I sent a note to the UWEBD list (higher education) recently inquiring about best practices for choosing an external provider for a public website. And got a good response on what to look for when doing so.

Not being a webmaster myself, I wanted to assure all security issues would be considered and all the bases covered.

Submitted by two colleagues* at colleges that have recently either gone through the process themselves, or who are webmasters. I received the following tips from Brady at Texas A&M Qatar.

  • Robustness with up-time approaching 100 percent
  • Scalable amid traffic spikes (think “gunman on campus!”)
  • Fully managed infrastructure (server hardware, security, etc.)
  • CDN integration (our campus is in the Middle East; we get lots of global traffic)
  • Ultra-tight security with proactive monitoring and rapid response
  • Ability to pick up the phone, day or night, and reach a live person on the first ring

Mark at Cornish College of the Arts added,
“If the client does any custom software development in-house, developers sometimes like to use software frameworks which might not come standard on a regular hosting package. With a VPS or private server you can deploy whatever you want, but then you might need someone with some server admin experience around to look after it.
As far as security – in my opinion, this is not much of a differentiator among hosts, and it’s really more about staff and user training on the client-side. Assuming your host offers SFTP, SSH, etc, it comes down to password security and good practices. If people are not practicing good password security, handling FERPA protected data appropriately, etc, then it does not matter how secure the host is.
Redundancy – depends how much uptime the client really wants. Even fairly cheap shared host/VPS plans frequently end up around 99.0-99.9% uptime. (99.9% uptime equates to about 30 minutes of total downtime in a month). If the
client wants “4 9’s” of uptime, or more, that’s harder. Reliable per-host uptime reports are hard to come by, in my experience, but if you have a host you’re interested in it’s always worth Googling around a little to see what you can find out.
Anecdotally – I have had very good experiences with Slicehost, and heard generally good things about their parent company Rackspace. I also know a fair number of people using MediaTemple or Dreamhost.”

Thanks to Brady at Texas A&M Qatar and Mark at Cornish College of the Arts.