The Truth About Unlimited Hosting

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Photo Credit: Domenico Loia

Whether you are looking to create a website or blog as a hobby or with goals to become the next Amazon, choosing a web hosting service and self-hosting your site is one of the most important steps you can take after picking a domain name.

If you are like many other people who are searching for an affordable web host for their site, you have probably come across companies offering unlimited hosting. For a few dollars a month, you get things like unlimited bandwidth, unlimited storage, unlimited domains, unlimited email accounts, unlimited MySQL databases, and more.

The prudent shopper will stop and wonder what is the catch here. Just how is this possible and how “unlimited” are these services. Should you even consider unlimited hosting plans?

What Is Unlimited Web Hosting

Nearly every hosting provider these days are offering unlimited hosting accounts these days. Even a couple of the web hosts recommended by WordPress – Bluehost and Dreamhost, advertise plans with unlimited features such as traffic, storage, and email.

For the average person, when they see “unlimited”, they think the service is exactly that – something with no limitations. I’m going to have to crush your dreams and inform you that you won’t be able to start up the next YouTube or Gmail service on that $5 unlimited hosting plan.

What unlimited hosting providers are really doing is using a marketing tactic. The webhosting industry is fiercely competitive. When all their competition offers unlimited this and unlimited that, they have to do it too or they will get skipped over.

Unlimited hosting is popular because it offers peace of mind. It lets webmasters focus on building and marketing their sites instead of worrying about running out of disk space, data transfer, or getting an unexpected bill at the end of the month.

How Is Unlimited Hosting Possible

Behind each website on the internet is a computer like the one sitting under your desk, except it’s called a server.

These servers are usually a lot beefier than a regular computer. They are running enterprise grade hardware that is more reliable and can support much more memory, hard drives, multiple CPUs, and even redundant power supplies.

This also means for every server there is a point where one cannot add any more memory, hard drives, or processors to it. A web host may advertise unlimited disk space for a hosting plan, but hard drives are only so big in size. Same thing with bandwidth. There is a limit for the network cards, switches, and the series of tubes from the datacenter out to the internet.

It may be possible to offer services that may be software based without limits. For example unlimited domains, unlimited email accounts, and unlimited databases. But if your usage is significantly higher than what is normal, you will also use more resources on the server. Each additional email account or database takes up more disk storage. Lots of incoming/outgoing emails or database queries means more processor usage. Expect the hosting company to take a deeper look at what you are doing and whether it is permitted if your account uses too many resources on the server.

So how can a web host offer unlimited hosting when there is a finite amount of resources?

It is called overselling.

A webhosting company such as Bluehost or DreamHost can’t make money selling one $5 plan per server when a server can cost a few thousand dollars. Not to mention the cost of the bandwidth, power, cooling, and staff.

What you are signing up for is a shared hosting account with dozens or maybe even hundreds of other sites and customers hosted on the same server. With the vast majority of sites barely using any disk space or data transfer, there are plenty of resources left over to go around.

What unlimited really means is as long as a particular customer’s server resource usage doesn’t affect the other customers on the server, the hosting company will let them do their thing. The host gets to maximize the return on their server. You the customer won’t have to worry about how much space you are using up each time you upload a photo or obsess over how much space you have remaining.

Limits on Unlimited Hosting

When you see the word “unlimited” on a hosting plan, think of there being a big asterisk after it. Before signing up for an unlimited hosting plan you need to read the terms of service or acceptable use policy.

You will usually find a section on exactly what you can and cannot do with your hosting account. All hosting companies will have a notice saying they reserve the right to terminate services or change you to a different plan if the customer violates the terms by hogging the CPU, RAM, bandwidth, disk space, or other resources.

There may be a maximum number of files or size for the databases permitted. Or the hosting company might prohibit certain types of sites you can run on their servers.

Many years ago I had stored over 120 gigabytes of files on Dreamhost for an image-hosting site for only $10 a month. This type of site was prohibited by their terms on their unlimited plans because they tend to generate lots of bandwidth usage and use a lot of storage. I flew under their radar for years until one day I got an email notifying me I had 7 days to remove the files or pay extra for storing the files.

