Future of web hosting?

(Ping! Zine Issue 27) – With most web hosts’ advertisements focusing on low prices and special offers, one might fail to notice how far the industry has developed technologically. In fact, web hosting has undergone a revolution in recent years. 

A look at a large web host’s website can reveal just how far web hosting services have progressed over the past 15 years. Web hosts now offer point-and-click solutions for web design, communication, collaboration and e-commerce. The concept of the web hosting ‘package’ has meant that hosting as an entity has changed dramatically over this period, with value-added features becoming increasingly important.

The changing role of the web host
In the mid 90s, many of the first web hosts were started as experiments and frequently developers rented out space on servers as a way of financing other projects. As the Internet grew, web hosts began to develop more user-friendly services tailored towards the increasing number of new web users as well as IT professionals. Automation of back-end processes such as domain registration helped to lower prices and speed up the business of getting online. In these early days, it was the role of a web host to provide web space as reliably as possible and the technique platform for solutions programmed by internet experts.

In recent years, web hosts like 1&1, were challenged with educating new user groups such as SMBs and individuals and achieved this through mass marketing and a ‘one-stop-shop’ approach. The ‘do-it-yourself website’ has been no less than a revolution in empowering all levels of user to take to the Internet.

Gradually web hosting packages have developed to bundle web builders and applications for added functionality and ease of use. Today’s web hosting packages cost from only $10 a month and include web content, development tools and sophisticated online marketing and interactive features. As well as hosting, large web hosts now offer a range of email products, eShops, dedicated servers and Exchange solutions.
In 2008, there seems to be no end of reasons why people use web solutions to communicate – photo galleries, family sites, hobby sites, baby sites etc.  Personal web solutions are fast becoming a must-have for consumers. Lower prices and good customer service have led all types of user to experiment online. Web hosts have been instrumental in enabling the Internet to bring people together. 

For business users, the ever-increasing importance of the Internet now means that the hosting of their website is an essential business service, with the stability, performance and flexibility of hosting potentially business-critical issues. For professional web developers, the web host delivers more than just a chunk of web space. Hosts today provide advanced tools and applications to make development easier and facilitate the most glittering websites. The latest dedicated server and e-commerce packages benefit from technologies originally designed for enterprise level users.

Where is web hosting heading?
Web hosts will continue to focus on facilitating the best possible websites. As web users demand more sophisticated sites, hosts will need to deliver the technical performance and features to create them. Web 2.0 and 3.0 promise a greater degree of interactivity and the websites of tomorrow are likely to become as personalized as their authors. 

For the personal website owner, I believe that their website is likely to become an interface onto a wider set of personal web services. Web hosts will be at the center of this change and provide search tools and collaboration software integrated. The web hosting of the future will allow individuals to combine their web presence with their personal communication, personal web services and access to their personal media such as photos, mp3s, documents, etc.

Once such web services are integrated into our lives, one will be able to share and collaborate with each other online with far less restrictions than at present. Personal websites will form our individual gateways to the digital age and hosting will be integral.

The role of the web host will certainly change in-line with mainstream requirements for hosting or housing data. Hosting services are becoming an increasingly powerful method of storing data, but current offerings such as SharePoint hosting are concerned with the business user. I believe that the most exciting developments in hosting will be for home users and a key driver will be our desire to access our media on the move. 
The ‘hidden hosting’ of hard-drive data by web hosts will be liberating as it will enable flexibility and mobility, such as access to a favorite movie file anytime from a handheld device. The hosting of data will provide the cheapest and simplest option for the consumer to centralize all their media, emails and documents in one secure place where they can easily retrieve them. Hosts and ISPs will certainly be the best equipped to provide such services as they hold the infrastructure, such as data centers, needed to host data securely, efficiently and cost effectively. And unlike search engines, they’re not interested in scanning private data for optimizing their advertisement incomes.
Today, the transfer of data can often be a cumbersome process. Unprecedented levels of both business and personal data will drive the production of affordable connectivity. This will benefit the home user in a variety of ways. With better connectivity, the user will be able to shift their data around far more easily and exercise more choice about the services they use to house and access it. Our personal data will be valued highly, and its storage viewed much like a savings account. Web hosts will need to work hard to maintain a high quality service for millions of users. 

We are already seeing affordable solutions emerge for centralized email and data handling. For example, some web hosts offer programs like Microsoft Exchange with centralized calendars, contacts and other collaboration features for both business and private users. Open Source software will be important in bringing such products to market quickly and at low prices. While these solutions are currently tailored to business users, equivalent consumer level web services will take off in a similar fashion. 

This breed of application, or Software as a Service (SaaS), will become as popular as PC-based software. SaaS has some great benefits for the user. All the technicalities such as the installation and security updates are managed by the host. The user receives the full benefit with no fuss. 1&1 has recently implemented as the first web host a new standard developed by SWSoft for integrating open source software into hosting environments. Such developments will help web hosts to deliver a broader range of hosted software. This model will also enable software to be brought to market swiftly.

Web hosts will undoubtedly help shape the future of the Web. With ubiquitous access and easier interaction, the Internet will see wider participation and collaborative platforms will lead to greater collective intelligence. For corporations and e-tailers, both business-level hosting and consumer-level web services will provide an essential link between consumers and the business world. 

Corporations are likely to sponsor or giveaway software that helps them to connect to their audiences and enhance their sales. Businesses will need to embrace online communities far more than they do today. As online communication becomes more sophisticated, the social and economic value of the web will continue to increase.
Moving through the 21st Century, the Internet promises exciting possibilities for communication.  The hosting of personal media and hosted applications will play a major part in achieving the potential of Web 2.0 and 3.0 – access, interaction, influence. Web hosts must keep apace of innovation as they have a vital part to play in keeping all participants connected.

Andreas’s Top 5 Predictions
1.Personal sites will become an interface onto a wider set of personal web services
2.Centralized hosting of hard drive data will be provided by web hosts
3.Software-as-a-service will take off with small companies
4.Collaboration tools for home users will enhance communication 
5.The web will continue to inspire and surprise!

Writer’s Bio: Andreas is the Chairman of the Board of 1&1 Internet and is based in Karlsruhe, Germany.  Having formed his first company at the age of 16, Andreas went on to create Germany’s hosting pioneer Schlund & Partner, and later co-found 1&1 Internet, the world’s largest web hosting provider.  At 1&1, Andreas is responsible for the products and strategic direction of the company. Having founded the technical wing of the business, he remains engaged with 1&1’s R&D program and likes to participate in new projects and product launches.