For all its complexity, the internet is nothing more than a mechanism computers use to share files. A server is a computer that stores and distributes files to other computers – such as HTML and CSS files.
Most servers run a UNIX based operating system rather than Windows or OS X. The physical components need to be more robust due to the higher demands placed on them, but it's basically the same machine as what you have in front of you. The only difference of any importance to most of us is that servers are owned by hosting services and rented to people like you and me.
So how do you get a server?
There are all kinds of hosting companies renting space on different kinds of servers.* It can be difficult for a novice to know where to start. The waters are thick with an all but impenetrable slurry of sales pitches and computer jargon. Anyone who knows what they are doing can navigate just fine, but anyone who knows what they are doing is no novice. Add to that the fact that there are hustlers on the fringes not above out-and-out fraud. None of the large hosting services cheat, nor do the vast majority of smaller companies, but you do have to be careful.
As a novice, odds are that all you need is the inexpensive basic package most hosting companies offer. Choosing one company's basic package over another's has little to do with the plethora of features each company offers. For all the hoopla, they all sell essentially the same service.
In my experience the only thing that separates a good hosting company from a bad one is their tech support. Period. The best hosting companies base their tech support people's job performance on client satisfaction – not the number of support tickets they can crank out or even their computer skills.**
I started in web design in 1998 and I have worked with I don't know how many different hosts over the years. As you may have discovered reading through this tutorial, I am not very tolerant of geek talk. This comes mainly from the many many frustrating hours I have spent on the phone with, or trying to decipher emails from, tech support.*** I've heard it all! To this day I will not work with clients who host with GoDaddy or Network Solutions. My blood pressure goes up just thinking about it.
A lot has changed since 1998. Servers are more stable now and tech support has unquestionably improved. I've been told that even GoDaddy's tech support is better than it was. Hosting services in general have improved with time, as well they should have. You might never need tech support – with any luck you won't – but these are complex systems and things can go wrong. If you do need help, you have to know it's there.
This site is hosted with Bluehost's basic package, and yes (in the interest of full disclosure), I do get paid a commission on sales.**** I have worked with them as a web site designer on and off for years, (long before I started this site), mostly though clients who hosted with them.
I can't say that Bluehost is the best hosting service there is bar none, nor that their tech support outshines the rest. I haven't made that extensive a study. However I can say that Bluehost has been around a long time and that I am a knowledgeable, demanding – and satisfied – customer.
Over the years I have contacted Bluehost's tech support a number of times. They always replied promptly in jargon-free English. Recently there was one minor issue we didn't completely agree on. I wanted something they don't offer, however their explanation for why not was clear and reasonable – fair enough.
If you found a domain you like on the Bluehost site go back to that page and follow the instructions. If not, go to Bluehost, click "Sign Up Now" and search for a domain. Once you decide on one it's time to take the plunge. If you plan to host with a someone other than Bluehost the process is pretty much the same. You should be able to follow what I am doing on the next couple of pages without too much difficulty.
Next I will walk you through each step of the process of signing up with bluehost. Then we'll take a look at cPanel, create an FTP account and last, but not least, make a simple site.
* At the risk of oversimplification, there are three kinds of servers. By far the most common and economical are shared servers (which Bluehost specializes in), – "shared" in the sense that various domains are hosted on one machine, there are the far more expensive dedicated servers on which one site is hosted on its own computer and then there are virtual private servers (VPSs) which is a cross between the two in both price and power.
** I think the best tech support people tend not to be hard-core computer freaks. They need to have access to computer freaks – computer scientists with PhDs from MIT and the like – but they themselves need to be good at dealing with people – at being able to understand your problem as you see it, which can be quite different from what the problem actually is. Also they need to work in an environment where they can say: "I don't know. Let me ask."
*** Years ago I was getting some weird error message. I emailed it to tech support (not Bluehost's) and got back an email of which I understood not a single word. I emailed back: "If I knew what..." here I inserted a copy of his email "... meant I wouldn't have emailed you in the first place!". I was not happy. To his credit he replied with a clear, helpful and indeed quite funny email.
**** Bluehost does not have any editorial control over what I write.