Web hosting is all about where the actual data that makes up your website physically resides. Any computer that stores that data and offers it up when asked is in effect a ‘server’ and is where the website is hosted. Search engines and visitors send a request to the server, and it responds by showing them a page of the website or other data, depending on how the site is set up.
There are some differences between the different types of hosting. To use an analogy, the server is the website’s home. In the same way your home could be in a block of flats, a luxury condo, a fully detached house, or even moving nomadically from hotel room to hotel room, there are several different types of ‘home’ for your data.
There are 4 primary types of web hosting available today: Shared Hosting, VPS Hosting, Dedicated Hosting and Cloud Hosting.
Each has advantages and disadvantages for different types of users. Here, we’ll look at each in detail.
Worldwide, shared hosting is the most common web hosting solution. It has its limitations, but most people don’t need anything more, and prefer not to pay for a more expensive plan.
A hosting provider offering shared hosting has one or more large servers, each containing the data for hundreds or thousands of websites. The users typically pay for a certain amount of server space, and for a certain amount of bandwidth – actually sending data to and from visitors to the website over the internet.
To return to the home analogy, shared hosting has your data residing in one of a large block of flats. There are plenty of other residents (websites) living in the building (the server), and they all use the same elevators, entrances and exits (the processors and internet connection) but each has their own set of rooms (storage space).
The advantages of shared hosting are:
Simplicity – this is one of the easiest hosting plans to set up, and for the users to manage.
Affordability – shared hosting is almost always the cheapest option for most users.
Ease of maintenance – it is also simple for the hosting company to maintain, and the vast majority of the processes are automated.
The disadvantages of shared hosting are:
Lack of control – you can’t influence how the server is run or prioritised.
Noisy neighbours – there are a lot of other websites on your server, and that can sometimes be a problem.
The vast majority of the time, the servers are maintained well and their capacity is carefully managed, so that each one can handle all of the traffic the sites on it receive without any trouble. However, not every website owner is skilled, careful, or even particularly responsible (like everyone else in a block of flats). If one suddenly starts using a huge amount of bandwidth, it can slow the server down for all the other websites – imagine your neighbours hogging the elevators for 3 hours moving furniture.
Having your site hosted on a virtual private server (VPS) is a bit different. Here, a relatively large portion of a server is partitioned off for your use alone. Your section of the machine runs its own copy of the operating system, and behaves in almost all ways as a stand-alone machine.
To extend our housing analogy, a VPS is a luxury condo. You’ve purchased or leased the space, and what you do with it is (within reason) your business. You can change the carpet. You can turn the office into another bedroom. You can black out the windows and throw parties every night (VPS condos have very thick walls).
However, you do still use the same entryway and elevators as the other residents, and depend on the same custodians, etc.
Why bother making a ‘virtual’ stand-alone server? Simply put, it is cheaper. Most websites don’t actually demand the full capacity of a server’s processing power or internet connection (though a notable few require all that and more. Google is spread across thousands of servers all over the world). That means that 5 or 10 or 100 virtual servers can all get along happily on one physical machine 99% of the time. On the rare occasions when there are conflicts – for example at bottlenecks like the pathways to all the condos – there can be a few delays.
The advantages of VPS hosting are:
Elbow room – you’re not quite sharing space, and you have extra capacity when you need it.
Control – you can manipulate your virtual machine in almost any way you could manipulate a real one. You can add programs, and you can even effectively crash it. So be careful.
Better performance – typically, you can expect better load times and fewer server issues on a VPS.
Flexibility – the ‘size’ of your virtual machine is mutable. If you buy more space, your virtual machine gets bigger. Think of this as buying the condo next door and knocking the wall through.
Resilience – it is a lot easier (or at least faster) to bring a crashed virtual machine back online than a physical one.
The disadvantages of VPS hosting are:
Price – it almost always costs more than shared hosting.
Responsibility – you really should know what you’re doing before you start changing the settings and adding or removing applications. As previously mentioned, you can make your site unusable or take it offline entirely.
Having your site hosted on a dedicated private server is the gold standard of web hosting. You typically lease an entire physical server from the hosting company, which is reserved exclusively for your use. You can put as many of your websites on it as you want, of course, or use it to run one huge powerhouse of a site.
As such, you choose not just the operating system and other software options, but also the hardware itself. The only limits are what the hosting company is willing to lease you.
The hosting service keeps the server plugged in to the power and connected to the internet, keeps it running, keeps it cool, and does any maintenance, management or upkeep you have contracted for as well. Typically, they also provide a remote back-up service just in case something happens to the server itself while it is under their care.
Using our housing analogy, this is buying (or leasing) a big house of your own. Moreover, it comes with servants! A gardener, maids, cooks and even a skilled butler who manages them all and keeps them out of sight until they’re needed. You’re even insured, in case it burns down or is broken into.
The advantages of dedicated hosting are:
Control – you have full control of the entire server.
Performance – the entire resources of the server are yours to use, or to squander. It’s yours, after all.
The disadvantages of dedicated hosting are:
Cost – dedicated hosting is usually the most expensive option. Houses in the country don’t come cheap.
Responsibility – If you know how to run a server, you’re golden. Otherwise, you’ll be paying for those maids and butlers.
Cloud hosting has aspects of shared hosting and VPS hosting, but its own unique advantages and disadvantages. You are sharing space with other websites, but that space is, well, nebulous. The ‘server’ is an amalgam of however many physical machines are needed at the time, which may even be scattered across different data centres (so called ‘server farms’) in different locations.
Here the housing analogy gets pretty tenuous. Think of it as living in a string of hotels or Airbnbs. You always have somewhere to stay, but you can never say from day to day where that room or suite will be. You don’t have to, though. You just say to the taxi driver, ‘Take me to my hotel’ and they do.
The advantages of cloud hosting are:
Flexibility – this is this the easiest plan to expand on demand.
Efficiency – you never pay for any more capacity than you actually use.
The disadvantages of cloud hosting are:
It is new – that means it can be confusing to use for some, and there are no ‘cloud hosting for dummies’ manuals (yet).
Security – this is still hotly debated. Some insist that cloud hosting is perfectly safe, and others say there are vulnerabilities to any ‘cloud’ service. The jury is still out on this one.
The thing to remember when choosing web hosting is that you needn’t get the biggest, fanciest hosting option just because you can. Do a little research, and determine exactly how much capacity and flexibility you really need, then choose the most appropriate hosting based on your demands.