These days you have an awful lot of options for hosting your website, so many that it’s easy to get lost. How much should you pay? Is support important to you, or are you a tinkerer who likes to do your own thing? Let’s dive in.
An Overview Of Hosting Categories
A couple of years ago, choosing a hosting company was a lot simpler. Shared hosting providers had relatively low prices (between $5 and $15 a month), while other companies rented out dedicated servers from $500 a month up to as much as tens of thousands of dollars a month. If you knew your budget, then the decision was easy. Today, not so much.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- How To Speed Up Your WordPress Website
- A Look At The Modern WordPress Server Stack
- Secrets Of High-Traffic WordPress Blogs
- A Beginner’s Guide To Creating A WordPress Website
At the entry level, we still have shared hosting providers and managed hosting services, which are still technically “shared” but which add a lot of value and specialization. We have virtual private servers (VPS), nowadays usually called “cloud servers”. They differentiate themselves based on the virtualization technology that they use and how much computational power and memory are included in their packages.
Finally, we have the option to rent a dedicated server — also known as co-location, whereby you place your own box in a data center. This hasn’t really changed that much, except that data centers have become a lot more sophisticated and computers have become smarter than they were three to five years ago.
Page Speed Matters. A Lot.
Before your head spins with hosting jargon, let’s talk a bit about page speed. Back in 2010, Google stated that the loading time of your website would factor into your ranking. So, if you care about search engine optimization and free traffic from Google, then you should care about your website’s performance.
Forrester Consulting found in 2009 that about 47% of Internet users expect a website to load in under 2 seconds. Aberdeen Group has data that shows that a 1-second delay in page-loading time can result in a 7% loss in conversions. All of these studies were conducted a couple of years ago, and since then the web has only sped up! Or has it?
Look at your website’s loading speed with a tool such as Pingdom or WebPagetest. If it’s above 2 seconds, then you could get a massive increase in revenue just by switching to a better performing hosting package or maybe even switching hosting companies altogether.
How big of an increase?
Tagman has the answer: “Let’s say a website’s average ticket size is $75 and conversion rate is 5%. So if it takes their pages an additional second to load then for every 400,000 unique visits each month, there would be a loss of $1.3m in revenue per year.” As you can see, performance affects the bottom line in a huge way.
Don’t forget, though, that a good hosting service will help your website only so much. If your WordPress installation has dozens of plugins activated or if your theme is bloated or poorly written, then you could have serious performance issues no matter where you’re hosted.
Let’s dissect the different types of hosting solutions, then.
1. Shared Hosting
If you’ve ever had a website, then you’ve come across shared hosting providers, which offer packages from as low as $1.99. They are considered the “public transportation” of the hosting world: extremely low fees, yet little flexibility and a lot of overcrowding. As soon as your website grows, you can expect a lot of problems, such as bandwidth limiting and slow response times. Slow response times happen because the only way that hosting companies can offer packages for such a low price is by putting a lot of websites on the same server.
For example, if a hosting provider puts you on a computer that costs them $400 to run every month, then they would need 200 clients on that machine just to break even. And to get the maximum profit out of each server, they would need to add hundreds upon hundreds of clients to it, overloading the otherwise good configuration.
Think of the difference between a dedicated server that an online business doesn’t share with anyone, thus ensuring the highest possible performance, and a machine that has a couple hundred websites on it.
Shared hosting providers are often overloaded with support questions as well. Hours, if not days, can pass before you receive an answer to your question, and most of the time the answer won’t be of any help because the provider does not employ WordPress specialists. Most hosts provide only basic support, at the level of the operating system. On top of that, you are literally just one out of thousands of customers — per server!
However, there are advantages — the rock-bottom price obviously being one of them. If you’re starting a business, this is a very cost-effective solution. In addition, you can run all kinds of scripts on these accounts; you’re not limited to WordPress. You can use the space to test different projects. And if your website gets low traffic (a couple of hundred visitors per month), then you can host it very affordably and not have to worry about system administration or anything else.
Who Is This For?
If your revenue doesn’t depend much on your website or if you have a hobby blog, then an affordable shared hosting package is a good choice.
