WWW FAQs: How do I host my own website at home?

2008-08-18: You can host your own website at home, and I'll tell you exactly how! But it might not save you much money, and it definitely won't save you time. So give it serious thought before you proceed... unless your goal is simply to learn about the technology and have fun!

The best reason to host your website at home is to learn how it all works. For more information about the pros and cons, see should I host my own website?

Warning: running a server of any kind at home is a security risk. Security problems are sometimes found in server software, and these can be exploited to gain access to or damage your files. Your computer must be kept absolutely up to date with Windows Update or the equivalent for your operating system if you intend to run a web server on it. If you choose to run Apache instead of Internet Information Server, you'll need to keep your version of Apache absolutely up to date too. This doesn't eliminate the risk -- it only minimizes it. You run a server at home entirely at your own risk. If you do choose to run a server at home, I recommend finding an old PC on the curb and setting it up as your home server, reducing the danger to your own computer.

Procedures for other operating systems are similar, and most of these steps actually involve your router, so this article should still be helpful to non-Windows users.

Here are the steps to follow to set up a website hosted entirely on your own Windows PC. First I'll present the general steps, then I'll break down the details for you:

1. Make sure you have cable modem, DSL or another high-speed connection. A dialup telephone modem is NOT good enough.

2. Get a DNS hostname for your home Internet connection.

3. Get a static local IP address for your computer within your home network.

4. Configure your router to correctly forward connections on port 80 (the HTTP port) to your web server. Even if you think you don't have a router, you probably do— many popular cable and DSL modems include wifi or wired Ethernet jacks for multiple computers, which means they contain a built-in router. If your ISP blocks port 80, choose an alternative port number and forward that (or get a better ISP that welcomes websites at home, like Speakeasy.Net).

5. Configure Windows Firewall to allow your web server to communicate on port 80.

6. Get Apache, a free, high-quality web server program. If you have Windows XP Professional, you also have the option of Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS), which comes standard with Windows XP Professional. But that option only allows you to host one site. I recommend Apache.

7. Test your web server from your own computer.

8. Replace the default home page with your own web page. Now the site is your own!

9. Test your web server from a computer that is NOT on your home network to make sure you followed all of the steps correctly.

"I followed all the steps and I get my router's login page instead of my home page!"

You are trying to access your website by name from behind your router (from one of your own PCs). With some consumer-grade routers, this does not work because the router automatically assumes any web connection to itself from inside your network is an attempt to log into the router's configuration interface. It's a pain, but this fail-safe mechanism does prevent you from locking yourself out of your router's web interface. So test from outside your own home network or have a friend do that for you. If you can access your home-hosted website from someone else's computer, then you don't have a problem. If you want to access your site from a computer behind your router, you'll have to access it at its static local IP address instead of by name.
And that's it! Now I'll present detailed information about each step.

Step One: Broadband

Get cable modem (from the cable company) or DSL (from the phone company and various other companies). If you can't do that, you'll have to host your website in some other way. Your computer must have a fast connection to grapple with video and audio files anyway. You don't necessarily have to go with your phone company's DSL offering. Check out broadbandreports.com for independent reviews of cable modem and DSL companies. Upload speed, not download speed, is the most important feature for hosting websites at home.

"How fast will my home-based website be?"

The main limitation will be your upload speed (uplink speed). Most DSL or cable modem connections have an upload speed between 128kbps (128,000 bits per second) and 384kbps (384,000 bits per second).

So how long does it take to load your home page? Add up the size of your home page (in bytes), the sizes of all of the images on that page, and the size of any Flash movies (.swf files) or CSS style sheets (.css files) referenced by that page. Now multiply by 8 and you'll know how many bits make up your home page. Divide that by your upload speed and you'll have a rough idea how long it takes to load your home page under ideal conditions. There will also be latency delays slowing things down, and multiple users will of course slow things down and make it take longer. There is no fixed limit on the number of users who can access your home-based website at the same time - things just slow down.

For more information, see my article how fast is my website?

Step Two: Dynamic or Static DNS

Other people can't talk to your website if they don't know the address... and if you have a typical cable modem or DSL connection, your address changes often. You can solve this problem by using a dynamic DNS service. Even if your IP address doesn't change, you still need someone to host a DNS server for you, unless you are willing to put up with giving users a URL that begins with a string of numbers. This is a common requirement both for hosting websites at home and for hosting torrents, so I've written a separate article explaining how to get a hostname for your computer at home.

Step Three: A Static Local IP Address

If you have a router... and you do, if you have WiFi (wireless access) or more than one computer... then your computer receives a new local address on your home network, or Intranet, every time it is powered on. But to forward web browser connections to your computer, you need an unchanging address to forward those connections to. This is also a shared requirement both for hosting websites at home and for hosting torrents, so I've written a separate article explaining how to give your computer a static local IP address.

Step Four: Forwarding Port 80

If you don't have a router (and you know by now, if you have been following these steps...) then you can skip this step and move on to the next. If you have WiFi, or more than one computer, you definitely have a router and must not skip this step.

