- General Best Practices
Tech Tuesday is a vlog series for directors of technology at schools and districts. Finalsite's sales engineer Rob Rawcliffe and our recent cybersecurity grad Cristina Pawlica will discuss a variety of topics in education technology every other week. In this episode of Tech Tuesday, Cristina and Rob discuss an important question: Why does hosting location matter? Listen in to learn about hosting location, Google Cloud and Cloudflare, and what impact this can all have on your school or district's website.
Cristina Pawlica: Hi, and welcome to a Tech Tuesday, a video series for directors of technology working in education. My name is Christina, I've been with Finalsite for almost two years now. I'm also finishing up my master's degree in Cybersecurity with Denver University. So I'm here to talk all things tech with Rob. Rob, would you like to introduce yourself?
Rob Rawcliffe: Yep, my name's Rob Rawcliffe. I've been with Finalsite for very close to eight years now, before that I was at a couple of different schools in Connecticut. One was a middle school, one was a high school. And so I've always been interested in tech and it's kind of nice to use that skill base, in my current position as Sales Engineer.
Cristina Pawlica: Awesome. So we're going to specifically talk about hosting today, what it is, what makes Finalsite unique in the hosting field, especially for the school market. So let's get started. What is web hosting?
Rob Rawcliffe: So, web hosting is where your physical pages for your site live, at a very basic level. And so those can be media files, text files, HTML files, whatever they may be, it's where they live. And the address that you give to people, references that. So if I go to Finalsite.com, I am receiving files from Finalsite servers and that allows me to view the page of the website.
Cristina Pawlica: Got it. So is all hosting the same?
Rob Rawcliffe: Not really, no. There's a lot of different providers out there based on what kind of need you have, so there are hosting providers for smaller businesses, there's hosting providers for bigger enterprise-type servers, and then authentication, all those kinds of services that you may come across. They can be hosted virtually in the cloud and that's because the cloud services back when I was in the early days, like early two thousands, we used to host our own web services and we would have our own server.
Rob Rawcliffe: We had a DMZ, which is like a demilitarized zone, a computer that was isolated from the network basically, and that housed all our internet. And so it was a whole different setup we had to manage, you have to update, you had to maintain and all that. And so that has now really just moved, it's been virtualized and it's been moved over into the cloud. So you don't really need to do that.
Rob Rawcliffe: So basically your hosting can be as complex or as simple as you want. If you need databases, you can host databases in the cloud and you can really do as much as you want or as little as you want at the lowest level, just hosting HTML pages and images is probably the cheapest way that you can host a website.
Cristina Pawlica: All right. So you told me a little bit about what to look for in a web host based on who you are in particular. I hear a lot about uptime and speed. Can you tell me a little bit about what is uptime and why is that important?
Rob Rawcliffe: Yeah, uptime is, it's a really interesting statistic actually, and what you will find is it's measured as a percentage. So nobody has a hundred percent uptime, you're going to find most companies are at 99.997, 998, something like that. And the higher it gets, the better it is. So if you've got a company that's saying 99.999, then that's really, really good because that means their downtime is minimal for the entire year.
Rob Rawcliffe: So when you're talking about uptime, you're really talking about the amount of time of that server is up and serving pages. Now that is different from the uptime that a client may experience because there's all sorts of different things that go on on a network between the server and your client's machines. So it could be anything like your ISP, your local internet service provider, they could go down, there could be something with a DNS record that isn't working. There could be something with the actual server that isn't working or power supplies, all those kinds of things all come into play. So when you're talking about uptime, you really want to be specific, are you talking about server uptime or are you talking about actual uptime for the client? So different distinctions there.
Cristina Pawlica: When we talk about hosting, are they typically talking about hosting or server uptime?
Rob Rawcliffe: They're typically talking about sever uptime, yes, because obviously I could have a different experience living in Oregon than I could in Montana than I could in Florida or something like that. Because everybody's connections obviously are a little bit different based on where you live and what kind of internet connection you have. So I know some people are still on dial up, for example, so yeah, definitely going to get different experiences.
Cristina Pawlica: Speaking of dial up, can you tell me how speed is incorporated into hosting?
