This is a question that I’m sure many agency owners and freelancers have asked themselves at least once, and it is definitely a subject that I have been involved with many times during my 16 years working at various digital agencies.
There are a few important questions that you need to ask before looking at the finer details, and they are:
Are you doing this as an additional revenue stream?
Is it to create a full digital solution for your clients?
Is it to create an additional tie between you and your clients?
For many of you…the decision will probably include all 3 of these statements, but your reasons for providing hosting as part of your digital services should always focus on giving your clients the best solution to enable them to focus on their core business, which if done well will definitely have a positive effect on the other two statements above.
So, you have made the decision to start offering web hosting to your clients for the first time, but where do you start? With so many elements involved, it can truly be a minefield for any digital or creative agency. To make this process a little easier we have put together the following guide to help you make the right decisions.
Although not specifically related to the hosting of your client’s website, web hosting and managing email has been connected for a number of years, and on the face of it, this can seem like a very simple and cost-effective service to offer to your clients. Providing hosting via a web server came about as a quick and easy alternative to setting up Microsoft exchange, and allowed agencies to provide this very important service to their clients, creating a much stronger connection. However, the hidden cost for agencies is the support that you will end up offering to your clients for setting up each of their devices and the almost constant questions about why isn’t my email sending or being received, which can take your team away from their core job of designing and building great web applications. An often-unknown issue can also come from the use of a single IP address for both the email and website, which can create a situation where both the email and website go down at the same time if the IP address is blacklisted.
As an alternative, we recommend using either Google G-Suite or Office 365. Both services include much more than just email, ie. calendars, contacts, shared folders, documents, spreadsheets and group collaboration. Both Microsoft and Google have an extremely comprehensive setup and support process to take away any potential headaches for you.
If you’re brand new into web-hosting, you’ll need to understand that server location is very important. It may seem much cheaper to host your website overseas in places like the US or Germany but that can have a massive impact on the effectiveness of your client’s website.
At Nimbus Hosting we host our entire infrastructure in the UK for site speed and UK geographic IP addresses. Firstly, hosting your website in the same country as your primary group of web visitor’s will massively improve page load times as the data has less distance to travel. Secondly, a UK geographic IP address will help Google target the correct audience for their search results.
Should the majority of your traffic come from a variety of countries we recommend using Cloudflare, which is a global content distribution network. As a Cloudflare reseller, we can configure it to cache your content in local servers around the globe. To find out more about this service please get in touch.
Digital Agencies work with Nimbus in one of two ways. Either by recommending their clients to us directly and enjoying the benefits via our referral program or by selling space on a dedicated server to their clients at a monthly/annual cost, basically providing a shared hosting service. We have found that both options provide a revenue stream to the agency, and as all hosting packages from Nimbus are managed, you never have to worry about managing the server…allowing you to focus on maintaining your client’s websites.
The agencies that recommend their clients to Nimbus tend to prefer not to be involved in web hosting. In this instance, Nimbus is responsible for the billing and day to day support. Nimbus have recently launched their brand-new hosting platform STORM, which means we can delegate access back to an agency so you can have full access to the server but don’t need to worry about the server or billing management. Read more about STORM here.
Other agencies prefer to purchase servers directly from Nimbus Hosting and then resell either the entire server or part of the server onto their customer. This service can be packaged up to the client along with a regular management cost. As Nimbus is ultimately responsible for the servers that we sell…providing hosting to your clients via this route generally only requires a single person in the agency to manage communication between Nimbus and the agency…our support SLA is the same across every single one of our clients regardless of how they use their servers.
LINUX OR WINDOWS
The decision between a Linux or Windows server is controlled by the application that your agency uses to create your client’s web projects. A basic rule of thumb is if the CMS is PHP based, then you will be hosting on a Linux server, and if the CMS is ASP.NET then you will need a Windows server. Nimbus will be happy to help you out if you have any questions with regards to what server type you need for your hosting.
SHARED, VPS/CLOUD, DEDICATED
It can be a minefield for an agency to source the perfect hosting partner, due to the choice available, and that choice begins with the correct server for your needs. Here is a breakdown of the usual suspects:
Shared This type of hosting is where a provider takes a single server and places a number of clients onto this server and they all share the resources of that server. The advantages of this type of hosting is purely cost…when you see the adverts for hosting from £5 a month or less…then this is shared hosting. Unfortunately there is a downside to this type of hosting, and it comes back to you all sharing the resources, if one of the websites on the server is using a large amount of the resources on the server, then every other website will suffer, either by slowing the website down or in the worst cases, crashing altogether. Nimbus does not provide shared hosting simply because it is impossible for us to manage our customers’ expectations on the quality of our services.
VPS Cloud This is where terminology can get a little confusing, as different providers reference Cloud server packages in slightly different ways…hopefully, we can clear this up for you. VPS is describing the virtualization of a server, so splitting a single server into a specific number of smaller servers, where each has their own share of the overall server resources. Because you have created virtual servers, one client’s activity cannot affect another client due to them only having access to their specific allocation of the server’s resources. If they exceed those resources, their website and only their website will be affected. This type of hosting makes up the majority of packages that we offer at Nimbus.
Dedicated The clue is in the name, this option gives you the full power of the server, 100% of the time, and it provides far more flexibility in how you can use the server to manage the needs of your business. Here are a few of the most popular ways that our clients use their dedicated servers.
Single site – You have a busy eCommerce website, with a large amount of traffic visiting at all times of the day, 7 days a week and you need to be sure that your server will not run out of power just when your website needs it.
Multiple VPS’s – You are an agency that manages multiple websites for your clients, but you provide different package options with varying resources, so you need to be able to segment these on your server. By setting up multiple virtual servers, you can easily manage your client’s expectations.
Multiple Websites – Very similar to the option above, but in our opinion, a little bit messy and possibly more of a headache for you down the line, and that is to simply host all of your client’s websites in a single set up, which is basically providing shared hosting to your clients. This will generally be fine if all of the websites are low traffic, brochure style as they do not require too much resource to keep them ticking over.
OPEN SOURCE CMS PATCHING
Open Source software is where the code is available to a community of developers, who collaborate to develop the product, a good example of an open source CMS is WordPress. The downside of this approach to application development is that hackers regularly target open source software as it’s so widely used and a simple vulnerability can potentially be used across millions of websites. To protect the many users of applications like WordPress, patches are made available regularly to manage security vulnerabilities as well as bugs in the code, and these should always be kept up to date.
We recommend clients treat their website like a car and make sure it’s serviced regularly to keep the site secure with the latest patches.
It can often be confusing as to what is the responsibility of the hosting provider (Nimbus) and the client when it comes to various updates and patches. For us here at Nimbus, our managed hosting means that we are responsible for the Operating System (CentOS, Ubuntu and Windows) and the control panel being used on the server (STORM, Plesk or cPanel), and the client is responsible for the application…ie…WordPress and the subsequent plugins being used in WordPress.
Server backups might seem like an easy place to save money but here at Nimbus we see it as an easy way to save time and reputation and give yourself peace of mind. Should a website become hacked or a client or freelancer make an error in the code or a plugin update breaks an element of the site, you can roll a website back to the previous day in a matter of minutes. From the point of view of an agency, daily backups of your client’s websites should be seen as making commercial sense.
There are alternative options for creating backups, which are normally run from the individual application, but this is most definitely not saving you time in the long run, as you would be managing multiple backups, instead of a single one across your entire server.
Historically there has only been 2 providers when it comes to server control panels for Linux, and they are cPanel and Plesk. You will find that hosting providers provide either one or both of these as an option to manage your server. Ultimately there are no real differences between the two, they allow you to perform very similar tasks, the main difference is with the user interface, so it can be difficult to jump from one to the other easily as they have been produced for a mass market, so it can be quite difficult to know where to go to perform a certain task.
Is there an alternative specifically for the Agency market? Yes, there is!
Here at Nimbus, through discussions with our agency clients, we discovered a need for a server management tool that made it simpler and faster for agencies to perform daily tasks, so we can now introduce STORM, a hosting platform built specifically for agencies, to help them become more efficient in the management of their digital projects. A large number of our customers have already moved across to STORM and 80% have seen on average a 25% improvement in page speeds, so grab a tea or coffee and take 5 minutes to see how STORM can improve your hosting experience.
When it comes to managing your client’s domains…in our opinion, it comes down to convenience rather than creating an additional revenue stream, as domains are relatively cheap to buy and can ultimately be controlled by a completely different provider to your actual web server.
It is often overlooked the importance of knowing where the domain name is being managed when working on a new web project for a client…it is mentioned at the beginning and then forgotten about until everything is ready to go live and it’s suddenly…where do we update the DNS records, and a frantic hunt for login details begins, where scenarios of staff who bought the domain no longer work at the client anymore…and before you know it the launch date has been and gone…unhappy client and for something so small.
So…in our opinion, it is vitally important to either have full control of a client’s domain, so when the time comes, you can make updates simply, or make sure that both you and the client is fully aware of where the domain is and both parties have the correct logins.
There is, of course, an additional set up to consider, which is having the nameservers set as the agencies…so the physical domain can be kept with the client, but the agency can access the DNS records via their own domain management tool, but we feel that this can cause further confusion for the client, so a simpler approach is recommended.
Having experienced both setups in my time working at agencies, unless you are very confident in setting up and managing a web server, you should always be looking for a managed service from your hosting provider. Here at Nimbus, we only provide Server Managed Hosting to our customers…so what does that mean for you? Thankfully its quite straightforward…we have full responsibility for the hardware…so the physical server and all of its working components, so if a server fan breaks or one of the disks becomes faulty, these will be replaced within the timeframes of our SLA. We also manage the connectivity of the server to the internet, providing a guaranteed uptime of 99.995% and provide ongoing support to our customers on a variety of different requests.
