An in-house Web server may be your ticket to cyberprosperity
Before you start designing your Web site, you have to decide where to store it: in-house or with an Internet service provider (ISP). Serving a Web site in-house is the more expensive option, but it's also smarter over the long run.
When the computer your Web site is on is just down the hall, it's cheaper and faster to experiment with the site's capabilities. You can change, update, and expand the site at will: if you want to gather customer feedback, update price listings, and tweak the site as your company grows, for instance, you can do so more quickly, easily, and economically with an in-house server. You can also link the Web site directly to other company resources -- sales or inventory or customer service, for example. If a visitor to your site suddenly decides he or she wants to order 10 million widgets right now, the on-site server can link the sale directly to your order-processing software.
Sounds like having an in-house Web-site server may be worth the money for your company? Then consider the equipment you'll need. The bare-bones setup for a typical small-business site of about 3 MB (roughly 30 pages with a few graphics) would be a 486 PC or PowerMac with 12 to 16 MB of RAM (32 MB is optimal), server software, a 28.8-Kb modem, and of course a staff person or a consultant to set up the server and maintain the Web site.
First the computer. It should have as much RAM as your company can afford because the more RAM, the faster the site can load for visitors. You also need a hard drive with at least a GB of memory, to store the Web site's graphics on. You may already have a 486 PC or a PowerMac you can assign to server duty. With a computer that basic, you shouldn't put anything but the Web site on it. One caveat: when a site on a bare-bones system becomes very popular, expect the system to crash often. And that may mean buying new hardware (usually more cost-effective than expanding the existing setup). If you're buying a new computer to use as your Internet server, a better starting point is a Pentium 120 with 16 to 32 MB of RAM and a 1.6-GB hard drive, for about $2,000.
Now the software. The cheapest option -- and the best option if you're fairly computer literate -- is to download shareware off the Internet. Visit Lycos, HotBot, or another search-engine site, and search by keywords: download, UNIX, LINUX, server, design, software. Most shareware is UNIX-based, so make sure someone at your company is familiar with that operating system. Training someone to set up and use a UNIX operating system like LINUX can cost more than buying an easier-to-use Windows-based software package off the shelf.
The phone lines that connect you to the Internet are what give users access to your Web site. Slow connections are the number-one turnoff to Web surfers. So the speed of those phone lines is key. A standard phone line connected to a 28.8-Kb modem, at about $20 a month, may be enough to start. But if you begin noticing that customers can't access your site, you'll want to upgrade to something faster -- say, a 56-Kb leased line or, better yet, a T1 leased line, which is the most a 486 PC or a PowerMac can handle. A 56-Kb line costs about $300 to $700 a month, and a T1 line, which can handle more hits than your company will probably ever get, runs about $1,000 to $3,000 a month. Whatever phone line you select, check with your phone company about installation before committing yourself to an on-line date for your Web site; there may be a waiting list.
A final consideration is who will set up and maintain the system. One option is to hire a consultant to get the server up and running and to advise you on matters like data security and linking the server to other areas of your company. Then you could designate or hire an employee to monitor the Web site for hits, to make sure it doesn't crash, and to handle ongoing changes to the site. A consultant may charge a few thousand dollars to set up the server and then $75 an hour or more for troubleshooting.
Because some ISPs charge as little as $30 a month to develop and host a basic Web site, creating an in-house server probably won't save you money at the outset. The payoff comes later, when your company uses its speed, flexibility, and responsiveness to outmaneuver the competition on the Internet.
Phaedra Hise (email@example.com) is a staff writer at Inc. Her book, Growing Your Business Online: Small Business Strategies for Working the World Wide Web, will be published by Henry Holt and Co. in November.
Here are several ways to access some of the most popular server-software packages that are currently available:
Netscape FastTrack Server and Netscape SuiteSpot, Netscape Communications, Mountain View, CA (415-937-3777, http://www.netscape.com). Cost: Netscape FastTrack Server, $295; Netscape SuiteSpot, $3,995.
The Web Server Book, by Jonathan Magid, R. Douglas Matthews, and Paul Jones, Ventana Communications Group, Research Triangle Park, NC (800-743-5369, http://www.vmedia.com). Cost: $49.95; on-line price, $42.46. This illustrated guide includes a companion CD-ROM with two common Internet server-shareware programs.
WebSite Professional and WebSite 1.1, from O'Reilly & Associates Inc., Sebastopol, CA (800-998-9938, http://software.ora.com). Cost: WebSite Professional, $499; WebSite 1.1, $249.