Rob Rawcliffe: Yeah, so hosting, usually they have quite a large bandwidth coming from the servers, whoever you're hosting with. Sometimes they will tell you what that is, sometimes it doesn't really matter because they have access to a huge pipe and you know, you're never really going to use that. So yeah, speed is important, there's two different kinds of speed. There's upload speed and download speed. Upload speed is when your loading files to the network that typically can be a little bit slower because obviously you don't need to have a huge amount of bandwidth to push files up to your server. Download speed, I have to learn how to talk. Download speed is more important because that's really measuring how fast your webpage is going to load, how much content you can push through your cables and to your computer, basically.
Cristina Pawlica: That makes sense. What other things should you look for in a hosting provider?
Rob Rawcliffe: Reliability, flexibility, geographic location is usually quite an important one. You're going to get a good mix of different providers, some of them are going to be larger and they're going to have different geographic locations. For example, Google, Amazon Web Services, large global providers going to have multiple instances of locations. Google have got a number in the US, Amazon Web Services have also got a number of different worldwide locations. So if I have got a client base in Africa, I want to make sure that my connection to the server is good for those people that are going to be viewing it. So if it's a worldwide audience, you want to have something called a CDN, which is a content delivery network, if you don't have a worldwide network of computers or if you're not hosting worldwide. So CDNs are great because they allow you to do caching kind of local rather than having an individual server close to everybody. Does that make sense?
Cristina Pawlica: Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit more about what caching is, exactly?
Rob Rawcliffe: Yeah. So caching is really kind of storing parts of your website and that happens on a number of different layers. It happens on your local computer, it can happen at your local internet provider and then it can happen at the national level in different data centers and things like that. So what it basically is, is it's taking an image or a resource from your website and it's storing it locally. So that if that is needed again for another page, it doesn't have to go out to the internet and download it again. It already says, Oh, you know what, the Finalsite logo, I downloaded this when I first downloaded the homepage. So I can just use that image over and over again, whenever I go to a different page in Finalsite, I don't have to keep reloading it. And so that really helps with your speed of your website, the more caching that you're doing or the more caching that is being done for you, the better and more responsive your site is going to be with your load times and things like that.
Cristina Pawlica: Gotcha. So it's kind of like if I go to Finalsite.com all the time, it has that, what I just got there instead of the back ends going all the way to Baltimore to pick up the information for that site and bring it all the way back to me each time.
Rob Rawcliffe: Exactly. Yeah. So instead of, if I am viewing a website that is coming from 3000 miles away, instead of receiving all those files from 3000 miles away, I may only receive one. So while that website is loading, it's getting the resource that it needs from that server and then the experience is a lot better for the end user. And like I said, if somebody in your area has already looked at that website and the local caching server has already got some of those resources, it's going to send you those resources directly just to speed things up and just reduce some of the load on the network, really.
Cristina Pawlica: All right. So I hear a lot about CloudFlare. Can you tell me who they are, what they do and why they're talked about so often?
Rob Rawcliffe: Yeah. Cloudflare, they're a really interesting service. They do a lot of our CDN content delivery and they also do DDoS mitigation and DDoS is denial of service attacks, basically. Sorry, stands for distributed denial of service. Basically that's when you request too many pages from a server and the server kind of panics and overloads and can't get all the requests out. And then that eventually brings it down. So what Cloudflare have done is they monitor who is asking for those requests and they can slow those requests down, or they can stop people requesting as many requests from a certain IP address, so they can manage and they really help to keep your website up and running because they can serve content number one, but they can also kind of control how many requests and how many people are asking for certain things.
Rob Rawcliffe: So it's a really nice provider and they also do some encryption as well. So that while we are asking for pages, they're actually encrypting some of it and sending us the cached version through their encryption. So not only is it secure, it improves speed and it also stops some of those DDoS mitigation, which can bring down your website.
Cristina Pawlica: So they're protecting you from bots and prioritizing legitimate users that are actually coming to your site.
Rob Rawcliffe: Exactly. Yeah.
Cristina Pawlica: Okay. So let's get into what Finalsite does and how that might be a little bit different. So, who does final site host with?
