Web Hosting Comparison (or how to understand web hosting)

Web Hosting Comparison (or how to understand web hosting)

You don’t have to read this whole article

As I write this article I expect that only a small percentage of people will have any reason to read beyond the third paragraph.  I’ll probably offend someone with the reason I give for this, but I invite you to prove me wrong.  Unfortunately the cards are stacked against you and I have proof!  There’s an entire industry that gets fat off of you because it knows you so well.  I’ll get to my web hosting comparison in just a minute, but first, let’s talk about the real problem.

If you’ve ever searched for a web hosting company, you’ve probably been excited to find a ton of hosting companies that offer UNLIMITED everything.  That includes unlimited bandwidth, unlimited disk space, unlimited websites, etc.  I’m sure a lot of people assume that the blazing speeds of modern technology make it possible to process data instantaneously while consuming very few resources.  After all, how else could they provide unlimited everything for $5/month?

The answer is that they can only provide unlimited everything because they know a few things about their clients.  First is that you don’t produce content for your website regularly.  When you do produce content for your website you don’t create backlinks to it.  In fact you don’t do much at all to drive traffic to your site, which means you don’t get a lot of traffic and your site consumes virtually zero resources!  In short, it’s easy to offer someone unlimited everything when they know you will take advantage of almost nothing.  If this is you then stick with the cheapest shared hosting plan you can find and it will do everything you need.

If you’re still with me, allow me to explain what I mean.  The fact is that there is no such thing as unlimited hosting.  The good hosting companies account for every electron that travels through their servers (almost).  For every CPU or MB of memory there are only so many web pages that a server can serve.  Every server has a limit.

Let me compare web hosting to housing

There are several types of hosting that range in price from FREE to hundreds of dollars per month.  Each of these different hosting models exists because there’s a niche to consume it.  Interestingly, very few people understand which type of hosting they should use or why.  Here are some of the most common (popular) hosting types:

  • Shared
  • VPS
  • Dedicated server
  • Cloud or load balanced servers

Within each of those hosting types there are tiers of options, but I’m going to discuss those in separate posts.  Today I want to explain some of the differences between these four top level hosting models.  The easiest way I can explain is with an analogy about housing.  Here’s the correspondence:

  • Shared == Hotel/Motel
  • VPS == Apartment/Condominium
  • Dedicated server == House/Building
  • Cloud == Campus

Just as Hotels and Motels come in a broad range, from ultra cheap and dirty to ultra luxury, so come the shared hosting plans.  Likewise for the others.  Within each category there are big swings in quality and features.  There are a few important things to get from these analogies.

First is that in a shared environment (think hotel/motel), what one person does in the hotel can potentially affect the others.  If one careless guest lights his room on fire, everyone in the whole place must evacuate.  If you’re staying in a cheap motel and the neighbors are making a lot of noise, you hear it too.  If you decide to eat a really smelly fish dinner in a hotel, the smell might waft into other rooms.  This thinking readily extends to amenities like a pool, hot tub, sauna, snack bar and so on.  What one person does affects the others.  So it is in a shared hosting  environment: what happens to one website affects the others.

As you move up into apartements, condos, houses and campuses, the effect you have on someone else (and their effect on you) is diminished.  The trade off is that your personal maintenance increases.  In a motel, you don’t have to care about the plumbing.  You don’t even have to make your own bed!  If there’s a problem with your room they get you to another room.  In an apartment a problem is more of a pain since you have to call the landlord and deal with it until he can send someone to fix it.  In a house you have to call the plumber yourself, or fix it yourself.  The repairs can be much more expensive too, especially since you’re not spreading the cost among a group.

The effort you go through with hosting correlates pretty well with my description of housing above.  If you use shared hosting you don’t have to worry about much at all.  If you use a VPS, you have to manage a little bit more and it’s more of a bother.  A dedicated server can require a lot of maintenance and expense to keep it running smoothly, and the cost of a load balanced cloud system can be pretty high.  Hopefully you’re starting to see that to make the best decision requires more than just a web hosting comparison.  You need to accurately identify your needs in the first place.

My site is so slow

One of the most common complaints about web hosting is “my site isn’t fast”.  There are literally an endless number of reasons this could be.  Some have to do with the hosting provider, some have to do with what you’re trying to host.  Some may not have anything to do with you or your host, but are actually caused by other people hosting on that same server.  Even other reasons may have to do with your internet service or global  internet issues.

The most common reason that a site will slow down is that there are too many visitors at one time.  To understand this, you want to think about the checkout at your local supermarket.  If you have a small shop with a single checkout and five people want to checkout at the same time, you end up with a line.  A web site is no different.  If you have five people that all want to view a web page at the same time, they have to get in line.  Fortunately, a web page can load faster than you can checkout at the supermarket, but they still line up and get served one at a time.

What might surprise you is that the number of visitors that come to your site is NOT as important as when they come.  If you take two sites that both get 10,000 visitors per day, where one gets all of its visitors between 8:00 am and 9:00 am (in one hour) and the other gets those same visitors evenly spread out throughout the day, you have very different needs.  The site that receives all it’s visitors in the same hour will need significantly more resources than the site that has them evenly spread out.  In fact, the cost to host the site with all the visitors in one hour could be 10 or 20 times more than the other site.  Just like the supermarket, during a big sale they’ll need to open more checkout lines.  but even with more checkout lines you might still have to wait (it always feels like this at Wal-mart).

This is why product launches crash servers

This is why product launches crash servers.  If you’ve ever watched a big launch for a new product and found your way to their server at the launch minute, you probably noticed that the pages load slow or perhaps not at all.  It’s not a stunt or trick aimed at convincing you that their product is popular (that would be a risky trick to pull on people interested in giving you their money).  The fact is that they’re trying to accommodate the rush.  It’s as if several thousand people came to Wal-mart at the exact same moment to buy a new video game console.  They form a line and get served one by one.  The same thing happens when a new movie comes out.  You end up with long lines.  For some reason the idea of standing in line makes sense to people in a physical (real) world sense, but they think technology is different.  Turns out it’s not.

Another surprise is that revenue doesn’t necessarily track with the cost of  hosting and expensive hosting doesn’t guarantee revenue.  As strange as it sounds, one guy might be able to host a low traffic site on a free shared hosting account (I don’t recommend this for commercial projects, by the way) and make a full time living, while another would have to pay hundreds of dollars a month to accommodate traffic that produced barely enough revenue to cover the hosting costs.  By the way, if you’re doing that I recommend you rethink your plan or find a new niche.

In the next few articles I’m going to continue my web hosting comparison and explain each of the four hosting models I mentioned above in a way that helps you know why you would need one or the other.  A well informed decision can save you time, money and a lot of headache from lost opportunity or traffic.

If you have something specific that you want me to cover, leave a comment blow.

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