Turbulent Times - Running a Website for Free
This is an article aimed at those of us who have to host and run their websites from free servers, most of the time, not our own. I'm writing this article because good free servers are notoriously hard to find. For my two websites, Voodoo VB and Talos Studios, I must have been through close to a dozen hosts in about 4 years. In this column, I'll go through the types of hosting companies out there and some general tips for keeping your site up smoothly.
Large Hosting Companies
This refers to the large companies that specialize in hosting websites for free. This would include basically any company you find on FreeWebSpace.Net.
Some of the larger and more established hosts in this category are relatively allright. If you sign on with Geocities, you can expect your website to be up most of the time and you shouldn't experience too many problems with it, they design their services to be user friendly. Many of the smaller services are much more risky. It is not uncommon for one of them to disappear overnight with no warning whatsoever. Reliability is often a problem as well.
Tech support with the smaller hosts can also be a problem. I know what you're thinking, which is the typical programmer adage, "I'm a programmer, I don't need tech support!". The fact though, is that you will most likely not have direct access to your server, and if it's down for a period of time you will want to know why. Much of the time the support is simply an automated message. I have some funny stories from this area too, like the tech support guy who insults you. "I don't care that the login is down. I told you I don't have access to the servers, so f*ck off!!" was one line I got from a hosting company that will remain nameless.
There are some great free companies out there however, so don't let this discourage you. It will however take a bit of searching to find a decent host from this category, the success rate here is not very high. Another thing to watch out for is an initially great company that soon runs into financial trouble and makes their service worse and worse.
In general, some things to watch out from these types of hosts are:
-Pop-up ads (no visitor wants to see this, it will drive away your audience)
-Storage limits (some services have limits as strict as 5 megs. The average amount of webspace you'll get is 20 MB.)
-File Size restrictions (some services only allow you to have individual files of a max size of 2 megabytes, or less)
-File Type restrictions (for example, no executables or zip files.)
-No Direct Linking (this is done to save the company bandwidth. Basically, it won't allow you to post a direct link to a file on another website, like a news site or a forum, directly linking to a file)
-Transfer Limits (the silent killer, most free hosts restrict your monthly bandwidth to a couple of gigabytes. This sounds like a lot, but your average site that gets about 100-150 hits a day can trasfer over 5 GB a month)
A very decent host in this category is Brinkster. I've also heard good things about Tripod
Small Specialized Hosts
Small specialized hosts would be smaller websites or companies that offer free hosting, often on specific subjects, like gaming or programming. An example of a website that hosts small game developers would be GameDev.net. Basically, if you find any such website with a list of on their page of any other sites that they host, you can generally write them an email and apply for hosting. At the worst, you'll get a polite "no".
If you can get your site hosted on one of these services, so much the better. Most of the time, the sites are small so you will know the guys who are running the server personally. This means you can ask them questions, ask them to add some modifications, etc, and won't be given an automated reply :)
You'll find that most of the restrictions given out by the larger hosting companies don't apply here, or are far more lax. You'll usually have to put up a banner ad at the top or bottom of your page, which is a small thing to ask for. Pop-ups from these sorts of hosts are very rare. You will also get more storage space, sometimes unlimited but more often somewhere in the area of 50 or 100 megabytes. File size and type restrictions are often non-existent. Direct linking is usually allowed. Transfer limits are usually very lax, as long as you keep it within reasonable bounds.
Since these hosts are very good, it is usually a lot harder to find them. You probably won't find a list of these hosts like you can with the larger ones on services like FreeWebSpace.Net. As I said before, if I site has a list of hosted sites, you can ask them if they would be willing to host yours.
However, a lot of the time, you can only find these sorts of sites through friends, or word of mouth. Take for an example one of the companies that hosted my Talos Studios site for a while. I had never heard of them before, but they played a demo of our game and liked it so much that they offered us free hosting, along with paying for our domain name. The service was great while it lasted, which was about a year and a half, before the company went under.
Our next host were the guys at Siegerspost.Com. They did a feature on Talos Studios and our game for their "Developer's Spotlight" section. I talked with the webmaster for a while via email, and after I got the message that our current host was going out of business, I let him know the situation and they offered us hosting.
So, as you can see, there is a method to aquiring this type of hosting. A lot of it is done through contacts. One thing you should be weary of though, is that the smaller guys are more vulnerable to financial troubles. Sieger's Post also went under about a month ago. So, make sure to backup your files!
As you can tell, it is possible to find a good free host. One probelm that you won't be able to spot though, is your hosting company going under. That's why one piece of advice I have, is to set up a redirection URL, through a service like CJB.Net and use that as your address. That way, you won't be tied down to a single server and can easily switch between services while keeping your address constant. This way, you won't have any problems with having out of date links out on other pages on the internet.
An even better solution would be to buy your own domain name. This way, you can have a more professional address, as well as being guarenteed to have pop-up free redirection. Domain names come pretty cheap now, you can buy a domain name from a service provider like GoDaddy for about $9 US a year. That's what I'm using for Talos Studios now. This way, if my host ever goes down, I can just change where the domain points to and get the site back up and running in no time.
Of course, if you can afford it, it would probably be best to pay for your web hosting, but that can be expensive!
|State of the VB Gaming Community - Killer apps and Promotion|
|Peter Kuchnio is:|
|The webmaster of Voodoo VB and the project lead at Talos Studios|