A Guide to Understanding Shared Hosting

Suppose you have an idea for a web site of your own. You want to publish a blog, or you’ve got some photos or clips you want to share, or you want to start a small business. Something like that.

How do you get started? First, you have to pick a domain name for your site and get the exclusive world-wide rights to it. You can do that by visiting a domain registrar like Namecheap or Hover. Choose a name and pay them a few dollars for it. It’s yours!

But it isn’t a site yet; you’ve only purchased the exclusive right to use that name. You still need to build the site and host it on a web server! It is possible to host your domain yourself, but that’s lots of work – and money, since you need to buy all the hardware and a fast broadband connection.

Except for the dedicated geeks, your best bet is to rent service and support from a web hosting company. They’re professionals. Part of their service is that they manage your site. They install and maintain the suite of apps and utilities that all the sites being hosted can use. They also provide an easy-to-use control panel with a point-and-click interface to manage your site. That’s the foundation that everyone can use.

Choosing a hosting company is what this site is all about. This post is all about what is “shared” in a shared hosting plan.

The Best 5

Here are the hosting companies that are mentioned in this article:

  • A2 Hosting : “Unlimited” Shared hosting with optional SSD storage,
  • DreamHost : High performance Shared, VPS, and Dedicated hosting,
  • GreenGeeks : A Shared, VPS and Reseller hosting company noted for their commitment to the environment,
  • A Small Orange : Deluxe Shared, Business, and VPS hosting at attractive prices,
  • Lithium Hosting : High performance Shared and VPS hosting,

Read more about them after the break!

Shared Hosting

In any shared hosting plan, lots of unrelated sites are assigned to the same physical server. They need to share the resources of that computer.

The owners of each domain don’t know the others and they don’t even know how many domains are hosted on the that computer. A hosting company takes responsibility for coordinating the sites.

Buying a shared hosting plan is a bit like renting an apartment in a big complex. All the tenants get the same floor plans and basic appliances. Within that framework, they can customize their space to some extent. But they don’t have free reign to customize many aspects of their apartment. They also cannot be bad neighbors and have wild all-night parties.

In a sense, this is how shared hosting works. For just a few dollars, you get to be a cyber-resident in someone else’s building, a.k.a. a server. The landlord has to find a balance among the competing interests of all his tenants.

It needs to be this way because the behavior of each site on a shared server affects the others. The server has a finite amount of resources (CPU speed, memory, storage, bandwidth, and so forth). Under a Shared Hosting plan, one site can’t try to take more than its fair share of resources. If they don’t, their neighbors will suffer the consequences – and they wouldn’t know why since they don’t know who their neighbors are! Its only the landlord who can see which tenant is being the resource hog.


Marketing is Misleading

That’s one component of the reality of the shared hosting business. Another reality is that the hosting company has to attract new customers.


“Unlimited!”

This competition among hosting companies is intense since a lot of hosting companies are competing for the same customers. To get the competitive edge, the hosting companies tend to offer tons of features at cutthroat prices. They come in at only a few dollars per month.

It has become extremely common for them to advertise “unlimited” service: Unlimited storage, bandwidth, databases, email accounts, hosted domains, and so forth. That’s what the front-page marketing says. It can’t really be that way because a company cannot allow one little shared hosting account to take over an entire server by hogging the resources. There have to be limits; ultimately, the limits are correlated with the price you pay.


The Limits to “Unlimited”

Hosting companies who claim “unlimited” and overbook their shared servers are gambling that everyone who purchases shared hosting is a low volume site. In fact, all the companies have backhanded policies that ensure that this is the case.

To understand a company’s real shared hosting policy, you need to read the “fine print”. Sometimes its called “Terms of Service”, “Acceptable Use”, or just “Legal”. The link is usually the smallest text on the bottom of the home page.

Here’s few examples of the fine print from good hosting companies that sell “unlimited” shared hosting plans. The disparity between front-page marketing and back-of-the-book Terms of Service shows how competitive the market is.


A2 Hosting

Their front-page marketing says:

…unlimited resources: unlimited space, unlimited data transfer, unlimited email accounts, unlimited databases, and unlimited domains.

Their fine print says:

The terms “unlimited” and “unmetered” are defined by our experience with similarly situated customers. This means that your use of our resources may not exceed that of similarly situated customers.
You may not place excessive burdens on our CPUs, servers or other resources, including our customer support services. You understand that bandwidth, connection speeds and other similar indices of capacity are maximum numbers. Consistently reaching these capacity numbers may result our need to place restrictions on your use of the Services. You agree that we may place restrictions on your use of the Services or customer support services to the extent that they exceed the use of these resources by similarly situated customers.

Visit A2 Hosting


Dreamhost

Their front-page marketing says:

Limitless Possibilities

Get unlimited data transfer bandwidth, website storage, email and hosted domains, and much more!

Their fine print says:

What we mean is, you don’t have to worry about disk storage or network transfer when your site gets popular.

You DO still have to worry about plenty of other things though…if your site isn’t well optimized and is causing issues for others on your shared server (either because it’s pounding the CPU, hogging RAM, or doing tons of disk I/O), you may be asked to sign up for your own DreamHost Private Server.

