Think all web hosting is the same? Part I: Shared, Virtual, Dedicated, or Colocated

By Kieran

Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all hosting.  If you have not looked for a hosting provider in a while, or if you’re just looking for the first time, you’ll find that there are a lot of service options available.   Some providers offer shared hosting, others virtual private servers, dedicated servers, or colocation services.  Some offer all the options.  What are the differences and how are you meant to know what you need?  Once you understand the differences, along with the pros and cons of each, the decision as to which service to use should be pretty easy.  What’s more, in Part II we’ll give you guidelines that will help you find a good provider that won’t leave you with a slow or downed site.  Shall we get started?

Shared Hosting

If you’re reading this blog entry, you’re likely still learning the ins and outs of hosting a web site and should be looking for a shared hosting provider.  Shared hosting service is when multiple websites for different hosting clients are all hosted on one computer.  All resources (hard disk space, memory, bandwidth, etc) are shared across all customers.  Of course, if the provider limits how much disk space or bandwidth you can have, don’t expect to get more of it, even if it is available on that server.  Most shared hosting providers will give you a control panel that will assist you in getting what you want done, such as setting up domains, managing files, and possibly getting some default web applications such as a WordPress blog set up.  A shared hosting account should cost you between five and twenty-five dollars a month, depending on the quality of service and features available to you.

Virtual Private Server

A virtual private server (VPS) can be thought of as, well, a virtual server.  VPS providers have super-duper computers that they have divvied up into a bunch of smaller virtual servers, just as you would use VirtualBox (free), VirtualPC (free), or VMware (free trial) to run a virtual computer on your home computer.  A VPS brings with it a lot of flexibility and dedicated resources, but comes with some responsibility and a steeper price tag.

Since you will more or less be handed the keys to a squeaky clean new hosting environment, you will be expected to know how to set it up how you want and get what you want out of it.    You should be familiar not just with how to use an FTP client, but also how to SSH into a Linux command-line environment or remote desktop into a Windows environment.  This gives you great flexibility in that you can set things up, within reason, how you want and when you want.  This solution is perfect for sites that may have custom software with specific needs that may not be available in a standardized shared hosting environment.

Some VPS providers will offer managed virtual private servers.  This means that they will take care of some responsibilities for you.  Perhaps they will do automated back-ups or upgrade the server software a couple times a year.  When going with a managed virtual private server, ensure you know up front what they will be managing, and when, as well as which activities you will be responsible.

Don’t let the advantages of having dedicated disk space, memory, and bandwidth lure you into this solution.  There are plenty of shared hosting providers that do a marvelous job; we’ll get into that more in Part II in a couple days.  You will know if you need a VPS solution when you outgrow a shared environment or when your hosting needs cannot be met in a shared environment.

You should expect to pay between twenty-five and several hundreds of dollars for a VPS, depending on your needs.  Yes, that is a huge spread, but so is a VPS with 256 MB of memory with 10 GB of storage and a VPS with 15 GB of memory and half a TB of storage space.  Start small; most VPS providers will let you grow as needed with minimal (if any) downtime during the upgrade.

Dedicated Servers and Colocation Services

A dedicated server is all yours and no one else’s – nothing virtual going on here.  What you do with it is entirely up to you.  When you sign up for a dedicated server, expect to pay top-dollar, since your monthly fee will have to cover the costs of the hardware that no one else will be using but you.  Dedicated servers start at roughly one-hundred dollars a month but can quickly get into a thousand (or so) dollars a month depending on the hardware needed to support what you are doing.

One way to mitigate the costs of a dedicated server is to buy your own server.  When you buy your own hardware and host it with a third-party, this is called colocation.  While the upfront cost of a server can be high when you colocate, your monthly fees to the service provider will be much lower since you’re not paying for any hardware; you cover the cost of rack space, a dedicated connection, and any other services to which both parties agree, such as 24/7 monitoring.  While saving a few hundred a month might sound like a great idea, beware, it is your server.  If anything goes wrong with the hardware or software on it, it is entirely your responsibility to get it up and running again.  If you’re server-savvy, or have someone around who is, and you have outgrown your shared or VPS hosting or you need complete control over your server, colocating  a server should be an option you strongly consider.

