Managed vs Unmanaged Hosting – Explained!

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Hosting is one of most crucial aspects of any internet-based business. Giving your website solid foundations — like 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, things like 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 plans — 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 these types of service 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. The most basic component is 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.

What Is Unmanaged Hosting?

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

The reason it’s referred to as “unmanaged” is because the hosting company itself doesn’t provide any services or carry out any management tasks on your server. If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. I’ll go into more detail about unmanaged hosting and what it lacks later on in this article, but first let’s get a good grasp of what types of management services managed hosting can offer.

Available Management Services

The exact services on offer differ from company to company. There are, however, some very common ones that tend to be offered by most companies. 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, however, 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 that the backup is not stored on the same server is essential. If your hardware physically malfunctions and has to be replaced, if 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) like WordPress, always make sure that maximum safety in place by having backups contain the database.

I asked providers Bluehost, Media Temple, A Small Orange and Vultr about backups — here are the results:

Bluehost offers courtesy backups. These are stored on the same server as your website, but the backups do, at least, include your database. However, if you want to be as all-around safe as recommended above, you’ll need to download and store these backups yourself somewhere else.

Media Temple stores backups on a completely separate system, and it includes your databases, too.

A Small Orange does not offer automatic backups by default, but you can tack them on to your plan by paying an additional $5/month — which will then give you regular backups containing your database, on separate servers.

Vultr only offers automated file system backups, but they do store them on a separate server.

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 own 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 (like 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 all of this for you so you won’t have to update any of it for yourself.

Note, however, that in some cases this is undesirable. 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 to 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. Of course, these kinds of services may not be able to thwart everything, but they can certainly be an excellent first line of defense.

Control Panel

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

There are a number of standard control panels available, such as Plesk, cPanel and even a few completely custom-made ones. 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 (like 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 may be something that 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”. It’s essentially a secure way to access your server through a command line interface. Not only can it do everything your control panel can, 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. Many top-rated hosting companies these days even offer instant live chat support! Tech support can give you a hand with many of your 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. I’ve found that it’s a really good indication of the general intentions of a company and would advise you to do the same!

A good support system doesn’t necessarily mean that a company has better hardware. What it does mean is that 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. This 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. At Media Temple, for example, the managed VPS (Virtual Private Server) service offers malware scanning, but no automated removal. If their systems detect that your site’s been infected, you’ll get a warning about the issue — which you can then act on to either remove the infection yourself, or pay an additional fee of $160 to have Media Temple clean things up for you.

The fully managed VPS service they offer, however, includes automated scanning and removal — but the monthly cost of this service is, in turn, much higher.

Another particularly well-regarded hosting company called A Small Orange organizes its performance monitoring and security scanning services into specific packages. Their basic package gives you monitoring of server processes, their second tier package offers regular automated updates to server software and monthly checks for third party software you provide, and their most expensive tier will also give you an additional firewall, security audits, and a number of other similar security-focused features.

As you can see, the difference in services explains the considerable differences in price. For example, Media Temple’s standard fully managed VPS service may seem expensive at $249 a month, but if you start tacking on various “additional” services to cheaper-looking VPS services offered by other companies (such as A Small Orange, which offers $30/month solutions), the price differences can quickly begin to become irrelevant.

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 that it cannot 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, everything from the hardware to the software is tuned for running only WordPress sites. Caching is a great example of this WordPress-directed tuning.

Caching is a technique that can dramatically improve the speed of websites. It can be achieved through WordPress plugins, but it can also be done on a much lower 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 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 general 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, and 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, however.

Additionally, you may also be restricted to only running certain WordPress plugins. If the host has server-level caching in place, they will not allow you to install any WordPress caching plugins such as WP Total Cache, just to name one. For a full list of plugins disallowed on WPEngine (one of the leaders in the managed WordPress hosting arena), check out their official plugin restriction support page for more information.

All these restrictions are, in actuality, a good thing, despite the small few who run highly specialized or slightly out-of-the-ordinary websites which may find them too restrictive.

Unmanaged Hosting Revisited

Now that you know exactly what managed hosting entails, let’s revisit unmanaged hosting. After knowing what we now know, you might wonder why would anyone want a server without management services? There are basically three main reasons:

  • An application requires special tweaking and tuning of the server
  • The user likes to tinker and/or wants to learn about server management
  • To save money

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 the management services hosts offer, all 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 cannot run websites “out of the box” and there is 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!

Managed Service Case Study: A Small Orange vs Media Temple vs Flywheel

As I mentioned earlier in the article, the differences in management services provided is the reason there are some pretty wide price ranges. Some companies build more services into their base price, which would make their prices seem higher. Other companies use a low base price, but offer fewer management features out of the box.

