You need a website, so you start looking for the best hosting company for your goals. You type “best web hosting” into Google and click on the first link.
Immediately, you see a sales pitch full of technical jargon and strange acronyms. Web hosting companies seem to expect us to know what MySQL is and be able to tell the difference between SSL, SSH, and SSD. And what’s all this talk about clouds?
When you’re looking for a good hosting service, there’s a lot you need to know — but web hosting companies don’t always make our lives easy. Sure, they may give us explanations of the technical features, but we still don’t always know if we actually need those features or not.
Our hosting experts are here to help! In this glossary, we’ll take a look at all the technical terms you need to know. This way, you can make an informed decision before you commit to a long-term hosting plan.
There are many different kinds of hosting available. If you don’t know what to look for or what’s best for your website, you could end up paying for a level of hosting that you don’t need — or being tied to a plan that’s too limited for your goals.
Shared hosting is the most basic of all hosting types, which makes it perfect when you’re just starting out. It’s usually the cheapest, too. With shared hosting, your website is hosted on a server that’s also being used by lots of other websites — in some cases, thousands of them. Hostinger, GoDaddy, HostGator, and iPage all offer shared hosting at low introductory prices.
While the costs are low, shared hosting is essentially entry-level hosting. It’s not as fast as other types of hosting, because you’re sharing the server with many other users. If someone else on the same server gets a huge amount of traffic, your website may become extremely slow – or even temporarily unavailable to your visitors.
With shared hosting, spam from another website on the same shared server can result in you being blacklisted. This is because you share the same mail server and IP address.
Short for “Virtual Private Server,” VPS hosting is a popular choice for businesses looking to scale up from shared hosting. With a VPS, a physical server is virtually separated into different partitions, so although you’re sharing the server with others, you have complete control over your own partition. You’re also isolated from other websites on the server, which means you don’t get affected by other websites’ traffic spikes and blacklisting problems.
VPS hosting generally gives you greater customizability, security, and performance. Most hosts will offer either unmanaged or managed VPS. With unmanaged VPS, you’ll need the technical knowledge to maintain your server. With a managed plan, you can leave it to the professionals. InMotion Hosting has some powerful VPS options available.
Cloud hosting is one of the most popular types of hosting. It’s much faster than shared hosting and is also more reliable. Cloud hosting uses a group of servers (which are often spread out all around the world) to host lots of websites. Like other types of cloud computing, cloud hosting uses the processing power, memory, and storage of multiple servers to ensure that your website is always available .
Because the load is spread across a network of servers, cloud hosting can easily cope with huge spikes in traffic. You’re also unlikely to be affected by other websites’ traffic spikes. Cloud hosting is more expensive than shared hosting, but has many more advantages. Cloud hosting, for example, makes growing your business easier, giving you access to more resources as you need them. Liquid Web is one of the top providers of cloud hosting.
Managed hosting is a premium solution for websites that run on WordPress or WooCommerce. With managed hosting, the hosting company takes care of all the server optimizations and software upgrades, making sure your website remains fast and secure. This way, you can focus on managing your content or your products. Kinsta is one example of a managed WordPress hosting provider.
Dedicated Server Hosting
Dedicated server hosting is the most expensive type of hosting available. It’s used mostly by big businesses and corporations that need powerful hosting and exceptional security. It gives you absolute control over all aspects of your server setup — and you won’t have to share the server with anyone else. All of the server’s power, memory, storage, and so on are 100% yours.
Reseller hosting allows entrepreneurs to buy web space and essential hosting features that they can then sell to their customers – usually at a profit. Resellers are usually also able to use their own branding on all the interfaces shown to customers: hosting companies call this “white label reseller hosting.”
Common Web Hosting Terms
If you’re new to the hosting scene, all the technical jargon can sound like a foreign language. But don’t worry – it’s easy to learn.
Apache is a type of web server that many hosting companies use. It has a lot of features and is known for being extremely stable. Around 67% of all web servers in the world run on Apache.
When you purchase a hosting plan, your web space is linked to your root domain name. With an add-on domain, you can use another domain name on the same account and share your account’s resources (bandwidth, storage) between two or more websites. This means that you don’t have to buy a separate hosting plan for every website you build. Not all hosting plans allow you to use add-on domains, however.
