The major objective of most hosting automation platforms is the simplification of the hosting process ? a streamlining of the technical elements of the business to enable small hosting providers to handle more customers than they otherwise could, and to enable larger providers to more efficiently and uniformly meet the needs of already-large customer bases.
Just as there are several layers to a Web hosting business, there are several layers to the solutions designed to automate the business ? with those layers addressed specifically or broadly by the various platforms for automation.
The front line of automation efforts deals directly with customer relationships, simplifying and expediting a potentially time consuming aspect of the business. By automating simple and common account-management tasks, hosting control panel software offloads a significant amount of repetitive and time-consuming work that would otherwise fall to a Web host.
Behind the customer-facing front of the Web hosting operation lies the back-end operation of the business itself, and another layer of automation. Automation tools addressing this layer automate back-end business processes, such as billing, and integrate with customer-facing solutions to automate technical tasks like account setup and server provisioning.
One of the more recent additions to the established set of automation tools is virtualization technology, software that enables hardware to be divided into smaller, virtual segments. A Web server, for instance, can be divided into hundreds, or thousands of virtual servers, enabling a hosting provider to offer its customers dedicated-like virtual servers at a reduced price.
The most overt function of control panel software is to place customers in more control of their hosting accounts. Through their control panels, customers can monitor their site size and settings, monitor bandwidth usage, easily change and update their Web sites, view comprehensive access logs, set up services such as email accounts and perform other basic administrative functions. With the added insight into, and control over, their hosting accounts, the benefit to customers is obvious. But the control panel?s greatest benefit is to the Web host, in the form of reduced support demands and the offloading of the host?s responsibility for many of those same basic administrative tasks.
While most hosting companies originally developed their control panels in-house, the software has become so essential to the operation of a hosting business that the selection of commercial control panels is now far more developed, and better supported, than anything a new hosting provider could hope to produce.
The more advanced products have begun to incorporate functions for search engine marketing, enabling customers to submit their Web sites to search engines. Many now also include file managers that can be used to delete or move files within a Web site?s directory structure.
Control panels are also the first step in the customer support system. Through them, customers can access knowledge bases and launch trouble tickets, further reducing the support load placed on the Web host.
Often tied to the control panel layer of the automation platform are tools for the automation of back-end Web hosting technical and business processes, such as account provisioning and billing, that flow from customer activity.
An automated hosting infrastructure can reduce the provisioning time for new shared or even dedicated hosting accounts. Not only does automated provisioning further reduce the workload on a Web host, but a fast turnaround can be a positive selling point for customers.
Automated billing systems can monitor account usage, generate invoices and automatically bill customers, simplifying a process that would otherwise become overwhelming for a growing Web hosting business. Without automated billing and provisioning systems in place, it would be impossible for a Web hosting business to grow beyond a limited number of customers. At this point, setting out in Web hosting without automating back office business process would be very limiting to a hosting company.
Virtualization, though it has undoubtedly taken hold, still represents something of a new frontier for the Web hosting business. And it?s a frontier that promises to make the whole Web hosting process even more efficient by enabling hosting providers to make the most of their resources.
Virtualization software enables a physical server to be divided into ?virtual? machines that operate as private, independent servers, enabling Web hosting providers to divide the cost of hardware and connectivity between customers without sacrificing privacy or performance. Using virtualized services, hosts are able to provide simulated dedicated hosting at a cost much less than that of truly dedicated hosting.
First designed to bridge the gap between shared hosting environments and customized dedicated servers, virtual private servers eliminate the restrictions of shared hosting by providing all the administrative functionality of a dedicated server. Each VPS has its own set of services that can be customized to its user?s specific needs. While shared hosting effectively divides server resources, customers are unable to customize their environments with root access. A virtual private server contains its own unique file system and CGI-BIN, disk space, system resources and bandwidth and memory allotments.
The virtual private server?s capacity for ?functional isolation? makes it a valuable hosting offering for a variety of customers, enabling them to install their own operating systems and applications. The technology is particularly valuable for e-commerce Web site operators, because it enables them to acquire and install their own security certificates and shopping cart software.
While it was originally developed to simplify and streamline the Web hosting process, automation has become a fundamental part of Web hosting technology. These days, It is difficult to imagine a credible Web hosting business operating without an automated control panel, and technology for the automation of back-end business processes like service provisioning and billing. And, as the technology develops, virtualization will no doubt find a similarly critical place in the Web hosting technology set.