamless switch - you'll still need to follow the steps below or your site will be unavailable.

The process is slightly different depending on your domain name.  For domains that end in .uk you will need to find out the IPS Tag for the company to whom you are transferring your domain name – they will tell you this.  You then contact the old domain name host and tell them you wish to transfer out and give them the IPS Tag.  You may also be able to change this through a web based control panel.  See your domain name host’s web site for details.

For other domain names (.com, .org, .net etc), the new domain host will contact the existing one, who will need to give permission.  For this reason, it is important to let your existing domain host know that you are transferring to a different host.

Changing your DNS record

Once you have taken care of the above, you need to change your DNS record so that it points to the new web server’s IP address.   This is easy if your domain name host provides a control panel.  Check for instructions on your domain.

If they do not, then you will need to contact your domain host and ask them to make the changes for you.  Make sure that you clearly describe what you want them to do.

Because of the way the internet works, changes to the DNS record can take up to 24 hours to be visible all over the world.  During those 24 hours, some visitors will arrive at your new site, and some will arrive at your old site.  You should allow for this when making your change – often it is best done on a Friday afternoon, so the change takes place over the weekend.

Once you have done these things, your website has been transferred.  Hopefully it will be a long time until you need to do this again!


Editor's note: Original article updated 31 January 2021


About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT

Glossary

Backup, CMS, Database, DNS, Domain name, Hosting, Internet, IP Address, Line, Monitor, MySQL, PHP, Storage, Switch, URL, Web Server, Web Site, Website, WWW

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Published: 31st January 2021

Copyright © 2021 Lasa Information Systems Team

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