A backup is a copy of the files, databases, and emails from your website. Having a backup of your website means that if something goes wrong or your files get corrupted by malware or a hacking attempt, you can restore your website easily. Backups also allow you to roll your website back to a previous state if you decide that changes you’ve made aren’t working well.
If you’re building a WordPress website, look for a host that offers daily backups if possible. You should also look at how long your host keeps each backup – some will keep these for up to 30 days, while others rewrite over the backup each day.
Bandwidth is a term you’ll hear a lot with web hosting. Some web hosts will also refer to it as data transfer, although data transfer is not the same as bandwidth – and these two terms are commonly confused with each other.
In the web hosting world, bandwidth is commonly used to refer to total data transfer. Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred at a time (which can impact the speed of data transfer).
Every time someone views your website, data is transferred from your server to the visitor’s computer or mobile device. Larger files, like pictures or videos, tend to take more bandwidth than text.
Bare Metal Server
A bare metal server is a physical server that has a single ‘tenant’. It’s a term that’s used to differentiate this type of server from virtual and cloud servers. Bare metal servers are also known as single tenant physical servers and managed dedicated servers.
Caching is a means of making your website load faster when someone visits it. Website files that are static (i.e., not frequently updated) can be stored so that the server doesn’t have to recreate and transfer them every time your page is loaded. Because page loading speeds are so important, caching is becoming increasingly popular.
For example, if you have a website that has a homepage, an About page, a Contact page, and other pages that tell your visitors what you can do for them, many of these pages are not going to change very often (or at all). These pages are “static” and could be cached (copied) so that when someone visits your website, they will load “instantly.”
CDN (Content Delivery Network)
In the web hosting world, it’s vital to choose servers close to your target market so that your website will load quickly for these visitors. If your customer base is in Asia but your server is in California, it will take longer for data to be transferred from your server.
But if you have a global target market, it’s impossible to choose a server that’s close to all of your website visitors. A CDN helps with this.
The term refers to a group of servers spread all over the world. It doesn’t host all of your web site’s content, but it uses caching to ensure that as much of your website data as possible is transferred from the closest possible server to your visitors. This ultimately means your website will load faster.
CGI stands for Common Gateway Interface. It’s what allows your website to communicate with additional scripts and applications. It is, essentially, a feature that increases the capabilities of your server. Interactive elements such as online contact forms usually rely on CGI programs to work properly.
CMS (Content Management System)
A CMS offers an easy way to manage your website. The most popular CMS is WordPress. The backend is where you build website content such as your pages, blog posts, menus, and so on. The frontend is the finished product that your visitors will see. A CMS makes uploading and updating your website content a simple process, with little technical knowledge necessary.
Hosting companies usually provide you with a control panel so that you can manage your account and websites. Within the control panel, you have a wide range of options such as installing a CMS (e.g., WordPress), adding email addresses, and managing your domain names. There are different types of control panels available. The most common ones are cPanel and Plesk, but certain hosting companies have their own custom-built control panels.
cPanel is one of the most common hosting control panels. It’s known for its ease of use and a large number of options for managing your web space. It offers file management, mail management, database management, domain management, and security features. With cPanel, you can easily manage all aspects of your web hosting.
Data transfer (commonly confused with bandwidth) is the total amount of data that is transferred from your server to your website visitors. The amount of data transferred depends on what’s on each page that your visitors click on.
Web hosting companies will tell you how much data transfer they allow you each month. This figure is usually in gigabytes (GB), although some hosts will give you unlimited data transfer. How much data transfer you need depends on the size of your web pages and the number of visitors you receive.
DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service)
DDoS (or Distributed Denial of Service) attacks have become more commonplace. It’s a cyber attack that aims to make a host network or computer unavailable to its intended users by having multiple computers flood the targeted system with large amounts of traffic. Banks and other large corporations are the most common victims of DDoS attacks, but anyone can be attacked in this way.
