Managed vs Unmanaged Hosting – Explained!

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Hosting is one of the most crucial aspects of any internet-based business. Giving your website solid foundations — such as the ability to withstand traffic surges and sidestep downtime — is just one of the many reasons it’s important to choose the right service.

In addition to the technical prowess of a host’s servers, considerations such as additional services and the level of customer support they offer are just as important. It’s safe to say that a good host will take a huge hosting burden off your shoulders, whereas a bad host — or even a relatively poor choice in hosting plan — can throw a pretty large wrench in the works of your site.

In this article, I’ll be discussing the differences between managed and unmanaged hosting, and what each of these terms really means for you, the user. By the end of this article, you should not only know a lot more about both of these services but also which one to use. Let’s get started…

What Is Managed Hosting?

A hosting plan is made up of a number of different components, with the most basic being the server hardware itself. The server usually has an operating system installed and various kinds of software used for running websites.

In addition, hosting companies may also offer various services such as automated backups, malware scanning and removal, status monitoring, security sweeps, and more.

These additional features are management services, which is where the ‘managed’ part of the term ‘managed hosting’ comes into play. In essence, managed hosting simply refers to a hosting plan that comes with a number of additional benefits or services.

Rather than having to implement these features/services yourself, the host takes care of everything for you. That not only makes it simpler to use (because you don’t need as much technical knowledge), but it also saves you time and lets you focus on running and growing your website.

What Is Unmanaged Hosting?

Unmanaged hosting is a hosting plan with no (or very few) additional services. With unmanaged hosting you may, for example, simply get a server with only an operating system installed. This means you’ll then need to install any necessary software on your own. (By ‘software’ I don’t only mean WordPress, Drupal or similar, but even base system software such as Apache or PHP.)

The reason it’s referred to as ‘unmanaged’ is the hosting company itself doesn’t provide any services or carry out any management tasks on your server. If you want something done, you’ll have to do it yourself. I’ll go into more detail about unmanaged hosting and what it lacks later on in this article.

Managed vs Unmanaged Hosting in One Analogy

If you’re still a little confused about the differences between these types of hosting, here’s a simple analogy that may make it clearer. Let’s say hosting is equal to a house you plan to live in.

Managed hosting is like buying an already-finished house — all you have to do is take your own furniture and start living there. Some houses are even furnished already — so you can start living right away!

Unmanaged hosting is like buying an empty plot of land and building your house by yourself. It’s great, because you can build every single detail of the house to meet your needs and preferences, but if you’ve never built a house before you’re probably going to struggle to build something that can handle the elements. You wouldn’t want your house to fall over or spring a leak in the first storm, right?

What Services Go into Managed Hosting?

The exact services you get with managed hosting differ from company to company, but there are some very common ones that tend to be offered by most. Let’s go through some of these to understand what they mean.

Automated Backups

This one is very important, since no one likes their data disappearing in the blink of an eye. Automated backups are a great solution — they give you peace of mind and, to an extent, take some of the pressure off you having to make regular backups of your site yourself. (Note: You should still make your own backups from time to time to be on the safe side — it’s always better to be safe than sorry!)

It should be pointed out, though, that not all automated backups are created equally. You should ask the provider about two things in particular:

  • Is the backup stored on the same server as my site?
  • Does the backup contain my databases?

Making sure the backup is not stored on the same server is essential. If your hardware physically malfunctions and has to be replaced, your backups will also be lost if they’re stored on it!

Your databases are usually the most important part of your site. WordPress, for example, can be reinstalled and your theme can be re-downloaded or re-coded. However, if you lose your database, you lose your posts, your comments, your users and more! In short: When using a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress, you want to always make sure your database is safely backed up.

To complicate this, different providers have different policies when it comes to backups and storage.

In my opinion, this forms the main difficulty in choosing a host. You have to do your research because not all hosts offer the same features — and, even if they do, they may differ between companies. Furthermore, what’s included may vary depending on the exact service plan you choose — and even as hosts improve or change what they offer. Remember: Always do your research before choosing a new host.

Performance Monitoring

Performance monitoring is important because it can (and hopefully will) warn you before disaster strikes. Your host may, for example, notify you when your website is close to having used all of its available resources (such as memory, among other things). This warning could give you enough time to contact a support technician to resolve the issue before it’s too late and your traffic suffers.

Automatic Software Updates

Automatic updates of core software, such as PHP, Apache, MySQL and others, can be a blessing if you want to have the latest versions as soon as they come out. Many hosts will take care of this for you, so you won’t have to update any of it yourself.

However, it’s worth noting that in some cases this is undesirable — for example, some older applications may not be compatible with newer versions of these core pieces of software. If you’re running a WordPress website, you probably don’t have to worry about this, but if you have a custom application it could be an issue well worth factoring in.

Security, Malware Scanning and Removal

Server security should be an absolute top priority for anyone with a website. When it comes to security, website downtime may seem almost trivial compared with the prospect of a malicious attempt made to expose your users’ data.

