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Historically, hosting Windows-based Web sites has been expensive. High Windows licensing costs and the slow proliferation of Windows-based management tools favored UNIX and Linux Web-hosting platforms. Although UNIX-based platforms still dominate, more providers are now supporting Windows-based infrastructures. If your Web site uses Windows-based applications, you use COM objects in your code, or your applications require Microsoft SQL Server, you'll probably prefer to host your Web site on a Windows platform rather than on UNIX or Linux.

The number and variety of service providers is daunting, and finding the one that best meets your needs requires thorough research. This month's buyer's guide will help you find the right Windows Web-hosting provider for your situation. Begin by characterizing your site's type and audience. For example, the needs of a small bed-and-breakfast site differ drastically from the needs of a file-download site or a secure e-commerce site. Although all Web sites require the same basic infrastructure (i.e., appropriately sized Web servers, databases, and network connections), some Web-hosting providers offer packages that are tuned for different purposes.

Most providers charge extra for SQL Server database support. You might also need access to your stored procedures, tables, views, and other SQL Server programming. Does the provider support Microsoft FrontPage extensions, the Windows .NET Framework, Web services, Macromedia Flash, scripting languages (e.g., C#, JavaScript, Perl, Visual Basic—VB), Common Gateway Interface (CGI), SMTP-based email, virus scanning, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), streaming media, custom COM objects, and e-commerce packages? Find out how many sites will share the server that hosts your Web site; most providers offer dedicated servers for an additional fee.

How will you publish content? Does the company support FTP or FrontPage, or does it use its own proprietary interface? Most hosting companies provide a Web-based management interface that lets you perform functions such as configuring SSL, adding users, checking billing information, and configuring database and ODBC settings. If visitor statistics are important to you, find out which statistics the company collects, how it reports them, and whether it provides access to raw Web logs. Many providers let you test their management tools and view sample statistics and reports.

Almost every provider offers DNS hosting and associated email addresses. Ask the provider how it manages DNS and email as well as which process you can use to update configuration information. Many companies offer Web-based email interfaces; others support IMAP or POP3. Sophisticated Web-hosting companies also provide email forwarding, autoresponders, and listservs. Shop carefully; some providers charge extra for these services.

Evaluate the provider's technical support. Call during various times of the day and night to assess the support team's accessibility and technical proficiency. Does a different or less-proficient team handle off-hours support? Does the company outsource its technical support, or does it handle calls inhouse?

What hardware does the provider have? Are its servers located in a commercial data center that has redundant utility service? What happens if a server goes down? Does the company offer service level agreements (SLAs) that guarantee uptime? Find out how often the company backs up its Web servers and the process it uses to restore data. Can you request individual file restores, or are restores done only in the event of a catastrophic server failure?

Web-hosting services are available in a range of prices—from a bare-bones application service provider for $6.95 per month to a fully redundant data-center service for more than $1000 a month. Most providers base their pricing on tiered bandwidth and storage requirements. For example, small packages that cost less than $10 per month might provide just one domain, 150MB of storage, and 6GB of data transfer. Or, you might spend $100 per month for multiple domains, 4GB of storage, and 75GB of data transfer. Consider the cost of à la carte options. For example, one provider advertises a low $10 per-month fee but charges an additional $10 per month for SSL support and $15 per month for SQL Server 2000 support. With so many options to choose from, reading the fine print when you shop for a provider is crucial.