This refers to the amount of storage space allocated to each account on the server. The amount of disk space you have dictates the number of files and assets you’re able to store on your server. Certain hosts offer “unlimited” disk space on their plans, but this is usually misleading since the “unlimited” nature of the space is actually limited by their fair use policies. In some cases, hosts will shut down your website without warning if you exceed what they deem to be reasonable usage.
A domain name is part of the website address that you type into your browser’s address bar. It’s a readable (and easy-to-remember) format that means you don’t have to type in the string of numbers (i.e., the IP address) that allows your browser to access the server where your website is stored.
When you set up your web hosting, you’ll need to purchase a unique domain name (one that no one else has registered) so that people will be able to access your website. The domain name is the bit of the web address that comes after the ‘www’ (e.g. in www.websiteplanet.com, the domain name is ‘websiteplanet .com’
A domain registrar is a company that registers your domain name. Domain registrars are authorized and accredited to issue domain names and comply with the relevant legal procedures (which vary by country). Most (but not all) hosting companies offer domain registration services, but you can purchase your domain name from any registrar if you find it cheaper elsewhere.
DNS (Domain Name System)
Domain Name System (DNS) is one of the things that makes the internet a user-friendly place. It translates the alphanumeric domain name into the string of numbers that make up a website’s IP address (its address on the internet), so your browser can connect with the server and display the website you’re visiting.
Without it, you’d have to type in the numerical IP address of every website you wanted to visit, making it far more difficult to remember your favorite websites. For example, instead of having to type in 126.96.36.199, you can simply type in www.websiteplanet.com thanks to this system.
Every hosting company has its own DNS nameservers, so if you purchase a domain name from anyone other than your host, you’ll have to ensure that your domain points to your host’s nameservers.
Most hosting companies offer “one-click” installation options, making it easy to install applications or CMSes such as WordPress. Fantastico is one of the most common script libraries available. It automates application installation, minimizing the amount of technical know-how necessary to set up your website.
Website security is important, and a firewall is an essential part of protecting your website from attacks. Think of your firewall as security guards who have been given a set of rules to evaluate whether or not to let guests in. This makes sure that genuine visitors have access to your website, but keeps unwanted visitors out.
With shared hosting (and generally cloud and managed hosting), your hosting provider will usually have firewalls already installed on the server, and you don’t have any control over these. VPS and dedicated servers give you the option to install your own additional firewalls, increasing the level of security.
FTP (File Transfer Protocol)
File Transfer Protocol (or FTP) is a means of transferring files online. With FTP, you can easily upload batches of files to your web space. This is also how you can manually install a CMS such as WordPress. To use FTP, you need an FTP client application — for example, FileZilla — and an FTP account to give you access to your web space.
The .htaccess file in your web space allows you to enable or disable functionality offered by the Apache Web Server. For instance, you can set your 404 page, protect your content with a password, or prevent other websites from linking to your images and videos.
Unless you have a lot of technical experience, you shouldn’t make changes to your .htaccess file yourself. Your hosting provider can do this for you, if you contact customer support. Messing around with your .htaccess file can cause problems with your website – and may even prevent you from being able to logging into the backend of your website.
HTML (Hypertext Markup Language)
HTML is essentially the “language” used to code web pages. It’s a standard language that’s used worldwide, and is the format that your server will use to transmit your website content. Your browser receives the raw HTML files and then processes them to display the webpage on your screen — all in a fraction of a second.
HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol)
HTTP is the standard protocol used to transfer digital media (including written text, videos, images, and so on) over the internet. The whole internet – or World Wide Web – is actually billions of interconnected hypertext documents.
There’s a range of HTTP status codes you’ll often see displayed if your browser is unable to load the page you were looking for. The most common codes are:
404 – File Not Found (displayed if the server can’t find the file that’s been requested)
403 – Forbidden (displayed when you’re trying to access a page or asset that you don’t have permission to access
301 – Moved Permanently (commonly referred to as a “301 redirect,” this will direct your browser to the new, permanent location of the page or asset)
500 – Internal Server Error (displayed whenever there’s an unexpected server error – try refreshing the page, that sometimes fixes the problem!)