Where the support does stop, is with the application (website) itself, where we do not cover issues with the application code or trying to resolve why parts of the website do not work.
It goes without saying that securing your client’s websites and data, as well as your own is vitally important to the success of your business. Cyber-attacks are on the rise and it seems that no one is exempt from hackers attention. Some forms of attack can go unnoticed, a website being hacked could have spam links added to the code and sometimes not noticed, or your server can be used for sending out spam emails, potentially resulting in your IP address being blacklisted, which means suddenly your website goes down and this cannot be rectified until your domain has been removed from the Blacklist. This issue has further reaching problems if you also run your email from the server, as it all runs from the same IP address, please refer to the chapter on Email Hosting in this article.
There are a number of tasks to perform to help protect yourself.
Avoid shared hosting – as you are all on the same server, with no separation between your website and another customer, you are ultimately at risk from the least protected website on the server. By choosing VPS/Dedicated hosting, you immediately are in control of your own protection.
Application Updates – It is vitally important to make sure that any updates have been added to your CMS or any plugins you are using, as any vulnerabilities found here, will provide access to the hacker.
Web Application Firewalls (WAF) – Generally used for open source applications, this provides an extra layer of protection against common attacks such as cross-site scripting and SQL injection.
Plugins – There are also a number of plugins that can be added to your applications to add some additional security, a good example is WordFence on WordPress.
You need to work out what you feel you can manage internally, what is the technical knowledge of the team and that should allow you to work out what you need from your hosting provider. It’s a given that every hosting company will promote excellent customer support on their websites and in various advertising, and unfortunately for the client, it’s only once you have signed up and gone through a migration that you can potentially discover that those promises were not quite true.
There are a few steps that you should take to hopefully protect yourselves from poor customer support.
What are the access points to the support team? The more the better in our opinion, if you can only post support tickets online and are not able to pick up a phone to speak with support then you are not going to be able to react quickly to an emergency. Your hosting provider should as a minimum allow direct access to the support team by phone, live chat, email and support tickets via the client area.
24/7/365 support coverage can be a bit of a minefield, and might not always mean you are talking to the internal team all of the time. In our opinion, it is best to work out what your specific needs are…what hours do you work? As long as you have access to the primary support team at the right times for you, then generally you will be covered, but always check what their out of hours SLA is, just to be on the safe side.
Check out customer reviews, there’s no better way of seeing if there are any potential problems up ahead than listening to existing customers. Various sites are used for reviews…so you might need to check Google Reviews or TrustPilot, which tend to be the main ones. One word of warning on the variety of Top 10 hosting companies articles that fill Google listings are generally driven by price, and these prices are for shared hosting, so best to take this into consideration.
Finally, see if support response times for call waiting or tickets are promoted on their website, or inquire about these when discussing your requirements with the sales team, this can provide an insight into whether the support team is adequate for the number of clients that they have, it’s never good to be at the end of a long queue. Nimbus on average responds to 97% of support tickets within 1 hour and resolves 83% within 4 hours, a statistic that we are very proud of.
When looking around for an agency specialist hosting provider, a free migration service is like getting a steering wheel on your new car…it’s essential! The majority of providers in the market will offer this service, but as with most things, there are varying levels of migrations.
Bottom of the pile is an automated tool, which pretty much moves the web files and databases from one place to another, but if a problem occurs during this move, you are often on your own to locate and fix the issue.
Next up would be a manual migration of the files and databases, but once again if a problem occurs, the responsibility to locate and fix these issues falls on you the client, as the issues will be highlighted as being with the application and not the server.
Then you have a migration service that is fully managed, which is what we provide here at Nimbus Hosting. When you sign up for a hosting package, you will be allocated a member of the support team, who will take you from start to finish, manually moving all files and databases, checking the sites are working correctly before requesting our clients to check them and even assisting in the updating of DNS records. You should never be in a position where your hosting provider is saying that they cannot help as it’s not covered by the support agreement.
WordPress is probably the best example of a CMS which utilises plugins built by a global community of developers to enable their users to create ever more engaging websites with ease. Here at Nimbus we think Plugins are great and if used correctly, they can really benefit your business, but with great power, comes great responsibility!
What do we mean by that? Only use plugins that you have sourced from WordPress and always make sure that the plugin is being updated on a regular basis by the creator and is compatible with your version of WordPress. A couple of further plus points when choosing is the number of active installs and of course, the reviews should always be looked through. Once you have chosen and installed the plugin, it is vitally important that you actively update the plugins along with any updates available for the CMS…we cannot stress how important this is due to out of date plugins and CMS’s being the No.1 route for hackers to access your website files and database.
THAT’S ABOUT IT
Hopefully, this guide has provided you with some insight into providing hosting services to your clients. As with all our clients, we offer a consultancy service, where we can advise clients on their particular requirements, so please do get in touch if you have any further questions.