I want a really good website but I don’t want to pay for it!


Before you read any further, you need to ask yourself some questions. What do you actually want?

  • A social networking site such as Myspace?
  • A freebie site such as Moonfruit?
  • A freebie to host  pictures like Flickr, Photobucket or even GarfNet Pictures?

Or do you want a fully functioning business website that you can edit and mold around your business model? 

  • Do you want your own domain name?
  • And if you had this super-duper business-grade site, what would you use it for exactly?
  • How would it add to your business?
  • Would it serve any administrative purpose for you?
  • How would it attract clients?
  • Are you considering any sort of on-line booking or selling system?

Please see links at the end of this article for more information regarding any of the software, terminology or systems described herein.

Technical decisions 

Then there is the an important technical decision to make. Do you want to write each page on your site individually using HTML (hypertext markup language)? Or do you want to use a CMS (content management system) where your site content is stored in an underlying database and the html pages are effectively wrtten for you. In any event, you must understand is that there is no “silver bullet” here.  Firstly there is a world of difference between a freebie site and a proper business-grade professional site.

Secondly, proper, individually designed professional sites will cost you. They will either cost in terms of the money needed to hire the professional expertise required. Or they will cost you hundreds or perhaps even thousands of hours learning all the skills required.

You can short-cut this a little by arranging cheap hosting that supports PHP rogramming language & MySQL database and running open source software LAMP-based (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) CMS’s such as Coppermine, Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Gallery, Moodle etc., like we do here at GarfNet. Nevertheless it still requires a lot of time and expertise to turn these off-the-shelf products into individually engineered sites that truly represent your business. 

Web hosting decisions

Now you need to consider where you want to host your site? First there are the free hosts such as EasySpace. Trouble is your site willl be plagued with advertising. For fee, these adverts can be removed. But even if you pay for professional quality hosting, many of these companies severely limit what software you can run on your site. This means you are stuck with hand-writing your pages in HTML or using whatever CMS the service provider provides. But there is another way, if you are prepared to make the intellectual effort to understand it…

Web hosting for grown ups 

I’m a believer in good old fashioned, “grown up”, self-managed web hosting. This is where you run the site yourself remotely via Unix apps such as SSH and RSYNC. I have two big sites run in this fashion…

1. GarfNet, (my personal virtual playspace) lives on a linux box I built and keep in the offices of a pal of mine who runs a small web design business about 2km down the road from my office. I have both physiacl and remote access to this machine and this probably gives me the most freedom one could possibly enjoy with regard to website management. The deal is I can do pretty much whatever I want – install large hard drives, my choice of OS & software etc. – but in his words “don’t sublet and don’t take the pxxx!” So I can allow users to upload pictures etc., but I cannot assign domain names here.

2. DEOSS – development & education via open source systems. DEOSS has become my business site as I adopt an ever increasing preference for open source. This is hosted by a fantastic UK-based ISP called Bytemark. York-based Byetmark describes itself as the “geeks host of choice.” I am currently using one of their largest virtual machines but as I acquire more customers I will be upgrading to a rack in the near future. Either way you have you choice of Operating system and software. So you can install one or several CMS’s and you can assign domain names yourself too. It is utterly brilliant! I don’t have physical access to the server but I do have full remote access.

As it happens, Bytemark also hosts the UK end of the Debian Linux project and has a leading Debian developer on its team. You can also contact Bytemark easily by telephone and speak to a real human with a decent amount of technical knowledge.

Downside is you really need to know what you are doing. I.e. whilst Bytemark takes full responsibility for hardware issues – and in my experience addresses these very quickly indeed, it is my responsibility to make sure the software you use works and is secure. Bytemark will do software maintenance and repairs for me as well, if I wish but I would have to pay extra for it. I been using Bytemark for 15 months. I originally came from a predominantly Windoze background. My formerly scant UNIX knowledge has come on in leaps and bounds in that time – though I freely admit I still have a great deal to learn! Self-managed hosting truly has been an education!

Important considerations for self-managed solutions

  1. They really do run best on UNIX-based OS’s. This is because OS & software installation, upgrades and security patches can all easily be done on line. Windoze is way, way behind on that score. And many open source CMS’s prefer Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP too. I use Debian 4.0 on all my webservers.
  2. They are much easier to manage if your PC is also UNIX based because you can use unix tools. My g/f and I run Kubuntu Linux on our laptops. This means we can use FISH c/w Konquerer as a secure graphical file manager for remote servers. And then we have the benefits of RSync for complete, secure mirrored backups of our sites directly to our PCs.
  3. The ability to control you server via SSH (secure shell) is the real key to this. SSH is a secure, command line utility that lets you do pretty much everything on your web server as if you were working on your local PC, including installing and upgrading software. Again it works much better if both ends are UNIX-based, though you can also also run it on a Windoze client if you install freeware app called PuTTY

Final thoughts

I have been working on websites since the early/mid 1990’s. Thanks to so-called “Web 2.0”  technologies, I still spend as much time reading and researching as I do actually building sites & WebOnCD’s.

DEOSS – which deploys a lot of Web 2.0 stuff – has taken me a staggering 2000 man-hours to develop. Admittedly most of that time was spent learning the vagaries of Moodle, developing on-line courses and teaching others to develop courses of their own.

Nevertheless, producing high quality and feature-rich websites means heck of a lot of work and I am not out of the proverbial “woods” yet by any means. Indeed, I expect to go to my grave “still learning”!

If I can be of any assistance to you in your decision making process then please contact me via our contact form.

Useful links

Related Images: