How much traffic does your site get?
Perhaps the most basic question, but let’s be more specific than that: how much bandwidth does your site use? It’s not enough to know how many hits you get because those hits don’t cost the same amount of bandwidth (for example, your homepage will probably be heavier than a blog post, because homepages tend to have a lot of graphics). Finding your bandwidth usage might be tricky, but it will be on the control panel of your hosting account at a minimum. It will most likely be tabulated in monthly segments. Here’s an example of bandwidth usage growing steadily over a 12-month period:
Get a feeling for your average usage each month, whether or not that average seems to be growing, and make note of any spikes you see and how often you get them. Compare against your analytics; if your traffic as a whole is growing, you can expect your bandwidth to grow with it.
Once you find this data and get a feel for it, consider where your website is going. Will your averages stay the same? Do you expect increasingly spiky traffic? Are you making any changes in business strategy that might increase website traffic (for example, you are going to start offering sales on your eCommerce site)? You want to try to come up with a ceiling of bandwidth that you’ll need from your new host. Make sure it’s well-padded, to accommodate unexpected spikes. Find out from candidate hosts what happens if you exceed your bandwidth limit, as that will influence your final number. (For example, if your host says, “hey, spikes happen, we’ll let it slide,” then you don’t have to pad as much. If your host will charge you for overage — or worse, shut your site off altogether — then you’ll want to be pretty liberal in your padding. In the latter case, I tend to double current usage to accommodate spikes.)
Lastly, take note of the scale on which you’re operating. If you’re averaging 25-50 MB per month like the above example, then rest assured that you probably will have no bandwidth quota problems wherever you go; most quotas are in the tens, hundreds, or higher of gigabytes.
How much disk space do you need?
This number should be easier to come up with, because it probably doesn’t change often. First, find out what you’re using on your current host. You’ll find this data in the same control panel as your bandwidth. Depending on the nature of your website, figure out how much you can expect your disk usage to increase. If your site is graphic-heavy (photography portfolio or retail eCommerce, for example), then you’ll need a lot more disk space than someone just running a blog. If you’re using databases or email, remember that the size of your database(s) and email also factor into disk space usage. Here’s an example of an account’s disk usage:
Notice the mail, public_html, and MySQL lines, which covers your email, your website files, and your databases.
What features do you need?
Hosting a website is more than just bandwidth and disk space. While most hosts offer the same basic package of features, you might have some unique needs. For example, do you need Ruby on Rails? Some hosts don’t offer it. If you’re going with shared or cloud hosting, pay special attention to this question, because you’re stuck with what you’ve got. Above shared hosting, you can probably install or add the features that you need.
You should also keep in mind the number of email addresses, aliases, databases, subdomains, parked domains, FTP accounts, and whether or not you use an SSL certificate (remember that SSL certificates require a dedicated IP address! What will that cost you?). Be sure that your new host can accommodate your current usage, and still allow you room to grow.
What quality of hosting do you need?
This is probably the hardest question to answer, because it depends on your business and, in part, on your gut feeling. It also depends on the needs of your website(s). How reliable of service do you need? If your website went down, how long could you wait before you would expect the site to be back up again? How many websites do you have, and which of them are mission critical? And of course – what’s your budget?
Remember that quality doesn’t just refer to the hosting service itself – what kind of a support experience do you expect from your hosting company? How comfortable are you with managing your hosting account? If you’re not comfortable with that kind of thing, then you should consider a higher quality host that will be willing to spend time with you. Some hosts will even migrate your site to their hosting for you, for free or a fee. If you have someone on staff that helps you with your hosting, the level of support you need might be a better question for that person.
For this question in particular, it’s always a good idea to consult with others, both inside and outside of your organization. I highly recommend talking to other website owners and learning about the obstacles they’ve faced, the hosts they have experience with, and the reasoning behind their current hosting choices.
A note about operating systems
Your selection of hosting providers might be dramatically reduced if you need a Windows-based environment. If your site is currently built on Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP – or what we in the industry call LAMP for short – then you can pick basically any host. If you’re in a Windows environment, then you will have far fewer options available to you. Some hosts provide both, but Windows often comes at a greater cost. Be careful that you don’t end up in an incompatible environment.
The Web Hosting Talk forums are a great resource for finding information and reviews about hosts. Search on the candidates you’re considering and read through the complaints and praise that come up. I also want to reiterate the importance of asking your network for their experiences and recommendations: this is perhaps as valuable a resource as any forum or website.
What other benchmarks do you use to evaluate hosts? Feel free to post questions in the comments as well.