2. Managed Hosting
In the past, managed hosting meant one thing: hardware and operating system management for separate boxes (either virtual or “bare metal”). You would hire an expert or team of experts to look after your server, and they would install an operating system on it, install security patches, change the hard drives when they break and perform other tasks. We’ll discuss this in detail later.
Relative newcomers to the hosting scene are application-level managed hosts. Companies that specialize in hosting one or another application are popping up almost every day. WordPress is one such application — and no wonder: WordPress has become the go-to content management system (and, lately, the go-to web application platform) for many people.
This hosting category is similar to shared hosting, but you could think of it as a new generation of shared hosting. It’s like a local grocery store that specializes in few but high-quality products, one that knows you by name and that is unlike those huge everything-for-cheap supermarkets.
Instead of allowing (and supporting) all kinds of scripts, these companies build their infrastructure around one — usually open-source — product. These companies know their product very well, they have fine-tuned their machines and operating systems for it, and they have a dedicated support team that knows the ins and outs of it.
Considering that roughly 23% of all websites online today run on WordPress, you can imagine that there is a lot of demand for hosting services custom-tailored to WordPress and only WordPress.
Managed WordPress hosts deal with all of the back-end tasks of running a WordPress blog so that you don’t have to. This frees you to focus on what truly matters: selling your product to customers. Beyond hosting your website, the providers also offer WordPress-specific experience that will help you optimize your web presence in many ways: speed, security, uptime, core and plugin updates, and theme and plugin compatibility.
Although this solution is more expensive than shared hosting — prices start at around $10 and go up to as much as $3,000 per domain — the benefits are usually worth it, even for relatively small websites. Many of the features — including customizable backup options, one-click staging areas, integrated CDN support and much more — cannot be found in packages anywhere else. Let’s look at some of the most common benefits of managed WordPress hosting.
Support is not limited to basic problems with your hosting account. These hosts provide advice on WordPress plugins, themes, settings, updates and so on. Many of their employees are active contributors to WordPress’ core or have published plugins and themes for WordPress. They know the ins and outs!
Fine-tuning your hosting environment (both software and hardware) will make your WordPress website or application as optimized as it can be, thus making it quick to load and to respond. Security is another important aspect, and that’s where the word “managed” comes in. Managed hosts keep your WordPress instances up to date for you. They also keep an eye out for malicious plugins and themes, and they work with you to prevent hacks of your website through known security holes.
If you have to optimize the environment of just one open-source package, then hardening the server and securing the system become a lot easier. At the level of the operating system, administrators don’t have to install a hundred different packages in order to enable customers to run Magento, Joomla, Dolphin, WordPress and many other platforms at the same time! Having fewer packages frees up a lot of resources for other important processes, and the system will naturally have many fewer entry points for malicious attacks.
Speaking of entry points, did you know that WordPress’ core is extremely safe? The biggest vulnerability occurs when someone is running a version of WordPress that is out of date by several years. Too many people simply do not update their core files, despite it truly being a one-click affair. Managed hosting providers make sure that core files are always up to date, and they’ll even update for you if needed!
Most of the time, managed WordPress hosts have their own caching system that is custom built for WordPress and that is a lot faster than any plugin-based ones! That’s why most don’t allow plugins such as W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache. If you’ve had trouble setting up either of those in the past, then you’ll be thankful for this. Not having to worry about any of the technical mumbo jumbo is a blessing when you have a business to run!
Caching can be done in many different ways. First, there is object caching, which is accomplished by running Memcached or, lately, a Redis-based in-memory datastore service and a WordPress plugin counterpart. You would have to activate this for your website (or the host would do it for you). This will take a load off the database and the PHP interpreter, thus speeding up your website a lot.
In addition, modern configurations take advantage of the so-called reverse proxy wherever possible. This could be the immensely popular Varnish or something like the built-in FastCGI Cache of the Nginx web server. These essentially take a snapshot of your website, saving a full copy of the final WordPress-generated HTML pages. By default, these usually break dynamic parts of the page, such as the “Hey, Joe” part of the navigation bar once the user is logged in, the “Latest comments” section, and the shopping cart.
But with a good amount of tweaking, you can get the configuration right. And the speed is unbeatable. Instead of at least three software modules working on each request from each visitor (those modules being the PHP interpreter, the MySQL database server and the web server’s software itself), you can have only one: the reverse proxy. Less computation means much faster page-loading times!
