WordPress Hosting Explained: Shared, VPS, Dedicated or Managed WordPress Hosting – Which to Choose and Why?!
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If you’re new to hosting, working out the kind of service you need may seem like a daunting task with lots of factors to consider. But it needn’t be overwhelming — as with any decision, there’ll be things you absolutely have to have, and, once you’ve found a few options that fit the bill, you can get into the detail to narrow down your list. Say you’re choosing a restaurant, for example: The first things to think about are the type of food you want, the location and the price. Once you’ve found a few places that suit your needs and budget, you can get into the likes of reviews, atmosphere and menu options. Choosing a host isn’t that different from choosing a restaurant: There’ll be a few deal-breakers that’ll narrow down your list, and then the details that’ll help you to find the most fitting option for your needs.
In this article, we’ll look at the four different hosting options — Shared Hosting, VPS (Virtual Private Server), Dedicated Hosting and Managed WordPress Hosting. We’ll cover what they are, why they’re different from one another, how much they cost, the pros and cons, when to choose each one, and — perhaps most importantly — when not to!
Types of WordPress Hosting (section links):
The Analogy: Shared hosting is the McDonald’s of the hosting business. The product isn’t awful (we all have a burger every now and then), but it’s not appropriate for every situation — rather, a low-cost quick-fix with no bells or whistles.
The Nuts and Bolts
Shared hosting is based on the premise that small websites require few resources. A shared server contains hundreds, if not thousands, of users, each with a number of different websites. The result is a cheap product that isn’t very powerful and often introduces all sorts of issues to do with overcrowding.
Based on four well-known hosting companies we’ve selected to best represent this type of hosting (listed below), the average cost of a quality shared hosting plan is roughly between $5 and $12 a month, which doesn’t include any initial bargains the companies may offer (more on this later).
DreamHost offer the cheapest plan at around $2.59 a month with a long-term commitment, or $4.95 a month if you pay monthly.
At the end of the day, ~$10 a month should generally buy you a good-quality shared hosting service.
The biggest advantage shared hosting has over any other type is the fact that it’s cheap. It doesn’t have much more going for it, but the price alone can justify using shared hosting in many situations.
All of the issues concerning shared hosting arise from the fact you’re sharing the same environment with hundreds of other users, and thousands of other websites. This can lead to four main problems:
- Websites other than your own may use a disproportionate amount of resources on the server, leaving less for your websites, and so causing them to slow down or grind to a halt.
- Security issues on one account may leak over to yours. You can protect your website with all of the fancy tech at your disposal, but a problem at the server level may still affect you. Good shared hosts should use isolation to prevent this, but not all do.
- Uptime and reliability can be a major issue on shared environments. Since other websites may hog resources or cause security issues, not only are you at risk, but you simply can’t tell when an issue may occur.
- Sharing an environment means no one has any real control over the specifics of their servers, resulting in a one-size-fits-all setup. This is fine for small sites, but, as you grow, you’ll need some extra oomph.
There are other issues, but most of them stem from one of these — and all of them have to do with the shared environment.
Be wary of shared hosting pricing. Many hosts offer an initial discount that’s valid until your first renewal. Bluehost, for example, offer a new plan for $2.75 instead of the list price of $7.99.
However, there are two big caveats to this deal:
- You usually need to commit to long terms (~two to three years) to get the lowest prices. If you only commit to one year, the deal won’t be quite as sweet.
- These prices only apply to your first billing cycle — after that, you’ll need to pay the regular price.
Most hosts let you pay for three years upfront, which lets you lock in the discount for at least three years. That means a higher upfront cost, though.
When to Choose Shared Hosting
If your budget just doesn’t extend to the level of a VPS or managed WordPress hosting (see below), then shared hosting is really the only option left. This hosting type has a lot more downtime and unreliability, but this doesn’t mean your site will be offline for days on end every week.
I used to host my sites on Bluehost, and, while the performance wasn’t exceptional, my sites were up 99% of the time, and it was enough to get my business off the ground.
Downtime can often cost you significant business. If you have a small budget, don’t wait until you can afford a VPS, get a shared account now and switch when you can afford to.
If you have low-traffic, relatively unimportant websites, shared hosting is an excellent and cheap way to keep them online. Personal blogs, client test sites, archived projects and projects being tested are all perfectly suited to the shared environment.
Shared hosting is also a good fit for up-and-comers who don’t need a lot of performance. When you launch your business, there’s a good chance no one will see your website in the first month, and you’ll build your traffic slowly in the following months. You can start out on a shared host to save some money, and switch when more people start visiting your site.