503 – Service Unavailable (displayed when there’s a temporary problem with the server, particularly if a website has exceeded its bandwidth limits or the server is overloaded with traffic at that moment)
HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) is the secure version of HTTP. The ‘S’ at the end of HTTPS stands for ‘Secure’. It means all communications between your browser and the website are encrypted. Websites must have a valid SSL certificate in order to be routed via HTTPS.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is more commonly referred to as ICANN. This is the organization responsible for coordinating all the different IP addresses and domain names across the World Wide Web. It takes a small fee whenever you register a domain name.
An IP address is a string of numbers (e.g., 188.8.131.52) that points to a specific device on a network. Your computer has an IP address, and the websites you visit all have IP addresses. Your computer browser uses IP addresses to communicate with the servers where websites are stored, enabling the website to display on your computer.
Linux is one of the most common and popular operating systems used on servers. Because it’s both free and open source (allowing anyone to contribute to it), Linux-based hosting is often cheaper than Windows-based hosting. Linux is considered to be more secure than Windows servers. It also has a reputation for being both stable and reliable.
Load balancing refers to the way that HTTP traffic can be balanced across multiple servers. Hosting companies use it to increase reliability when there’s a lot of traffic going to a single IP address — preventing the website from becoming unavailable due to server overload.
MySQL is a term you’ll come across a lot in web hosting. It refers to a database system that most hosting companies offer. Together with PHP, MySQL enables applications such as WordPress to be installed on your web space. Each WordPress website you have on your web space will need its own MySQL database, so if your host only offers one MySQL database, you will only be able to host one WordPress website on your account.
PaaS (Platform as a Service)
Platform as a Service is another type of cloud computing (like IaaS) that allows developers to develop and/or customize applications on the PaaS cloud platform. PaaS includes an operating system, database, and web server. It’s a cost-effective and rapid way of developing web applications, and because it’s cloud-based, it’s easy to scale. Examples of PaaS include Windows Azure and Google App Engine.
A parked domain (or parking a domain) is a domain name – such as MyDomain.com – that isn’t associated with any web services like web hosting or email. Instead, it is “parked” it for later use, such as hosting a web site or being sold to someone else. There are several ways a parked domain can be used, including displaying a message that the website is under construction, displaying a message that the domain is for sale, or displaying clickable ads that generate income for the domain owner.
If you expect your business to grow and your website traffic to increase, then you need hosting that’s scalable. This means that in the event of increased traffic, you can easily access the additional storage, bandwidth, and computing power you’ll need while ensuring your website remains available to visitors. Cloud hosting is the most scalable type of hosting.
SLA (Service Level Agreement)
An SLA is the written agreement that your hosting company provides. It outlines the level of service you can expect from your provider. SLAs also usually include clauses on uptime, stating that you’ll get some form of a refund if the service provider fails to maintain the uptime levels it promises.
Softaculous is another script library (like Fantastico) that makes it simple to install web applications on your web space. There’s both a free and a paid version: your hosting provider will usually cover the cost of the latter. The free version gives you access to 50+ scripts, while the premium version gives you up to 320+ scripts.
A subdomain is also referred to as a child domain. If www.example.com is the parent domain, then a subdomain might be moreexamples.example.com. A subdomain is mainly used to separate a website into different areas: for example.com, you could have a membership area (members.example.com) or a store (store.example.com).
Sometimes, websites such as WordPress.com will offer space to their users. In these cases, you’ll get your own subdomain under the parent website (e.g., joeblogs.wordpress.com).
SSH, or Secure Shell, is a means of transferring files to and from a website (much like FTP). Because giving users SSH access does carry security risks, a lot of shared hosting providers won’t allow you to use it, preferring you to use FTP instead.
SSL (Secure Sockets Layer)
Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) allows secure communications between web servers and web browsers, as well as between mail servers and mail clients. It includes two important security aspects: encryption and authentication. When data is encrypted, it means that data is secure and cannot be read by anyone else. The authentication aspect means that your website visitors can trust that your website is genuine; in other words, they haven’t been redirected to an imposter’s website.
An SSL certificate allows your visitors’ web browsers to confirm that your website is secure and encrypted. Websites with a valid SSL certificate will begin with https://. Google will penalize websites without SSL certificates, and browsers will warn users if they are visiting a website with an invalid SSL certificate. When a website is protected by an SSL certificate, you’ll see a padlock icon in the address bar.