These cannot be used on general shared hosting accounts because there’s no way that a hosting provider could write a configuration for all of the open-source PHP scripts out there! This is where dedicated hosts excel: creating configurations that work extremely well for WordPress and only WordPress.
Regularly backing up your website might not seem important, until your server’s hard drive gives up and your data is not recoverable! Or perhaps your website will get infected so badly that restoring it from a clean backup point would be easier than manually cleaning up everything.
Managed WordPress hosts back up your website regularly (usually daily). So, if the worst happens, you’re covered. Be sure to read the fine print, though. Some companies do not back up the
uploads folders, in which case you could lose all of your images, which would make the backup not worth much!
The disadvantages of managed hosts are the heftier prices and the lack of support for any other web applications. WPEngine, for example, lets you run other PHP scripts on its servers, but it doesn’t support them in any way. Other companies actively discourage customers from running anything else on their machines, meaning that customers would have to get an account with a general hosting provider to run something alongside their WordPress installation. These hosts dedicate their entire infrastructure to WordPress on the assumption that you can do almost anything with WordPress nowadays, including complete forum systems, complex CRM solutions, social networking websites, and crowdfunding marketplaces — the list is long.
Who Is This For?
Managed hosts are good for people who run their business on WordPress. These hosts deliver great performance, fine-tuned servers, a lot of exclusive services custom tailored to WordPress users, and affordable prices.
Given how important your online business is, a managed hosting account for $30 a month is probably a great deal, especially if you take into account the extra income that an optimized environment will bring in.
3. Virtual Private Servers
If you know your way around Unix-based operating systems, then you might want to look into building a custom stack on a VPS or a bare-metal dedicated server. Digital Ocean’s price for an entry-level virtual server, which can serve a couple of low-traffic websites, is only $5 a month. You can also get a free node with Amazon AWS, with specifications similar to those of Digital Ocean’s droplet. As cloud computing has become more and more popular, these virtualized servers have become popular, too. For a fraction of the cost of a dedicated server, you can get your own (virtual) machine, and tune it to your exact needs.
The downside is that you usually don’t get any support, and you will have to do several things yourself: keep an eye on system components, install web and database server software, keep everything updated and, of course, configure all of the applications in a (mostly) Linux-based environment. There is also the “bad neighbor” problem: Because hardware resources are shared between many virtual machine users, poor performance is possible if someone else is overusing the resources of the machine that your account is located on.
VPS’ have different tiers, based on the service level, from absolutely no support to fully managed. A fully managed VPS will usually install all of the required software, keep it (and the operating system) updated and proactively monitor the server to minimize downtime. Obviously, the monthly price goes up with your requirements.
Who Is This For?
All in all, VPS is a cheap way to get as much flexibility as you need, with the option to deploy popular software packages (including WordPress) in one click. Don’t forget, though, that you will need to be very familiar with installing Linux via the command line in order to run a VPS and resolve problems.
4. Dedicated “Bare Metal” Servers
Having your own dedicated server is almost the same as a VPS, but instead of sharing a massive pool of hardware resources with others via virtualization, you get to use “all the metal” of the computer for your website only. Prices usually start at $100 a month, but the sky is the limit. Packages for thousands of dollars a month are not rare either, although those machines serve really large applications that draw millions of visitors each month or that require unusually high computational power.
The downside (other than the price tag) is that you have to deal with occasional hardware failures. This is different from the other categories we’ve looked at because if, for example, a hard drive fails and you don’t have another one mirrored, then you’ll face hours (perhaps even days) of downtime. If you don’t have any backups whatsoever, then you’re out of luck completely. A faulty CPU or RAM unit can cause serious headaches, too!
Who Is This For?
A dedicated server is definitely not for everyday website owners. This is getting into the enterprise end of hosting solutions. However, if you prefer to drive a Ferrari just because you can, then this is the one to get.
As promised in the introduction, you have quite a lot of options to choose from! Hopefully, having read this article, you now have a clearer picture of the different packages available, and you will be able to make a decision based on your website, requirements and budget!
Did I leave out something important? I’d love to hear your thoughts.