Now that you have chosen a static local IP for your computer, you're ready to configure the router to forward web traffic to your computer.

Again, this step is needed both for web hosting at home and for BitTorrent hosting. So, once again, there is a separate article explaining how to forward ports from the Internet to your computer via your router. Just follow the steps in that article to forward port 80.

Step Five: Allowing Web Traffic Through The Firewall

More firewall issues? Didn't we already do this? Only in part. Yes, your router serves as a firewall, but your computer also has a built-in firewall. You'll need to configure that firewall to allow traffic through on port 80 to reach your web server software. This step is also common to both web hosting and torrent hosting... so check out my article explaining how to allow traffic on specific ports through your computer's firewall.

Step Six: Get Apache Or Internet Information Server

Mac and Linux users: you already have Apache! MacOS X users should read Kevin Hemenway's great article on onlamp.com. Linux users: install the Apache packages and look in /var/www/html or a similar location for your website folder.
Apache is the most popular web server in the world, with nearly 70% of all websites running Apache as of January 2006, according to the netcraft web server survey. Why is it so popular? Because it's free, open-source, high-quality software. And you can run it on your Windows box at home!

If you have Windows XP Professional, you can also run Microsoft Internet Information Server. It comes free in the box... but only with XP Professional (and high-end server versions of Windows). If you have XP Home, or an older version of Windows, go with Apache - and consider upgrading to at least XP Home for better network performance.

I'll cover Apache first. Then I'll look at Internet Information Server, which is also excellent and is available if you have Windows XP Professional or a high-end server version of Windows. It will only host one site per computer on XP Professional, though.

Windows 98 and Me users can use Microsoft's "Personal Web Server." However, this software went away with the release of XP Home, and it's not a popular choice. Since you can run Apache for free - the world's most popular web server, for businesses and individuals alike - I don't recommend suffering with PWS.

Apache Quick-Start Guide

Although Apache was born in the Unix/Linux world, it runs great on Windows too. In general, the newer your Windows, the easier it is to install Apache. Those with older versions of Windows, even Windows 95, can still run Apache but will have to jump through a few extra hoops. For complete information, check out the Apache Foundation's Microsoft Windows Apache installation tutorial. Since that article is a little old, you'll just have to bear in mind that instructions for Windows NT or 2000 also apply to Windows XP.

The following quick-start guide applies to Windows XP, but users of older versions of Windows can run Apache too... if they follow the extra steps spelled out in the Apache Foundation's Using Apache with Microsoft Windows tutorial to prepare their older computers to handle modern software installation and networking.

Upgrading to Windows XP Service Pack 2

Microsoft has fixed problems in Windows XP that create issues for Apache. Use Windows Update to upgrade your Windows XP system to service pack 2. You have probably already done this. If not, you need to do it in any case to fix many important security problems that have nothing to do with Apache!

Not sure if you have service pack 2? Do this: click on "Start," right-click on "My Computer," select "Properties" and look at the information presented under "System." You should see "Service Pack 2." If not, visit Microsoft's Windows Update site, using Interet Explorer, not Firefox... just this once! The Windows Update site uses special Active X controls to update your computer. Normally I don't encourage the use of Active X, but for upgrading Microsoft's own operating system from Microsoft's own website using Microsoft's own browser, it's OK!

Downloading Apache

Visit the Apache HTTP Server Project home page. In the column at left, locate "Download!" and click on "from a mirror." The download page will appear. Scroll down until you locate the link to download the "Win32 Binary (MSI Installer)" distribution of Apache, not the "Win32 Source." That's raw source code for programmers - probably not what you want!

Click on the link for the "Win32 Binary (MSI Installer)" and wait for your browser to save the file to disk.

Installing Apache

Once the download is complete, you're ready to install the software. Double-click on the file you just downloaded on your desktop (for Firefox) or in your downloads folder (for Internet Explorer) to launch the installation program. The "Installation Wizard" window will appear.

First you'll see the "Welcome to the Installation Wizard" page. Click "Next" to continue.

Next, you'll see the Apache license agreement. The Apache license allows you to share the software freely, including the source code. Select "I accept the terms in the license agreement" and click "Next."

The "Read This First" page appears. Currently this page doesn't offer much specific information for Windows users of Apache. Click "Next."

The "Server Information" page should now appear. Be sure to enter the correct information:

1. For "Network Domain," if you registered a hostname such as myname.made-up.com with a dynamic DNS service like freedns.afraid.org, enter just the domain name portion (made-up.com).

2. For "Server Name," enter your full hostname, such as myname.made-up.com.

3. For "Administrator's Email Address," enter a real email address for you that actually works. Users will see this when things go wrong. Bear in mind that spammers might discover this address, so use an address that is already publicly known if possible.

