Why choosing a website hosting plan is like finding a new home

Guest Author: Andy McIlwain

You have lots of options when it comes to website hosting. There’s shared hosting, cloud hosting, VPS dedicated hosting, dedicated hosting… just to name a few.

Making the right choice depends on understanding your needs and priorities. But “understanding your needs” is easier said than done.

I’ve worked with web hosting in one form or another for about fifteen years. I’ve done it as a hobbyist and as a volunteer; I’ve done it professionally in technology companies big and small; and I’ve advised clients while working in IT firms and marketing agencies.

And in that time I’ve learned that many people — probably most people — don’t know where to start in assessing their hosting requirements.

So let’s think about it differently.

Choosing a website hosting plan is like finding a place to live.

We live in a number of different places as we go through life.

Think back to when you moved away from home, heading out on your own for the first time. Chances are you didn’t go straight to owning your own house with sprawling acreage.

Like most of us, you probably rented. Maybe it was a studio; maybe it was a room in an apartment you shared with others; maybe you lucked out and got a spacious one bedroom unit to yourself.

In any case, it was what you needed at the time. It put a roof over your head. It got you out on your own and gave you some independence.

And over time, as you situation changed — job, pay, location, family — you moved somewhere better.

The same goes for website hosting.

If your business is just starting out, and you don’t have a lot of traffic hitting your website, you won’t need the same level of hosting as a tech startup that’s building a complex web application.

But as your website traffic increases, or as the sophistication of your website increases, you’ll need more resources and reliability.

Maybe you’ll move to a Managed WordPress provider (if your website uses WordPress), or maybe you’ll move to a managed VPS, or maybe a scalable cloud hosting plan.

What are your hosting options?

There are a lot of options to choose from. I’d like to explore four types of hosting you’ll likely encounter when building a typical business website, and explain them in terms of finding a home:

  1. Shared hosting
  2. Managed WordPress hosting
  3. Managed VPS or Cloud hosting
  4. Dedicated hosting

Shared hosting is like renting an apartment.

Imagine your first apartment is in a giant building. Rent is cheap and the location is convenient. But you don’t know who your neighbours are, and building management is always busy.

So say you move into another apartment building. It’s not as big, you’re paying more per month, and it’s in a quiet tucked-away neighbourhood. You’re still renting an apartment, but now you know your neighbours, and building management has more time to look after all the small details.

Major shared hosting providers are like a sprawling apartment complex. They’ve got the move-in, move-out process nailed down. There’s high turnover as people come and go. They’re able to offer low prices and they have lots of tenants. They have around-the-clock support.

Other shared hosting providers are like a small apartment building. They may not be as big or as efficient or as cheap, but if you’re lucky, you’ll find a provider that’s attentive to your needs. That might be 24/7/365 support by phone, or it might be a willingness to investigate issues that other hosts wouldn’t bother with.

If convenience and low price is your priority, shared hosting will get the job done. If it’s not up to your expectations, you can pay more to upgrade your plan with the same provider, or you can move to a different provider altogether – just like you’d move from one unit to another in a building, or move from one building to another.

Managed WordPress hosting is like renting a condo.

Condos are apartments with perks. You pay more because you’re getting more. Ensuite laundry, dishwasher, central air, maybe even a front desk with around-the-clock concierge services, or a fitness center, or a pool.

Managed WordPress hosting is like shared hosting with perks. You’re paying more because Managed WordPress hosting plans are optimized specifically for WordPress websites. They include features like server-side caching (making your site faster), one-click staging (giving you a safe place to test out WordPress updates), automatic backups (so you don’t need to worry about it), and automatic WordPress updates.

Condos have more rules. If you’ve ever dealt with a condo board you know exactly what I’m talking about. There are certain expectations and guidelines about everything from how your windows are dressed to how your guests gain entry to the building.

Managed WordPress hosts have more rules. Most Managed WordPress hosting plans restrict the types of plugins you can run on your site. Usually these restrictions are in place because the plugin conflicts with the host (e.g. the plan already includes caching, so there’s no need to run a caching plugin) or impedes performance (e.g. a plugin that uses too many server resources).

If convenience and performance are your priority (and you’re using WordPress!), a managed WordPress host is a good choice. You’ll pay more per month than on a shared hosting provider, but everything is configured specifically for WordPress, and you’ll be working with a support team that knows WordPress.

Tip: Managed WordPress hosts take responsibility for keeping WordPress running and troubleshooting WordPress issues – something that isn’t always true for other types of hosting!

Managed VPS or Cloud Hosting is like renting a townhouse.