If you’re new to the world of the web and your site isn’t mission critical, I suggest going for the cheapest plan you can find just for the benefit of learning something new. It’s great experience and research for times ahead when you may need to make a decision between a $50 and $100 VPS plan.
When to Stay Away from Shared Hosting
Shared hosting isn’t great when it comes to reliability, resources and security. If you have a mission-critical website and you can afford a higher tier of hosting, you should avoid shared hosting.
Knowing when not to choose shared hosting is simple: If none of the points in the ‘When to Choose Shared Hosting’ section apply to you, you should stay away.
If you operate an eCommerce site, I’d recommend going with a non-shared environment from the get-go. If someone is unable to view your blog, you’ve lost a visitor. If someone can’t get to one of your products, you may have lost a sale.
Know What You’re Paying For
As someone who’s been on both sides of the playing field (as a host user and in a management position at a host), my best advice is to know what you’re paying for.
If you’re only spending $5 to $10 a month on hosting, don’t expect miracles. All well-known shared hosts (which we’ll cover below) are good-natured companies. They’re not out to get you; they won’t purposefully take resources from your website.
They’re honest businesses that sell a cheap product. The product is inherently flawed, but offers thousands of customers a chance to have a decent web presence.
In no particular order, here are four providers that can be trusted to give you solid service as far as shared hosting goes:
The Analogy: In our restaurant-themed analogy, VPS hosting is The Cheesecake Factory. It certainly doesn’t qualify for Michelin stars, but is an excellent restaurant, and, whatever your taste, you’ll find something you like on the menu. You’re likely to leave satisfied — even if you wouldn’t use it to entertain your most prestigious client.
The Nuts and Bolts
VPS (sometimes referred to as cloud hosting) is similar to shared hosting, but uses more robust technology to separate users on the same machine. Compared with a shared server, where you may have thousands of neighbors, VPS systems typically hold five to 20.
The lower number already points to less risk from the bad neighbor effect, but what matters most is how these users are separated. VPS systems employ a hypervisor that oversees a complete virtual system for each user.
Simply put, this means one user can’t hog the resources of another. A machine with 16GB of RAM and eight users, for example, will allocate 2GB to each user. So, if one of these users goes over their 2GB allocation, their site may crash — but the other websites on the same machine won’t be affected.
The price tags on VPS hosting vary a great deal. We’ve looked at the cheapest packages from six companies (listed below) and the prices range from as low as $5 to $10, up to $80.
A decent low-tier VPS should clock in at around $20 to $30. The $50 to $100 tier can comfortably run most sites, but, if you need the extra oomph, there are VPS plans that reach into the thousands.
What You’re Paying For
With VPS systems, you’re paying for three main things:
- The VPS technology that provides separation, scalability and protection.
- Resources such as memory, hard disk usage and bandwidth.
- A ‘surcharge’ because VPS servers only hold a couple of users instead of hundreds — making it more difficult to sustain financially.
The second item is the most important because you need to be aware of your site’s resource usage. If you have a website that generates 4TB of bandwidth, you won’t be able to go with DigitalOcean’s $5 plan, since it only includes 1TB of bandwidth.
All of the positive sides of VPS hosting have to do with the ‘V’: Virtual. This allows for better separation, scaling and security. Let’s go through some of the upsides.
- Virtual instances receive separate resource limits, removing uncertainty and allowing for better planning.
- Malicious code infecting multiple virtual instances through the hypervisor isn’t unheard of, but is extremely rare. You can be sure that security issues on another account won’t affect your own.
- Since resources are allocated rather than pooled, VPS systems can scale easily, making them perfect for dynamically growing websites.
- A virtual instance is a self-contained software layer that includes the operating system, and all of the other bits and pieces you’ll need. From a flexibility point of view, this is roughly equivalent to having your own dedicated server, thus allowing for greater control over your environment.
There are no real downsides to VPS systems. Any downsides have to be measured against the goal of your website. We’ll go through some of these issues, but keep in mind these change from project to project.
- If you have a highly specialized site where you may want to have control on the hardware level, dedicated hosting may be more up your alley. VPS systems are flexible, but not infinitely so.
- If you just need a quick place to stash a website, a VPS systems may be a bit pricey and unnecessary
- If you have a WordPress website, you should look into managed WordPress hosting as an alternative. VPS is more flexible, but, because of the highly tuned nature of managed WordPress hosting, it usually beats VPS on speed and security.
When to Choose VPS Hosting
Deciding whether VPS is for you shouldn’t be too difficult, because you can arrive at it through elimination. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Is my project minor, a test or on a tight budget? In other words, does it have any of the properties that would qualify it for a shared account? If the answer is no, the next one to rule out is dedicated hosting.
