Switching Web Host: A Handy Guide

Posted in Featured Article on May 20th, 2010 |

The infamous Twitter server down image

Moving to a new hosting provider perhaps is the best thing to do when your current web host could not keep up with your website needs. While switching web host maybe a little troublesome for some but it’s often bring more benefits in the long run. Especially if you are stuck with a lousy web host (unstable server, slow network… etc etc), a web host switch is the only way to solve such issue once and for all.

In this article, we will look into the necessary preparation work before making the transition. Generally, there are 4 major steps to be done when you are moving to a new host:

  1. Find a good web host, sign up for an account.
  2. Move web files and migrating database to the new web host.
  3. Transfer domain to the new web host by changing the DNS.
  4. Cancel the old web host subscription and shut down the old website.

Let’s go into details on each of these steps.

1. Find a good web host that suits your hosting needs

First thing first, you need to find a new web host before you can prepare for the switch.

We know this may sound a little stupid but it is the first to-do and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you look into the statistics, many webmasters choose their web host without doing much research (perhaps that is one of the major reasons why people switch web host along the way – lack of research and planning). It’s not about finding the best web host, it’s about picking up a reliable web host that provides all the necessary features. You don’t need to have the fastest server or widest script coverages or best server technology or cheapest plan – it’s about knowing your needs and making financial-wise decision (hence, see our user based web hosting reviews).

A few important features that you should look into are like number of allowed databases, addon domains FTP access points as well as auto script installation and live chat support facilities. You have to always remember that not all the hosting packages are the same and it is your job to filter the good ones from the bad. Also, note that the reputation of the web hosting provider is also very important – read webmaster reviews and customer feedbacks in blog and forums – just to make sure the hosting company is doing alright.

2. Backup and move everything to the new web host

When you have made up your mind on your hosting provider, the next step is to do a complete back up of your website to a new safe location. You can store it anywhere you want be it your desktop or hard drive and etc but make sure you have two copies of each data and yes this applies to your email address as well as PHP setting files.

If you have a static website, simply copy the entire file structure over to the new webhost and you’re done. Harder is something like a blog, which usually has a MySQL or other database for storing posts. Harder still is some e-commerce site that has to have its database kept in a sync’ed state. In that case, you might have to set up database replication between the old location and the new location while you are doing the transition.

3. Transferring your domain name to a third party registrant

If your domain name is registered with your old host, make sure you transfer the domain name to a different registrant before your current host realise that you are terminating their service. Note that this is a very important step because we don’t want anything attached with the old web host that we are getting rid of. (Side note: In case you haven’t register a domain before, always remember not to register your domain together with your web host.)

If your domain is already registered with a third party registrant in the first place, well things will be much easier, simply change the nameserver pointing to your new web host. A nameserver normally looks something like ‘ns#.hostname.com’ – for example if you are operating on Hostgator, your DNS will look something like ‘NS13.Hostgator.com’. You’ll normally get the details about your nameserver (from hosting provider) when you first signup and you’ll need to submit these ‘names’ to your domain registrant. Figure below, for example, shows where is the nameserver is input in GoDaddy.

Switching a domain via Godaddy

A little more on Domain Name System (DNS)

So, what’s a DNS? From Wikipedia:

The Domain Name System (DNS) is a hierarchical naming system for computers, services, or any resource connected to the Internet or a private network. It associates various information with domain names assigned to each of the participants. Most importantly, it translates domain names meaningful to humans into the numerical (binary) identifiers associated with networking equipment for the purpose of locating and addressing these devices worldwide. An often used analogy to explain the Domain Name System is that it serves as the "phone book" for the Internet by translating human-friendly computer hostnames into IP addresses. For example, www.example.com translates to

The Domain Name System makes it possible to assign domain names to groups of Internet users in a meaningful way, independent of each user’s physical location. Because of this, World Wide Web (WWW) hyperlinks and Internet contact information can remain consistent and constant even if the current Internet routing arrangements change or the participant uses a mobile device. Internet domain names are easier to remember than IP addresses such as (IPv4) or 2001:db8:1f70::999:de8:7648:6e8 (IPv6). People take advantage of this when they recite meaningful URLs and e-mail addresses without having to know how the machine will actually locate them.

The Domain Name System distributes the responsibility of assigning domain names and mapping those names to IP addresses by designating authoritative name servers for each domain. Authoritative name servers are assigned to be responsible for their particular domains, and in turn can assign other authoritative name servers for their sub-domains. This mechanism has made the DNS distributed, fault tolerant, and helped avoid the need for a single central register to be continually consulted and updated. In general, the Domain Name System also stores other types of information, such as the list of mail servers that accept email for a given Internet domain. By providing a worldwide, distributed keyword-based redirection service, the Domain Name System is an essential component of the functionality of the Internet.

In layman’s term, a Domain Name System (DNS) is basically the pointer that leads your domain name to the web host.

Better planning to smoothen the transition process

There are a few other optional things can be done before making the DNS switch.

Firstly, it is best to choose of peak time where the traffic to your website will be at the least. This is to ensure any errors during the changes made during the transition will have minimal effect on the visitors. In case your new hosting provider doesn’t provide 24/7 technical support, you might want to adjust your switching time so that immediate technical assistance is available in case things go wrong.

A checklist or to-do list comes handy during the switch. Make sure you check and test everything after the switch – database connections, file permissions and applications scripts – these are some of the important items that need to be working properly at all time.

Last but not least , it’s always recommended to inform your visitors about the move before switching the DNS this is to reduce the negative outcomes if anything goes wrong during the transition.

4. Shut down the old website.

Next, all you need to do is to wait for the DNS change to propagate through the net and you are done. The propagate process normally takes 24-72 hours and after this, you can simply cancel off the old web host subscription and shut down the old website.


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