Conclusion

As you’ve probably figured out, the hosting services lend themselves well to starting with a basic shared hosting account and stepping your way up the service ladder as needed.  Unless you have specific server software requirements or mad traffic, shared hosting is the service with which to start.  Once you have decided on which service is right for your site, the journey is not over; you still need to find a decent provider.  In part II of “Think all web hosting is the same?” we’ll be discussing how to find a good quality hosting provider and how to avoid the crummy ones.  It’s pretty easy, if you follow some general guidelines.

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8 Responses to “Think all web hosting is the same? Part I: Shared, Virtual, Dedicated, or Colocated”

  1. Josh says:

    Hey Kieran,

    Some points I’d like to cover in regards to your article:

    You hit the nail on the head about needing to be proficient with SSH once you make the move from shared to VPS/Dedicated hosting. Even though I have a fancy schmancy control panel that I can use for the basics, if I want to view any sort of realtime stats, or get a feel for what’s hogging my RAM, I have to SSH… This was a completely new concept to me, as I had always been on shared hosting. So, needless to say, I’m STILL learning and trying to cope since I made the switch!

    Although this may be a tiny bit off topic, something for shared hosting users to be wary of when hosting a WordPress installation is the ever popular “timthumb” script that countless themes use. In it’s original state, it is highly inefficient, and as such, the greedy hosting company is likely to deactivate their site and offer them a sort of “forced upgrade” ultimatum in an attempt to make some more cash by getting them into a shiny new VPS.

    I also didn’t see any references to “Managed Dedicated”… Although, I’m sure just by the name anyone could conclude that’s basically the same as “Managed VPS”.

  2. James K. Shaw says:

    Excellent article, well done.

  3. Kieran says:

    @Josh, thanks for the insight! I wrote “you’ll know when you need to upgrade” but as I was writing it, I was thinking “you’ll know when you need to upgrade because your hosting provider or development team will tell you that you have to upgrade.” It does get kind of mushy, since of course the hosting company will look for any opportunity to upgrade you. It definitely helps to be somewhat tech savvy and to know when the wool is being pulled over your eyes. For the most part I’ve found hosting companies are largely honest. But now we’re getting into my “Part II” topics of finding the good guys.

    @James, thanks!

  4. Josh says:

    Haha, I should very much like to read the next article… I’ve been fairly happy with my host, yet I see thousands upon thousands of blog posts all over the interwebs where people badmouth the host I use. Some even claim to have been duped or treated badly, so I will enjoy reading your tips on finding the good ones.

    Will you be mentioning any by name? (I would assume for fear of legal ramification, only the good might possibly be mentioned by name?)

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Kieran says:

    Nope, no names. I don’t want to push companies, good or bad.

    Although I will say that I’ve had *very* bad experiences with one company (starts with a G). I’ve never hosted with them, I’ve done a lot of work for clients that do, and let me tell you… I’ve never had a good experience. They are slow slow slow, and they seem to have issues with letting sites send e-mails. You have to use their mail server, which filters outbound “spam” – problem is, they are counting many legitimate e-mails as spam. Let the receiving mail server (and preferably the e-mail receiver proper) determine if it is spam or not, thank you.

    Also, they won’t let you relay mail to another mail server, so you’re pretty much locked into crossing your fingers that mail goes through. Mind you, these are e-mails to the site’s owner – not even to other people. After running in circles for a while, I finally ended up sending one word per e-mail in an effort to get *something* to them. We ended up storing the e-mails in a database and he logs into his site to see them.

    Ok, I’m done venting.

    I’ve used the host you use. Still do for some stuff. I like ‘em and never had issues. The only real downside that I see with them is that they don’t offer PostgreSQL. If you’ve never used it, you don’t miss it, but if it is your standard, then it feels awfully weird to use MySQL for everything.

  6. Josh says:

    Haha, I’m going to assume that you’re talking about *ahem* “gaddy“… In which case, I’ve heard more bad things about them than any other host out there… I guess it just goes to show that when you get into a particular market and then start branching out in millions of other directions and trying all sorts of other things that you never intended to do when you first started, that you’re most likely going to be a terrible failure.

    They may have billions of dollars… but as far as the end user is concerned, they are the biggest #FAIL in the hosting world. lol

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