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How websites and emails work: The simple answer.

It’s fair to say in the year 2017 that you either work for a company who has a website or you have one yourself. That’s why I find it surprising how little thought, me included initially, we give to how things work on the back end to make sure they work for us on the front. Hopefully by the end of this post you will have a better understanding of how it all works and you can make an informed decision when offered hosting products.

Being a lover of analogies here is how I like to explain it all…

A website is a house, hosted on a block of land

Let’s call your website a house. It’s broken into sections that all have a unique purpose for example the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and laundry. Each of these rooms contain things that are relevant to that room – for example the bathroom contains a shower – so does a website contain folders. Each folder has files inside specific to certain sections and functionality of the website.

You need to ensure that the hosting package meets the needs of your website – your developer will help with this. For example, is the block of land large enough for your house – does the hosting package have enough space to store all your website files?

Your domain name is the address

You can’t have a house without an address just as you can’t have a website without a domain name. It must sit somewhere to exist, it’s how people find you. Your house and your address (hosting and domain) link together to make things work.

There’s a worldwide system of records called DNS (the Domain Name System) which acts as a kind of phone book. Your domain name’s DNS records tell it where to send users looking for your website, and where to send your email – whether that be to the same location as your website, or to a dedicated post office where you rent a PO Box.

The letterbox is your email hosting

Most hosting packages you can purchase will include basic email hosting. You don’t see this cost itemised separately – but it should be. What many business owners don’t realise is that high-quality, robust email hosting is a separate product.

You could consider the types of email hosting like this:

A letterbox at your house’s front door

In this instance, your web hosting server is also hosting your email. There’s a few ways this can be set up:

  • POP: You pick up your mail from the front door and store it in your filing cabinet. You set up an email client such as Outlook or Apple Mail and download your emails to your computer, removing them from the server.
  • IMAP: You pick up your mail from the front door, copy it, and keep one copy in your filing cabinet and leave the original at the door. IMAP is like POP except a copy of everything is kept on the server and so can be synced to multiple devices.
  • Webmail: You read your mail at the door and leave it there. You don’t set up an email client, instead logging into a basic webmail interface using a web browser.

Because your email is on the same server as your website, it’s a safe assumption that if your website is down, so is your email service. This can be stressful, especially if your business relies heavily on email correspondence. There are also other considerations that can cause you headaches such as:

  • Low storage space on an IMAP account (or if using webmail) getting full and needing to manually copy emails that you need to keep onto your computer.
  • If you don’t back up POP emails regularly, you could lose them if something happens to your computer.
  • POP emails don’t sync across devices so this is an inappropriate choice if you need to access email on more than one computer, tablet, and/or smartphone.
  • Slow delivery – Due to the demand on resources by websites of a shared web hosting server, you may experience delayed receipt of emails. Requesting a check too often (by clicking “Receive Mail”, “Check for Messages”, etc. in your email client) can even get you blocked by your host in some cases.
  • Lower priority support – as web hosts are in the business of web hosting and integrated email hosting is secondary, your provider may not be able to highly prioritise issues with your email. Uptime guarantees may not apply to email.
  • Fewer features – You might not get features such as calendars, high-quality spam filtering, etc.
  • Most web hosting servers are shared between several clients. Unfortunately, this means if someone uses the same server that you’re on to send spam, other mail servers can blacklist the server and bounce all incoming mail from that server – including yours! It takes time for your server to be removed from a blacklist and often your web hosting provider simply does not have the power to speed up the process.
  • Difficulty moving to a new web host – migrating emails can be a lengthy process and can incur downtime.

A PO Box

In this scenario, you have an email hosting package which is hosted completely separately to the website. A dedicated email hosting provider is like a post office for email – much more secure, has more people looking after it 24/7, and it deals primarily in email. They may also offer you additional services, like how you might go to the post office to get a passport – but they have separate servers and separate support staff for those services.

If you rely heavily on email and can’t afford for your email to not work if your hosting goes down, this is the option for you. It’s also a great option if you also want to be able to share and sync calendars, and store, edit and share files in the cloud.

Larger, dedicated email hosting providers will run an integrated package for you syncing across multiple devices and across a variety of features you would get from an Exchange server such as:

  • Huge storage space (e.g. Microsoft Office 365 includes 50GB).
  • High uptime (some services will even include an uptime guarantee).
  • Enterprise-class spam filtering.
  • Fast receipt of emails.
  • Ability to sync email, calendars, and contacts across all your devices.
  • Shared calendars.
  • Very unlikely that your server will be blacklisted.
  • Specialist support (often 24/7).
  • Easy self-management – add and remove user accounts yourself, everyone can set their own out-of-office messages, etc.
  • For some services, enterprise administration features such as archiving and retention policies, and audit reports to track user activity.
  • Moving your website to a new hosting provider has no effect on your email hosting.
  • In some cases, features and additional services extend well beyond email. For example, Google’s G Suite includes Google Docs, Drive, Calendars, Hangouts and more. Microsoft Office 365 plans include Office Online, 1TB storage and file sharing on OneDrive and a range of collaboration and communication tools; plans from Business Premium and above include a subscription to the full Microsoft Office Suite.

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