If you plan to sell services or products online, you absolutely need an SSL certificate. You should also have an SSL certificate if you collect personal data from visitors or have a login form on your website. You’ll sometimes get free SSL certificates with hosting packages, but you can also purchase premium ones for a higher level of security.
TLD (Top-Level Domain)
A TLD is a domain that sits at one of the highest levels in the DNS hierarchy. It also refers to the last part of a domain name: in www.websiteplanet.com for instance, the TLD is “com.” The TLD is sometimes also referred to as a domain extension.
Uptime refers to the amount of time a server is up and running. Interruptions to service (i.e., when your website is unavailable) are known as downtime. When looking for a hosting provider, you’ll see that they mention 99.9% uptime a lot.
Some offer uptime guarantees, too. This means that if their uptime falls below a certain level (usually 99.9%), they’ll give you credit for the additional downtime as a form of compensation. Look for the hosting companies with the highest levels of uptime: you want your website to be available when visitors come by.
Windows Server is a Microsoft operating system used on web servers. It’s an alternative to Linux-based servers and tends to be used by businesses with a Microsoft-based IT infrastructure. Windows-based hosting is generally more expensive than Linux-based hosting.
Email Hosting Terms
Email hosting has its own set of terms and acronyms that can easily catch you off-guard if you’re not sure what they mean (and whether you need them). Here are the most common ones:
An autoresponder allows you to set up automated responses for various purposes. For example, autoresponders can be used for out-of-office messages, or to send someone a free resource when they sign up for your mailing list.
A catch-all email address collects the messages sent to all non-existing email addresses for your domain. This means that even if someone types in a wrong or nonexistent prefix (e.g., [email protected]), you won’t lose the email message.
DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail)
DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) is a means of making sure that emails coming into your inbox are actually from the email address they claim to be from. It also checks that the message hasn’t been altered in any way during the sending process.
DKIM uses a private key that is digitally signed by the sender and used by the recipient to verify the digital signature. DKIM is usually used to safeguard against phishing (an attempt to steal your credit card details or other important personal information) and email spam.
IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol. With IMAP, when you use an email client such as Outlook to retrieve your email, the message stays on the server so that you can access it from another device.
MX Record stands for mail exchanger record. The MX Record is located within the DNS system and indicates which mail server is used to receive emails for your domain.
A mailing list is a collection of email addresses and other personal details for your users. You can use it to send automated messages or newsletters without having to compose dozens of individual emails. When people sign up for your mailing list, you can use a client such as AWeber to manage the list and keep the data secure.
POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3)
POP3 is another email protocol that allows you to retrieve emails from your email server in an application (rather than using webmail). POP3 differs from IMAP in that when you download messages to your computer via POP3, any changes that you make (such as marking an email as read) won’t be reflected in your webmail account. That’s because there’s no synching between your mail client account and your mail server.
SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol)
SMTP is an email protocol used to send emails. SMTP servers act as a postal service, directing the messages that you compose to the intended recipient — provided that the email address can be authenticated. If the message is undeliverable, the SMTP server will return it to you with a delivery failure notification.
Webmail is a means of viewing and composing emails without having to use an email client. You can use webmail directly from any web browser, meaning you can access your email wherever you are.
Making Sense of Web Hosting Jargon
Whew! That’s a lot of jargon to go through.
Having grasped a clear understanding of all the technical terms you will come across while searching for the optimal web hosting choices for your website, you are now equipped to render a more informed decision regarding the precise web hosting solution required. Proficiency in this terminology can act as a safeguard against your hosting provider attempting to upsell you features that are superfluous to your requirements.
To help you get started, we also have a whole range of helpful, honest reviews and articles that explain the pros and cons of the different hosting types, as well as highlighting some of the best hosting providers within each category. Check out Website Planet’s web hosting reviews.
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Ari is passionate about web hosting and design and has been building websites with WordPress for over ten years. When he’s not testing web hosts, you’re likely to find him trying (in vain) to train his three beagles (who are better at training him than he is them!)