It's good for your business to think about refining its needs," said Simon Yeoman, general manager at Fasthosts. "A lot of businesses start with a very basic website and, as their business grows, their ambition often exceeds the limits of their existing web hosting solution."
This will be a familiar story to many growing businesses. They're often understaffed and focused on getting off the ground in the early days. A basic web page giving contact details and perhaps a product rundown may be all they can manage unless they have the budget for an out-of-house developer.
Six months later, their needs will have changed, and the factors that informed their original choice may no longer apply.
"Price is super relevant for nascent businesses or anyone who wants to test an idea," explained vice president of EMEA at GoDaddy, Stefano Marruzi. "But look at larger organisations and more stable businesses who are on version two or three of their original setup, and other parameters become much more important."
It's often at this point, when they can afford a more fully-featured hosting deal, that businesses will consider their first switch.
Taking that second step
So, what should businesses be looking for when switching for the first time? Marruzi puts redundancy at the top of the list, followed by performance and reliability.
"We still come across poorly developed sites or those that are hosted in non-ideal locations, which deliver unacceptable load times. So, check the performance of any offering, along with latency and coverage. 99.9% reliability is sufficient in most instances. Adding another .09 to it is an element to consider, but that might have an impact on cost."
Once you've gathered these metrics from your potential next host, you can compare them with the service you're already using and make a fully informed decision about whether to switch at all.
1&1 Internet's Thilo Haertel lists five similar areas that anyone looking to switch - or pick their first host - should consider: speed, uptime, scalability, security and reliability.
"We all expect sites to load quickly and we'll look elsewhere if we hit a slow page or one that suffers from regular downtime - and these factors must also remain robust as a website evolves and scales up," he said. "A greater variety and volume of content will demand better performance and support from a web host. That's why hosts often provide a sliding scale of packages that deal with the demands of a range of site requirements. So, ask: are they scalable for your business? Can they cope with higher traffic? Will your projects remain available in case of a power disturbance or DDoS attack?"
Many of the features that 1&1 Internet's Haertel advises looking for - including geo-redundant server architecture, malware protection, and the ability to serve your site using a content delivery network - ought to be red flags if your current host doesn't already offer them. Reliability is the crucial piece of the jigsaw, he says, but security is the responsibility of both the host and its customer.
My host has been hacked. Should I leave?
"Events like this can happen," said Fasthosts' Yeoman of hack attacks. "If I go back more than ten years, it happened to Fasthosts. It can happen to anybody, but you want to make sure your provider deals with it in an open and honest manner."
Fasthosts is ISO 27001 compliant for information security management and, like all compliant businesses, must be re-certified every two years to ensure the required standards are being maintained.
Haertel also advises against leaving your host right away if it's suffered some kind of breach. Instead, try to understand what happened and what measures it's taking to make sure there's no repeat.
"Cyber criminals are becoming cleverer and more industrious in their attacks," he said, "and all kinds of websites might be attacked. You should be able to look to your hosting provider for support and guidance to help customers resolve any issues."
Clearly, if your host isn't doing this, it's time to look elsewhere, but it's reasonable to give it time to rectify the situation. Any host that's been targeted will likely have a lot of customers chasing answers. Take this into account if their responses are temporarily a little slow.
GoDaddy's Marruzi also advises against hasty decisions. "If your current host is [otherwise] reliable and professional and has multiple backup copies then I would expect in one or two days to see my site restored and running again." He admits that the downtime would likely infringe your SLA but, "unless there are proven better options around then, in the short term, stick with the existing solution while you re-engage with your customers".
It's easy to forget that any downtime you suffer also impacts your clients. This might not be an issue on a purely informational site, but for a web-based app it's more relevant and, as Marruzi warns, any impulsive action on your part could further impact users if it resulted in a second bout of downtime.
Is there a wrong time to leave?
Each of the hosts we talked to also handled domain registration, and many of their clients buy the two together. So we wanted to know if there's a right time - and a wrong time - to move. Specifically, if a domain is coming to the end of its registration period, should you stay where you are until its renewal has been dealt with?
Haertel recommends keeping hosting and registration with the same provider if possible but, he said, "a top-level domain registration will often be extended for a year in addition to any transfer". If this is true of the host you're considering, it would effectively reduce your year-one costs and could make a transfer more appealing.
Yet, price alone isn't a good enough reason to switch if it's outweighed by other factors.
"When you have to migrate a solution that's been built a couple of years ago, for which you might not have access to the code, you're going to have to think more than twice before venturing into a migration unless you're 100% confident that you can address all of the issues that might arise," said Marruzi.
There seems to be no hard and fast rule. Every business has its own variables, against which it needs to compare its current host's offering, and slow-growing businesses may find that the host they chose when they first started out will see them through the whole of their existence. Others will grow so fast in their first two years that their current provider falls woefully short.
Each of our interviewees recommended taking a calm, measured approach, with a good degree of careful consideration, but Fasthosts' Yeoman has what may be the best advice: fit it around the calendar of your business.
"It can be disruptive and take time to get a website back into the same position as it was with a previous provider," he said. "If you've got a retail website it's probably not wise to move in the run-up to Christmas or during a period of sales. Ultimately, it's got to be dependent on your business and its needs."
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Nik Rawlinson is a journalist with over 20 years of experience writing for and editing some of the UK’s biggest technology magazines. He spent seven years as editor of MacUser magazine and has written for titles as diverse as Good Housekeeping, Men's Fitness, and PC Pro.
Over the years Nik has written numerous reviews and guides for ITPro, particularly on Linux distros, Windows, and other operating systems. His expertise also includes best practices for cloud apps, communications systems, and migrating between software and services.