When making a website, you should be thinking about “How can I make an interesting site for my visitors while minimizing my server storage, bandwidth, file system, memory, and cpu impact as much as possible?”

Trust us, every host out there has exactly the same limitations…we’re just trying to be up front about them!”

That’s a good summary of their real position. In English, they mean: Try do to your best while being frugal with our resources! Like every other shared hosting company, they’re the judges of whether you are being sufficiently frugal.

Visit Dreamhost


GreenGeeks

The front page marketing says:

Unlimited web space, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited domains, unlimited email, unlimited mySQL databases.

Their fine print says:

We do not set limits on the disk space and bandwidth (data transfer) that we provide in plans that are marked “Unlimited”. We want you to have the resources available to you to build a great online presence.

Even though we want you to succeed, we need to ensure that we’re providing all of our customers with optimum service. As such we do require all of our customers to be fully compliant with our Excessive Resource User Policy/Terms of Service and utilize disk space and bandwidth related to normal operation of a personal or small business web site.

If a customer’s hosting account is found to have violated the client content, excessive resource user policy and/or is storing files for archiving purposes, the contents will be removed and while we make best effort to contact customers before hand, can occur without notice.

The hosting companies have settled on policies that try to balance the interests of all the tenants – and themselves. The intense competition among the shared hosting companies tends to push the system toward finding a fair balance.

Visit GreenGeeks


The Advantages of “Limited”

The other strategy is to place restrictions on the resources that any one site can have. They create several shared hosting plans on a graded scale by placing limits on resources. Often, the cheapest plan on the scale is even cheaper than “unlimited” plans offered by competitors.

In practice, the limited shared hosting plans are more upfront about what you are really buying. You can hold them to that; in turn, they can design their service so that everyone who is assigned a server can actually use the stated resources. The hope is that this practice places a cap on overbooking shared servers. Here are a couple of examples.


A Small Orange

Their front-page marketing advertises five shared hosting plans that differ by amount of resources. They are as follows:

Plan Storage Bandwidth Price
Tiny 250MB 5GB $2.92/mo
Small 1GB 20GB $5/mo
Medium 5GB 100GB $10/mo
Large 15GB 300GB $20/mo
Super 25GB 500GB $30/mo

But they need to balance the needs of all the sites on a shared server just like everyone else. Their fine print says:

Each customer is required to utilize as little server resources as possible, so as to allow for reasonable performance by all A Small Orange customers. Because server CPU and memory are shared resources, excessive consumption of these resources can interfere with or completely prevent normal service performance for other users. A Small Orange reserves the right to suspend or terminate Services on any account that, at its sole discretion, is abusing server resources.

They go on to state the limits on CPU and memory usage, the number of running processes, execution times and some other parameters. It isn’t unlimited, but they didn’t say it was! In that sense, you know where you stand when you buy a limited shared hosting plan.

Visit A Small Orange


Lithium Hosting

Their front-page marketing lists four paid plans plus a free 30 day trial. Their advertised prices are their honest month-to-month prices and they offer discounts for 1, 2, and 3 year commitments. The price ranges are shown below:

Plan Storage Bandwidth Price
Trial 1GB 25GB Free (1 mo)
Economy 2MB 50GB $1.46-$1.95/mo
Value 4GB 100GB $2.96-$3.95/mo
Supreme 8GB 250GB $5.21-$6.95/mo
Elite 12GB 500GB $6.71-$8.95/mo

Their fine print explains that they’ve recently abandoned the “unlimited” rat race and replaced that with the plans shown here:

…hosting companies are in a non-stop competition to try and one-up the other guy to generate more sales. Unfortunately this has led to using buzzwords and marketing terms that really don’t add up to what you’d expect.
One of these words is “unlimited”. In the web hosting industry, “unlimited” does not mean unlimited. In reality, unlimited hosting is always limited.

That ought to sound familiar by now.

Visit LithiumHosting


Recommendations

Life is simple. The amount of resources you can use is correlated with price. Limited Shared Hosting is more upfront about their real policies but you may well find that a good “unlimited” plan is a better deal for you, given your requirements.

As you can see from the summary table, the cheapest plans in this group belong to hosting companies who offer only Limited Shared Hosting plans. If you have a modest site, then plans like these may be the best balance for you between price and performance. If your site is more ambitious, the cheapest plans will not work for you and the limited hosting companies will bump you up to a more expensive plan.

On the other hand, the “one size fits all” pricing model of the “unlimited” plans may be too expensive for a beginner’s site and not big enough for a high traffic shared hosting site. If you can’t fit into a small-size limited plan, then an unlimited plan may work out better for you.

If any flavor of shared hosting doesn’t work out for you, then the next alternatives are Virtual Private Server and Cloud hosting plans. They will be covered in another post.


Summary

Here’s the shared hosting companies that are mentioned in this article.

Type Provider Starting Price
Unlimited a2HostingLogo $4.95/mo Visit Site
Unlimited dreamhost-logo $8.95/mo Visit Site
Unlimited greengeeks-logo $3.96/mo Visit Site
Limited asmallorange-logo-320x80 $2.92/mo Visit Site
Limited lithiumhostinglogo $1.95/mo Visit Site


Published on: February 14,2014.

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