A townhouse is one part of a larger building. You have more space than an apartment or a condo, and you won’t have as many neighbours to deal with, but you’re still sharing the physical building with other residents. What happens next door will still affect you, albeit you don’t have any upstairs or downstairs neighbours to worry about.

A Managed VPS hosting plan provides you a server partition. You’ll be allocated a set amount of space and server resources, but you’re still sharing the actual server with other customers. If the physical server is compromised, you’ll still be affected, albeit there aren’t as many other customers on the server so performance will be better than on a shared host.

A townhouse isn’t better than a condo. It’s just different. You can rent a townhouse or a condo for around the same amount of money, but their locations will differ, and you won’t have access to the same types of amenities.

Managed VPS isn’t better than a managed WordPress host. It’s just different. A Managed WordPress hosting plan only hosts WordPress sites. VPS plan gives you more control over what type of software you can run, i.e. other CMSes or email, but you’re responsible for managing the server.

What about cloud hosting? This is a relatively new form of hosting. It combines the level of control you expect from a Managed VPS hosting plan with the ability to dynamically scale resource usage up and down as needed. So if you get a sudden spike of traffic, for example, you don’t need to worry about your site going down.

If control and performance are your priorities, Managed VPS or Cloud Hosting is a good choice. It’s a middle ground between shared hosting and dedicated hosting. If you’re not using WordPress, or if you want to host WordPress alongside another service like email, it makes for a strong alternative to Managed WordPress hosting.

The dynamic scaling of a cloud hosting plan is also a good choice if you experience — or are expecting to experience — a sudden spike in web traffic or resource usage.

Dedicated Hosting is like renting a house.

Renting a house gives you more space than an apartment, no fussy condo board to deal with, and no noisy neighbours sharing your walls. The tradeoff is that you’re responsible for looking after seasonal maintenance, like mowing the lawn in the summer or shoveling snow in the winter. (If the landlord takes care of it, or has an arrangement for a company to look after the property, you’re probably going to pay a premium on your monthly rent.)

A dedicated hosting plan gives you the exclusive use of an entire physical server. The tradeoff with a dedicated hosting plan is that you’re responsible for managing the server yourself, which means you — or someone on your team — should be comfortable filling the role of server administrator. (Hedge trimming, system patching, it’s all maintenance in the end!)

Tip: Many hosting providers will offer management services to fill this role for you, if you don’t have the necessary skillset on your team. The scope of service will vary from one hosting provider to the next.

If you require total control and high system performance, a dedicated server might be a good fit for you. Dedicated servers are typically used by businesses that experience a consistently high level of system resources, like online media companies or eCommerce merchants.

Let’s recap.

Shared hosting is like renting an apartment. You’re sharing space and resources with hundreds of other tenants. You may be taking great care of your website and hosting account, but who knows what the person next to you is doing? If you’re just getting started with a website, or are looking for a cheap solution, shared hosting should do the trick for you.

Managed WordPress is like renting a condo. It’s usually more expensive, and there are usually more rules, but the convenience and features are often worth it. If you’re using WordPress, my default recommendation is to set up with a Managed WordPress plan.

Managed VPS or Cloud Hosting is like renting a townhouse. You have more space and don’t have as many neighbours to contend with, but you’re still sharing a building (i.e. server) with others. If you’re on a Cloud Hosting plan, dynamic scaling will keep you online even if you experience a major spike in web traffic. If you’re not using WordPress, or want to use WordPress alongside other services like email, Managed VPS or Cloud Hosting is a good alternative.

Dedicated Hosting is like renting a house. You have the entire building (i.e. server) to yourself, but you’re responsible for seasonal maintenance like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow (i.e. managing server updates and applications). Many hosting providers will offer management services to look after these tasks, however. If you need total control over your server and expect consistently high resource usage, a dedicated hosting plan may be a good fit for you.

In the end, it’s all about understanding what matters to your business.

Over time we live in a bunch of different places depending on what life throws at us. The same is true for web hosting. You may start off with a simple website on a shared hosting plan, but as your business grows and thrives, you may find yourself in need of something more powerful.

Take stock of your requirements, consult the web designer or developer you’re working with, and go with what makes sense based on your needs.

Good luck!

P.S. If you’re looking for more articles like this, we’re always pumping out new stuff over on the GoDaddy blog.

About the Author

Andy McIlwain (@andymci) wrangles content at GoDaddy. On the side, Andy has co-organized the Toronto WordPress meetup group and WordCamp Toronto since 2011. You can find Andy on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and his personal blog.

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