Security and malware scanning can expose myriad issues on your server, and removal/cleanup services serve to get rid of them if they do happen to appear. These kinds of services may not be able to thwart everything, but they can certainly be an excellent first line of defense.

An Easy-to-Use Hosting Control Panel

A managed server should come with a control panel where you can set up specific things, including the creation of databases, email forwarders, DNS records, accessing logs, viewing performance statistics, and other tasks.

At most ‘standard’ managed hosts, you’ll get a pre-built control panel such as cPanel or Plesk. On the other hand, most premium managed WordPress hosts have opted to build custom dashboards that are tailored to the WordPress experience.

As long as it’s usable and contains the information you need, you should be good-to-go.

Note that you can, of course, install your own control panel (such as Plesk or cPanel) to use on an unmanaged server — however, this won’t be possible unless you have the necessary skills to do so.

SSH Access

This one is something the vast majority of basic users will never need — that said, your developer will almost certainly thank you for it if you request any more advanced development work from them. What’s more, if you’re intending to learn more and more about servers and develop your own websites, you may even end up using it yourself.

SSH is short for ‘Secure Shell’, and is essentially a secure way to access your server through a command line interface. Not only can it do everything your control panel can, but it can also do a lot more — which is why developers like it so much!

One of the most common uses of SSH is for installing additional software, such as version control, developer tools, scripts and other useful add-ons.

Support Service

Basic support services are always free, and most top-rated hosting companies these days even offer instant live chat support. Tech support can give you a hand with many issues — or at least point you in the right direction. You shouldn’t expect the most basic free services to install applications and update software for you (something they may not even be able to do anyway), but they do (or at least should) always offer general advice.

Personally, I always make a point of talking to a host’s live support before deciding to use any of their services and would advise you to do the same, as I’ve found it’s a really good indication of the general intentions of a company.

A good support system doesn’t necessarily mean a company has better hardware — but it does mean is they’re committed to their users. I’ve found this to often be one of the most important factors.

On-Demand Services

Basically, you could call this paid customer support, and it might encompass anything from software updates or a requested virus scan to malware cleanup or a speed optimization analysis.

Some services may exist as on-demand features and automated features — malware removal is a good example of this. Some hosts will bundle malware scanning as an automated service, but you’ll have to pay if you need a hand removing any malware the automated scan detects.

Some hosts will do both for you, but that obviously comes with an increase in price.

Managed WordPress Hosting

You should now have some understanding of what managed hosting is, so let’s spice things up a little by taking a quick look at a special type of managed hosting:

Managed WordPress hosting.

Generally speaking, servers need to be ready for anything. Users may install WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or even all three of these systems — and run them all at once! This poses no problems for the server, but it does mean it can’t be fully optimized to run just one particular system.

This is where managed WordPress hosting comes in. The thinking goes like this:

If someone will only run WordPress, why not create a server that’s highly tuned to running only WordPress?

Because of this, managed WordPress hosting is usually much faster and more secure than its more general shared and/or VPS hosting counterparts. On a managed WordPress hosting service, a host is able to tune everything from the hardware to the software for running only WordPress sites.

Caching is a great example of this WordPress-directed tuning.

It’s a technique that can dramatically improve the speed of websites, and can be achieved through WordPress plugins — but it can also be done on a faster and more efficient level with server-based tools. Because managed WordPress hosts know that each and every site they have will be run on WordPress, they can take care of this caching for you. Since all of their user environments are the same, they can automate analysis, scanning and updates much more easily, and build them into the base price. This makes entry-level managed WordPress hosts slightly more expensive than their generic counterparts. But, then again, they include far more management services.

Let’s recap the upsides. Your site will be:

  • more reliable
  • considerably faster
  • more secure.

What’s more, your hosting plan will contain a wider range of management services for a significantly lower price tag. All that comes with some potential downsides, though.

The main disadvantage of this specific type of managed hosting is the loss of flexibility. First of all, you can only run WordPress sites. This is more of a given than a downside, though.

Additionally, you may also be restricted to only running certain WordPress plugins. If the host has server-level caching in place, they won’t allow you to install any WordPress caching plugins (with a few exceptions). For example, WP Engine, one of the leaders in the managed WordPress hosting arena, block a number of plugins — you can view the full list here.

All of these restrictions are, in actuality, a good thing — with the possible exception being for the small number of people who run highly specialized or slightly out-of-the-ordinary websites, who may find them too restrictive.

👉 Learn more about managed WordPress hosting

Unmanaged Hosting Revisited

Now you know exactly what managed hosting entails, let’s revisit unmanaged hosting. After learning about all of the extra features you get with managed hosting, you may wonder why anyone would want a server without management services.

There are basically three main reasons why you might want to choose unmanaged hosting over managed hosting:

  1. Your application requires special tweaking and tuning at the server level.
  2. You want to tinker and/or want to learn about server management.
  3. You want to save money (more on what those savings can be in the next section).