4. For "Install Apache HTTP Server 2.0 programs and shortcuts for..." select "for All Users, on Port 80, as a Service." This ensures that the software is always running, no matter who is sitting down at your computer. And a website that is not always running is not very useful! So pick this option and click "Next."

The "Setup Type" page appears next. Select "Typical" and click "Next" to move on.

You'll see the "Destination Folder" page. By default, Apache installs in the folder C:\Program Files\Apache Group, creating a sub-folder called C:\Program Files\Apache Group\htdocs to keep your web pages in. These are good choices, so click "Next." Don't click "Change..." unless you know exactly what you're doing.

Finally, the "Ready to Install the Program" page appears. Click "Install" to kick off the installation process. The Apache server software will be copied into place and the Apache service will start up in the background. Along the way, a few Windows Command Prompt windows will flash up briefly. This is normal and you should let these windows do their thing and go away on their own!

If you do receive error messages, the most frequent cause is that Internet Information Server or another web server is already installed and "listening" on port 80, the standard HTTP port. Disable the other web server software and reinstall Apache.

The "Installation Wizard Completed" page should appear. Congratulations, you have a web server! Click on "Finish" to complete the process.

Internet Information Server Quick-Start Guide

You need either Apache or Internet Information Server (IIS). You do not want both.
Microsoft's Internet Information Server is a solid choice, and it is included free with Windows XP Professional. If you don't have XP Professional, or one of the server-oriented versions of Windows like Windows Server 2003, then IIS is not an option for you.

Installing Internet Information Server

1. Make sure you have Windows XP Professional! Click "Start," then right-click "My Computer." Choose "Properties" from the menu that appears. The "General" tab will appear. Under "System:" you should see "Microsoft Windows XP Professional." If you see Windows XP Home, Windows ME, Windows 98 or Windows 95, you will not be able to use IIS. Follow the Apache Quick-Start Guide instead.

2. We're ready to install the IIS software. Select "Start," then "Control Panel," then "Add/Remove Programs." Select "Add/Remove Windows Components" from the left-hand column.

A list of available Windows features appears. Check the box for "Internet Information Services (IIS)" and click "Next." If prompted, insert your Windows XP installation CD.

That's all it takes! Installing IIS is very simple because it is a standard component of Windows XP Professional.

Step Seven: Test Your Website From Your Own Computer

Is the website working? Let's find out! The first test is to access your site from your own computer. On the same computer that is running the web server software, access the URL http://localhost/. You should see an example home page provided with your Apache or IIS web server software. If not, review the appropriate quick start guide above and figure out which step you skipped! If you received errors during installation, you need to resolve them before your website will work.

Step Eight: Make Your Own Home Page

You have a web server, but right now the "content" on the site is just the default home page that came with the server software. Time to fix that!

All you have to do is move your own web pages to the appropriate folder. If you followed the Apache quick-start guide, your web pages belong in this folder:

C:\Program Files\Apache Group\htdocs

If you followed the IIS quick-start guide, your web pages belong here:

C:\Inetpub\wwwroot

First, remove the files that are already in those folders. It's not smart to leave "default" files lying around. What if a security problem was found with one of these common files? Then your website would be vulnerable.

Next, copy your own web pages and images into the folder. The "home page" of your site should be called index.html (not index.htm). Both Apache and IIS are smart enough to know that when a user visits http://yourname.is-a-geek.com/, they should act as if the user asked for http://yourname.is-a-geek.com/index.html and do the right thing.

For more information about making web pages and graphics, see how do I set up a website?

Step Nine: Test Your Website From The Outside World

We did a lot of work here to give our computer a hostname on the Internet and forward web traffic through the router and firewall. Did we do it right? Only one way to be sure! Access your website from a computer that is not on your home Internet connection, or have a friend try it.

If it works... great! If not, you probably made a mistake in dynamic DNS, port forwarding, firewall configuration or local static IP configuration.

"I followed all the steps and I get my router's login page instead of my home page!"

You are probably trying to access your website by name from behind your router (from one of your own PCs). With many routers, this does not work because the router automatically assumes any web connection to itself from inside your network is an attempt to log into the router's configuration interface. Test from outside your own network or have a friend do that for you. If you can access your home-hosted website from someone else's computer, you don't have a problem. If you want to access your site from a computer behind your router, you'll have to access it at its static local IP address instead of by name.

Another possible cause of this problem: you may have turned on your router's "remote router access" feature by mistake. People turn this on by accident because they think it has something to do with hosting a website at home. It doesn't. Turn it off, it is dangerous! You don't want other people accessing your router and changing configuration settings.

Congratulations! You have your own website on the Internet, hosted entirely in your own home. Just remember: your computer must remain on, and connected to the Internet, all the time. Without a web server, there's no website. That's why, if you choose to host at home, I recommend picking up an older computer off the curb, dusting it off, popping in at least 128MB of RAM and firing it up as a web server. Your own PC doesn't wear out, and if security problems are found in the web server, they are more likely to be confined to the less important computer.

See also how do I set up a DMZ for safer home web hosting?

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