With the price of plans offered by quality hosts falling down to very affordable levels, only the simplest and less popular sites should consider being hosted by Geocities, Tripod, or other free hosts.  Some major differences are the number of features offered by paid hosts (like more disk space, access to multiple programming languages, databases, SSL servers, anon FTP, regular backup, guaranteed uptime, access to server configuration files like .htaccess and to raw logs and statistics), the forced ads and pop-ups required by free web space providers, better financial stability of paid companies, and the availability of technical support.  In short, if you expect to spend more than couple hours making your web site, go with a paid service.

Your next big decision should be whether to choose an NT or Unix-based host.  Which operating system you decide to use should depend on what features you need.  For example, if you are already using IIS, ASP, VBScript, Microsoft SQL Server, or Visual InterDev, and you don't have the time to learn Unix-based solutions, you should choose a Windows NT or Windows 2000-based host.  Linux- and FreeBSD-based operating systems and Apache Web servers are most common among web hosting companies because of their good track record of stability and performance and because they are free.  There is usually no need for the operating system of your computer to match that of your web host.  If you use Windows XP on your home computer, there is no reason you can't use a host that runs its servers on Linux.

Above excerpt from webhostingratings.com. Read more

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