Does my project require an extremely fine-tuned environment where I must do all of the sysadmin work, such as making sure the OS is up to date and installing any packages I may need? Also, do I have the necessary know-how to manage a server on my own?
If the answer is no to either of these, then we’ve ruled out dedicated hosting. I advise you to think twice if your answer is yes. Unless you’re seriously proficient in server management, you’ll end up creating a badly tuned environment — a preset VPS would be a lot better.
Now we’re left with managed WordPress hosting. First of all: Is your website WordPress based? If it isn’t, then VPS is the choice for you. If it is, take a look at the pros and cons of managed WordPress hosting below and decide for yourself.
My stance is: If I have a WordPress website, I’ll almost always choose managed WordPress hosting — especially if I plan to make money from it. Otherwise, I may put some WordPress sites on a VPS just to save money.
When to Stay Away from VPS Hosting
There isn’t a scenario where I’d advise you to stay away from VPS hosting — VPS systems scale very well, so, even if your site receives millions of views, you can find an appropriate plan. For all but the highest traffic sites (think The New York Times, etc) or business with very specific needs (think large banks, etc), VPS plans are a decent choice.
With VPS, the question isn’t: ‘Should I stay away?’ But rather: ‘Would something else be even better?’ All-in-all, you can’t really go far wrong with a VPS — and, when in doubt, it’s usually a pretty good fallback (provided you know what you’re doing with it).
VPS plans are offered by almost all hosting companies, but there’s greater variance in quality of service when it comes to VPS servers. Below are six companies that are well known in the business, and can be trusted to provide acceptable services:
The Analogy: Dedicated hosting is forgoing picking a restaurant in favor of cooking at home. After building the kitchen yourself. A high-level of expertise is needed to accomplish this, but you can tailor your environment and the product to your needs.
The Nuts and Bolts
When buying dedicated hosting, you’re buying a piece of hardware and a place to store that hardware, with minimal maintenance included. Once the hardware is in place, you’ll need to take care of everything from installing and operating to setting up your web server software (Nginx, Apache and all that it entails).
The hosting company will replace busted components for you (this should be a rare occurrence), but you’ll need to maintain everything else yourself remotely.
We compared the cheapest plans of five well-known hosting companies (below), and the low-end starting price is usually around $100. The cheapest option is Hetzner’s at ~$50 (€46.41 to be exact!), which, as you can imagine, doesn’t give you many resources.
The lowest price we’d recommend is around the $100 mark — with prices reaching into the $500 range for mid-level solutions, and well into the thousands for high-end machines.
Dedicated servers have two enormous benefits: You’re the sole user of the machine you buy, and you usually get a lot more bandwidth.
By being the sole account on a server, you can completely negate bad neighbor effects. In fact, you can forego some software-like complex provisioners and hypervisors (which oversee multiple VPS systems on a machine).
You can fine-tune the whole environment to your liking — from the hardware to the server — and have malware scanning and other protections tailored to your exact needs.
Dedicated hosting is especially useful if you require custom monitoring tools or a highly specialized deployment process — which you can set up exactly as needed.
About the biggest downside of dedicated servers is that you need to do everything yourself. You either need to have considerable know-how or a trustworthy sysadmin (they’ll have complete access to everything), which will add to your costs.
Other hosting types take care of many management tasks for you — such as making sure everything is up to date, applying security patches, giving you the option to switch PHP versions from a user interface, regularly scanning and so on.
In most cases, you’ll receive exactly none of these services with your dedicated server. There are some managed dedicated solutions out there, but you’ll need to dish up some serious cash.
Another downside is that if a hardware failure occurs, it’ll likely take longer for the problem to be solved. VPS systems may not even notice a busted RAM — the system can spread the load. With dedicated servers, someone must go in and physically replace the module in the computer.
When to Choose Dedicated Hosting
Dedicated hosting isn’t something many people need. Most projects — even large ones — will work without a hitch on a good VPS solution.
If, however, you have a huge website, and it has specific requirements that need the talents of a full-time sysadmin, it’s time to think about dedicated hosting.
It’s also useful for large sites that use different servers for their front and back end, and maybe even their media, as it allows you to create redundant systems running independently.
When to Stay Away from Dedicated Hosting
If you don’t have the knowledge to set up a hosting environment from scratch, or you don’t have the money to hire a good admin, you should steer well clear of dedicated hosting.
An environment that’s 90% suited to your site is still a lot better than a half-baked solution that’s held together with duct tape.
A lot of website owners want fancy things such as load balancing or dedicated hosting because it’s the top-tech and they feel as though their website deserves the best-of-the-best, but this is flawed thinking.
