What the Internet Needs: Cheap, Reliable Web Hosting
March 12, 2002
Eighty-five years later, there is a lot of tedious debate going on about what the Internet needs. So, let me state my case: What the Internet needs is cheap, always-available Web hosting.
Maybe that's not as catchy as Marshall's comment, but here's the current situation: I maintain a few Web sites using cheap-o hosting, and although the Web sites are usually available, they sometimes disappear mysteriously for hours on end.
No complaints: That's what you get for US$10 per month right now. At the other end of the spectrum, companies like EBay and Amazon spend oodles of money to ensure that their sites are available 24/7 -- and they are, most of the time.
Web hosting companies assume a general correlation between the amount of bandwidth that a site needs and the amount of reliability it needs.
You can buy somewhat flaky low-bandwidth hosting or rock-solid high-bandwidth hosting -- and, of course, you might discover that you have flaky high-bandwidth hosting -- but you can't buy rock-solid low-bandwidth hosting.
As you pay more for hosting, you get more storage and more bandwidth. But to get real reliability, you have to pay a lot of money or do it yourself.
Why does that matter? Do small and medium-sized businesses need rock-solid low-bandwidth hosting? Well, they don't right now, but they will in the near future. Otherwise, they will risk being left out as the Internet evolves.
Much discussion of .NET and similar platforms focuses on the fact that the client end can run on any device; but in my view, the back end, where multiple computers can be seamlessly connected with XML, is even more important.
Let's step back a bit and talk about Windows and device drivers. The actual core Windows code has never printed a single character, displayed a single pixel or sent a single network packet. Device drivers that interface with PC hardware have done all of this.
A company selling hardware for Windows needs to provide a device driver. This is a slight disadvantage for smaller companies because the cost of writing a device driver is more or less fixed.
But a company selling fewer units of hardware has fewer sales over which to amortize the device driver cost. Despite this, writing device drivers is not that complicated, and once it's done, it's done.
Moving over to the world of .NET, the "device drivers" in this model are Web sites maintained by companies that provide services to the .NET cloud. The Microsoft-provided .NET core will be the intermediary, directing requests to those Web sites (just as Windows directs requests to device drivers), but the Web sites will do the actual work (printing, credit-card processing, etc).
Once a company sells someone a device driver, its work is basically done -- the user has the hardware and the device driver. With these two pieces in place, the user doesn't need anything else. A company or a computer store can buy from a small manufacturer once they are confident the product works. Companies have Web sites for support, but if they go down for a while, users will try again later.
In the new world, those sales are not one-shot deals. The "device driver" Web sites need to be available all the time. Small and medium-sized manufacturers have to maintain a Web site that is just as reliably available as the big boys' sites; otherwise, they will lose sales to the big companies. Unlike the cost of writing a device driver, this is an ongoing expense.
What the user sees as a single transaction may fan out at the back end into many smaller transactions farmed out to different Web sites. The "client" for those Web sites is not a tolerant user, but is instead a computer maintained by a large company. If one of those sites has problems staying up, then the company that is fronting the transaction will toss that site out and replace it with a different one.
What is needed are Web hosting companies that charge for reliability first and storage/bandwidth later. It shouldn't be that hard; right now, it is expensive to maintain a guaranteed 24/7 Web site.
But hosting companies could start to run multiple low-bandwidth Web sites on a single instance of expensive reliable hardware, just as today they host multiple low-bandwidth Web sites on a single instance of not-so-expensive, not-so-reliable hardware.
The concept of providing software as a Web service, with its reduced requirements for distribution and inventory, could be a boon for small software companies. But if the cost of hosting a reliable Web site remains prohibitive, Web services instead will raise the barrier to entry even higher than it is now.
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over ten years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, " Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," was published in December 2000. He lives in Redmond, Washington. Adam can be reached for response to this column by e-mailing him at: Adam Barr