As a quick case study, let’s compare the cheapest managed VPS options from Media Temple, A Small Orange and Flywheel’s managed WordPress hosting.

Media Temple’s entry level VPS costs $55 a month. Hardware-wise this gets you 2GB of memory, 30GB of storage and 2TB of bandwidth.

A Small Orange’s cheapest solution is $20 per month but only gets you 1GB of memory, 20GB of storage and 500GB of bandwidth. Let’s use the $30 per month solution in this example as that would get you 2GB of memory, 30GB of storage and 1TB of bandwidth (which means that the servers only differ in terms of bandwidth).

Flywheel’s entry-level solution is $30 but it lacks in server power, so let’s look at the next tier up which is $75 a month. This gets you 1TB of bandwidth (or 100,000 monthly visits) and 20GB of space. Memory isn’t shown but since servers are tuned for WordPress, it will likely not be an issue.

Based on a monthly price, we have a $30, a $55 and a $75 solution. That’s a 250% difference, and not between low- and high-end solutions, but between low-end solutions from different companies. Now let’s dig a little deeper!

It turns out that Media Temple offers automated backups, and security and malware scans included in the price. A Small Orange does not include these in the price; you would need to pay separately for these. Automated backups would cost $5 and you would need to pay a whopping $100 extra to get security and malware scanning. Of course you get a ton of other features tacked on for that hundred bucks, too, so the comparison isn’t exactly fair. Nevertheless, it’s still potentially $105 more.

The $75 Flywheel plan actually includes backups, monitoring, security scans and all that good stuff. To get the same management features at Media Temple, you would need to get the $249/month fully managed solution (which also includes on-demand services and is why it’s considerably more expensive) and over at A Small Orange you would be paying at least $135. Dollar-for-dollar you get most out of Flywheel, but you’re — of course — restricted to running only WordPress.

This example very clearly shows that if you have a WordPress based site, managed WordPress hosting will likely be the best choice. In a nutshell: Managed hosting offers a far superior experience to general hosting, as long as you’re ok with a loss of flexibility.

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.

Armed with this knowledge, you should take a look at hostingreviews.io, visit the highest-rated hosts of your choice, start looking at their options and talking with support reps about specifics.

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!

Finally, if you’re at all confused or curious about how shared hosting stacks up against managed hosting made specifically for WordPress (i.e. managed WordPress hosting), have a read of ‘Shared vs Managed WordPress Hosting — How To Choose The Right Service

Enjoy!

By Daniel Pataki

Hello, my name is Daniel. I build plugins, themes and apps – then proceed to write or talk about them. I'm the editor for the WordPress section on Smashing Magazine and I write for a bunch of other online magazines. When not coding or writing you'll find me playing board games or running with my dog. Drop me a line on Twitter or visit my personal website.
Comments (policy)
  • alphawhiskyone

    “A Small Orange (another particularly highly-regarded hosting company)”

    It pains me to read that. Our organisation has not had a good experience at all with ASO. Good pricing and friendly staff, but the support itself is a complete lottery. We’ve had long running server stability issues which were only recently resolved (after 9 months). We subsequently ran into some timeout problems caused by the nginx set-up (itself installed by ASO). I encountered one tech support claiming nginx wasn’t actually installed, another stating that our site wasn’t even hosted at ASO, before a final technician was able to make the tweak. These are just a couple of examples of what I’ve suffered from the support team!

    You get what you pay for I guess. Unfortunately, moving our site is going to be a painful task.

    • Taylor B.

      Hi,

      I am sorry to hear of these troubles! I work at A Small Orange and would love to see what happened in this matter and see what we can do next time to avoid what you went through. Feel free to send me a note at affiliates [at]asmallorange.com with any relevant support ticket ID’s and I can get the appropriate people on it.

      Once again, truly sorry you encountered issues with A Small Orange!

      Sincerely,

      Taylor B.
      Affiliate Manager
      http://asmallorange.com

    • i agree with you hostnine is also sister company of A small orange hostnine is not working fine 5 days ago almost every few days site goes off line

  • Loved the read. Appreciate the honest feedback and comparisons. Thanks for taking the time to write about us!

  • Giorgio Panicucci

    Unmanaged hosting is the best option if you know your stuff and know what you are doing. I myself don’t know much about managing servers and security so for my business I own a Managed VPS at Rosehosting. Their tech support is very skilled and helps me with many things that were considered as “out of the scope” by the previous hosting providers.

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