Rob Rawcliffe: So Finalsite are hosting with Google Cloud right now and we use Cloudflare as a service. They do all our DDoS mitigation, like I just said, and our CDN. So as well as having all the geographic locations that we can host from, with Google Cloud, like London, Hong Kong, and a number of different places in the US. We also have that CDN or edge network where if I am browsing a webpage in Africa or Europe or whatever, I'm going to get a website from one of their physical locations that is closest to me, not necessarily all the way in London or all the way over in the US, so our software is proprietary. All our databases are hosted on the cloud and they're containerized, so they're secure. And if they do need more resources, we can increase those resources on the fly, on the server right away. So it's a really nice dynamic way of hosting everything. And it really takes a lot of that worry away from the client because we're going to handle it, the SSL certificates, we're going to handle everything pretty much everything apart from your DNS records.
Cristina Pawlica: Okay. So what is a SSL?
Rob Rawcliffe: So your SSL is a secure way of communicating between websites. So an SSL certificate basically says that a server is who it is, and that stops people kind of jumping in and intercepting your traffic, and then maybe doing something bad with your website or information that is coming from your computer. So the SSL certificate is going to make the website more secure and it just gives you an extra peace of mind or a layer of security that when you're submitting data is not getting viewed by other people.
Cristina Pawlica: And that's that little lock in the top right next to the website?
Rob Rawcliffe: That's right. Yeah. If you look up at the top in your browser, you're going to say a little lock and that just dictates whether it's secure or not. And sometimes nowadays, when you go to a website it's not secure, your browser will actually say, this is not a good certificate or it's not encrypted or whatever. And that's usually because the SSL certificate.
Cristina Pawlica: Does that usually come with hosting like it does that Finalsite?
Rob Rawcliffe: You'll find that if it's a lower cost, you probably have to buy an SSL certificate on top of that, as it does come with it, we try to make everything a lot easier for everybody, but yeah, if you are buying hosting, just make sure that you are getting like for like, and if you were paying for a certain amount of hosting, you're getting the physical location, you're getting the same download and upload speeds. And you're also getting those services like SSL included in that, because there can be a wide range of price.
Cristina Pawlica: So we talked about uptime and speed in the beginning of this conversation, what happens if there is something that interferes and you have downtime, what does the support look like at Finalsite? What can you do about it as a client?
Rob Rawcliffe: Yeah. So with any problem with Finalsite, you're going to want to reach out to support. Obviously you can do that with a support ticket, you can call the one 800 number, there is also an email, I won't give it out here just in case. But there is an email that everybody should be aware of that will create a support ticket and they will allow you to create a ticket and that will go through to support. And then they can look into the issue. If it is a problem with hosting, chances are we already know about it. We're probably on the backend and looking at how we can best solve that. If we know it's going to be down for a long time, then we're going to be looking at moving geographic locations. So if there's a problem with maybe like the South Carolina hosting, then we would be moving that to the middle of the country.
Rob Rawcliffe: And because everything is virtualized and it's containerized, we can do that really quickly, which is nice. So it really becomes, at what point did we decide this is going to take a little bit longer to repair. Do we need to move this to somewhere else where it's not going to be a problem or do we just repair it and then we're good to go. So usually we've got a whole team that deals with that, the infrastructure team, they have everything in hand and they manage all the Cloudflare and the hosting and everything you would need.
Cristina Pawlica: That sounds pretty easy. One last question that I get a lot from schools is, can we keep our domain name?
Rob Rawcliffe: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's really important in today's world, just to make sure you're having brand consistency and if people are used to one website, you want to keep that website. And so, yeah, basically we'll ask you to point your DNS servers to our servers and when you're ready and that will basically move your website. So you will go from seeing one website over to seeing your Finalsite website. It's a really nice, easy process, we do have a team that will help you with that if you're not quite confident with it. So it's usually a very, very smooth process and it's down to you when you want to make that change.
Cristina Pawlica: All right. Well, this has been extremely informative, I learned a lot. I wanted to close by saying what we're going to talk about next week, but I don't have those notes in front of me. What do you want to talk about next week?
Rob Rawcliffe: Sure, so after we just talked about hosting, I think one of the cool things that we are rolling out is something called HTTP/3, which could get really technical, but basically it's a new kind of protocol that will speed up the internet connection for you and your end-users. So, yeah, really cool, very excited about it. And I think you're going to see a lot more in the future about that.
Cristina Pawlica: All right. Well, I'm looking forward to it. It's been nice chatting with you and I will see you next Tuesday.
Rob Rawcliffe: Yep. Definitely looking forward to it. Thanks.
For more on school website hosting, read this blogs:
- Best Practices