Most website owners don’t know what ‘large’ means when it comes to hosting. A website making a million dollars a year, viewed by 10 million people a month, isn’t necessarily large when it comes to the resources it needs. If it is efficiently coded, it could easily run reliably on a $250-a-month VPS.
See our VPS vs dedicated hosting post for more detail.
Many companies offer dedicated hosting in addition to shared and VPS plans. Here are four that are perhaps known more for their dedicated hosting:
Managed WordPress Hosting
The Analogy: Managed WordPress hosting would be the catering service at a wedding. Unlike a restaurant service, it tailors the experience to you, but it does impose some restrictions.
The Nuts and Bolts
Managed WordPress hosting is a special type of hosting that offers a bunch of services related to WordPress. The server can be shared or VPS, but it shouldn’t matter because the host should be extremely adept at maintaining the service.
Since the provider only needs to support a single application — WordPress — their job is much easier. They can set their whole environment — from hardware to software — to increase speeds, weed out security issues, and give you powerful and useful features.
The cheapest plan of the four major truly specialist companies that offer high-quality managed WordPress hosting (listed below) is with Flywheel* — at $15 — which gives capacity for just 5,000 visits a month — meaning it’s only really suitable for very small websites.
The lowest usable tier with a specialist managed WordPress host (to suit most sites) clocks in at around the $27 mark.
If you’re serious about your WordPress hosting needs, and have a site within the region of about 100,000 visitors or more a month, you’ll need to pay upwards of around $100 a month. (Note: Managed WordPress hosting can easily run into literally thousands of dollars a month if sites need a lot of server resources — think sites with millions of monthly visitors.)
(*The hosts used to host this very site.)
There’s a lot to like about managed WordPress hosting. Most of the benefits stem from having to only support WordPress, allowing specialist hosts to really fine-tune their systems and spend time developing handy management features. The result should be a website that runs noticeably faster and uses fewer resources.
Hosts typically mandate the latest version of WordPress, which means you’ll always be up to date and safer from harm. They may also disallow certain plugins that are known to cause issues or contain security vulnerabilities.
A good example of how managed WordPress hosting can boost your site is caching. Some hosts have their own finely tuned caching system on the server level that’ll outperform plugins such as W3 Total Cache every time. In fact, you’ll often be banned from even using such regular caching plugins at all, since they’ll often conflict with the host’s own, more-efficient internal systems.
Managed WP Hosting also generally has much better support for WordPress-related issues than general VPS or shared hosts — which isn’t surprising. They deal exclusively with WordPress — something that’s immediately apparent when you talk to one of their technicians.
The biggest downside is the loss of flexibility and the higher price tag compared with VPS servers. The same features that make your site safer (mandating WordPress versions, disallowing plugins, and so on) can also sometimes be a bit restrictive for some sites.
Also, with specialist WordPress hosting, you really are limited to just WordPress. You can’t quickly tack on, say, a Joomla or Drupal site to see how it works, or create an HTML-only site (although some hosts may technically allow this).
When to Choose Managed WordPress Hosting
Managed WordPress hosting is almost always the best solution for WordPress sites. Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether or not to use it.
First of all, is it an important site? If it isn’t, there may be no reason to spend all of that money on hosting. If it’s just a personal blog, say, then there isn’t much difference between loading in 2.8 seconds on a VPS or 1.9 on managed WP hosting.
The number of sites you can install on an account is usually a bottleneck — often just one site in fact — so be careful to only use this type of hosting when a site really warrants it.
Other than that, if you have a large and/or important site, and need to make sure it runs as smoothly and reliably as possible, go with managed WordPress hosting (as long as you can live with the minor restrictions it imposes).
When to Stay Away from Managed WordPress Hosting
Again, there isn’t much to stay away from. For WordPress sites, managed WordPress hosting is almost always a better fit — although, if you don’t have the money, or if you need to stash a bunch of sites in one place, regular VPS hosting may serve you better.
Managed WordPress Hosts
There aren’t too many really good managed WordPress hosting solutions on the market right now. Here are about the five best-known hosts:
(*Unlike the other four listed, Pantheon don’t actually specialize in hosting only WordPress-powered websites — they also host websites powered by Drupal.)
Just like there’s no restaurant that’ll please everyone, there’s no magic one-size-fits-all solution for a website either — the type of hosting you need depends heavily on your goals and the requirements of your project.
Weigh the importance of the project, its projected resource usage and how tight your finances are, and read through the pros and cons of each type of hosting to make an informed decision.
It’s worth remembering, too, that it’s relatively easy to switch hosts — and many of the top WordPress hosts actually offer free migrations — so you can always try one and change your mind later if things don’t work out as planned.
Good luck, and happy host hunting!
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