Unmanaged servers tend to come with an operating system installed, but not much else. Anything you want to do you’ll need to do via the command line.

It’s important to understand that the command line is the ultimate power tool. All of the management services hosts offer, all of the functionality offered by control panels… somewhere, they all rely on commands issued via the command line. You may not be able to see it, but that’s what’s happening.

Therefore, anything the host can do for you, you can do yourself — provided you have the necessary skills. You can download, install, and set up monitoring services for yourself; you can add malware detection and removal tools on your own; you could even create your own control panel!

If you want to save some money and have the know-how, unmanaged servers could be the way for you.

In some special cases, applications running on the server may call for such a specific setup that the hosting company simply doesn’t offer the precise things you need. This could also arise from the need to optimize a server to the extreme.

Note that you need a significant amount of server-management knowledge to get along with an unmanaged server. With a basic, unmanaged hosting plan, you can’t run websites ‘out of the box’, and there’s no graphical interface for you to use to interact with the server. In short: Unmanaged servers/hosting plans are definitely reserved for the tech-savvy!

If you have no idea what terms such as ‘SSH’ or ‘command line’ mean, you should probably stick with managed hosting for now. You can always switch to unmanaged hosting in the future once you increase your knowledge and develop the skills to manage your own server.

Managed vs Unmanaged Hosting: Price Comparison

In this section, let’s expand on that ‘to save money’ reason from the previous section.

Managed hosting is always going to be more expensive than unmanaged hosting for the equivalent resources. This makes sense — you’re getting more services (and the host is doing more work), so of course they’re going to charge you extra.

So, how big is the difference?

As a rough rule of thumb, you’ll usually see that managed hosting is about double the price as the equivalent unmanaged plan — though this obviously varies depending on the provider. Often, this ratio will decrease as the price goes up. For example, a low-end managed plan may be double the price of a low-end unmanaged plan, but an expensive managed plan may be more like 1.5X the price of the equivalent unmanaged plan. This makes sense, as the price for many managed features is the same whether your server has 2 GB of RAM or 8 GB of RAM.

To illustrate this, let’s look at two examples…

1. Media Temple

Media Temple offer almost identical managed and unmanaged VPS plans:

There are some minor differences in terms of storage limits, but they’re basically the same resources.

Here are the monthly prices:

  • Level One — $30 for unmanaged or $55 for managed.
  • Level Two — $50 for unmanaged or $100 for managed.
  • Level Three — $100 for unmanaged or $150 for managed.
  • Level Four — $250 for unmanaged or $350 for managed.
  • Level Five — $500 for unmanaged or $750 for managed.

You can see how the differences in prices get a little closer as the price increases. For the first three levels, the price is ~2X for a managed server, but that drops to ~1.5X once you reach level three.

2. Cloudways

Another good example are Cloudways, who are basically a hosting provider that turn unmanaged cloud VPS hosts, such as DigitalOcean or Vultr, into managed hosting services. This lets you very clearly see the premium you pay for a managed VPS vs an unmanaged VPS with the exact same resources.

Here are the price differences for the exact same cloud VPS specs from DigitalOcean. The unmanaged prices are what you’d pay directly to DigitalOcean (price list), while the managed prices are what you’d pay to have Cloudways manage your DigitalOcean VPS for you (price list):

  • Level One — $5 for unmanaged or $10 for managed.
  • Level Two — $10 for unmanaged or $22 for managed.
  • Level Three — $20 for unmanaged or $42 for managed.
  • Level Four — $40 for unmanaged or $80 for managed.
  • Level Five — $80 for unmanaged or $135 for managed.
  • Level Six — $160 for unmanaged or $230 for managed.

Again, you can see how the price is basically 2X (or more) for the first four levels. However, once you get into the pricier plans, the difference in price gets a lot smaller. By level six, the managed plan only costs about 1.45X the unmanaged plan.

Conclusion

Hopefully, the differences between managed and unmanaged hosting are now a lot clearer, and you’ve also gained a basic understanding of the various specific services managed hosting entails.

If you were asking this question in the first place (managed vs unmanaged), that’s probably a sign you should stick with managed hosting — at least for now while you develop the skills you’ll need to use unmanaged hosting. Successfully using unmanaged hosting requires a great deal of technical knowledge or the budget to hire someone who has that knowledge — it’s not for the faint of heart.

You likely won’t be able to choose your new host in the next ten minutes, but you should at least now know the kind of questions you need to ask. Good luck, and let us know if you have an especially good or bad experience with a particular host!

To learn about some of the best managed hosting services for WordPress, check out our collection here. And, if you want to learn more about the different types of web hosting, we have some other detailed comparisons just like this one:

Understanding these differences will not only expand your knowledge but also help you to choose the hosting solution that’s right for your website.

Any questions about managed or unmanaged hosting? Thoughts?

By Colin Newcomer

Colin Newcomer is a freelance writer and long-time Internet marketer. He specializes in digital marketing and WordPress. He lives a life of danger, riding a scooter through the chaos of Hanoi.
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