Should You Sign Up With An Unlimited Hosting Service

As a new webmaster who is starting their first ever website, especially if it is an information site like a blog, there is usually nothing wrong with a shared hosting plan nor unlimited hosting plans.

When you are starting out don’t worry about spending tons of money for the most powerful plan that is probably overkill for your site. Start small and work your way up. Getting 30 days of hosting for the cost of a coffee is a fantastic deal.

Starting out on a shared hosting account without limits will help keep your startup costs low. You won’t have to worry about extra overage fees.

Shared hosting is targeted at beginners as the hosting company does all the server management. There is likely to be control panels available for things like installing WordPress, adding databases, creating email accounts, and more.

On the message boards I always see people who are overly enthusiastic about their new online business idea. It is unlikely you will start getting a tsunami of traffic immediately. If you find that you are growing quickly, your hosting company will be more than willing to upgrade you to a bigger plan.

All webhosting companies will still let you know how much disk space and bandwidth you are using even though the service is unlimited. When the time comes for you to upgrade you will have a better idea what your site’s actual requirements are so you can chose the best plan for your needs without overspending.

Who Should Avoid Unlimited Hosting

When you are on a server with hundreds of other users, there are hundreds of chances that a website will run amok and overload the server. When that happens, all the sites will be inaccessible until the host kills the runaway script, restarts the database, or reboots the server.

The following sites should avoid shared hosting:

Ecommerce Websites

When your website going down costs you sales, you will want to stay away from shared hosting accounts. Pay more for managed hosting with an uptime guarantee and real-time monitoring where the hosting company proactively monitors your server and notifies you if your site is unreachable.

The last thing you want is to be spending a bunch of money on advertising only for potential customers to click through to site that takes forever to load or doesn’t even respond. Akamai has found that 47% of people expect a web page to load in two seconds or less and 40% of people will leave if a website takes longer than three seconds.

Business Websites

If your business and customers depends on your website to be available, for example if you have a Service as a Service (SaaS) business, you should avoid shared hosting. Otherwise you will end up with bad reviews and customers jumping ship.

Same if the server goes down and all your employees end up sitting around twiddling their thumbs because they can’t access their email to do their job.

If email is important for your business, shared servers are notorious for having their IP addresses placed on spam blacklists because spammers sign up for cheap accounts to send out thousands of emails before getting kicked off. Then they go elsewhere and repeat the process. I’ve emailed a client once and never got a response only to find out later the email was caught by the spam filter.

If downtime costs you business and money, you should spend a little more money for a virtual private server (VPS). With a VPS, you get more control on how you can configure it and you are sharing the server with less people. Another benefit of a VPS is the server’s resources are allocated just for you so another user on the VPS can’t hog all the CPU or RAM.

Dreamhost has VPS plans that start at $10 / month and Bluehost’s start at $19.99 / month.

Closing $ense

There is a saying “you get what you pay for”. This is true for web hosting too.

Limits on things such as disk storage, bandwidth, or number of email accounts and databases will not affect the majority of webhosting customers.

To put things in perspective, right now this blog with almost 100 posts uses about 250 megabytes of storage for the website data files and 50 megabytes for the database. Bluehost‘s $3.95 / month plan comes with 50 gigabytes (or 50,000 megabytes) of space. At the current rate of disk usage, it will take over 16,000 blog posts before I hit that limit.

What is actually important when choosing a hosting company is uptime and customer support. You want a company that has enough staff on hand to fix any issues when a server goes down and can respond to support tickets in a timely manner.

The best way to find the best hosting service is to read reviews. One of the top sites I’ve found for this is the WebHostingTalk forums.

Finally, there is nothing better than personal experience. Spend some money and sign up with a host on a trial basis. For the WordPress recommended hosts, Dreamhost and Bluehost both offer money back guarantees on their shared hosting plans.

Once you are set up, use an uptime monitoring service like UptimeRobot, which will ping your site every 5 minutes for free. This will let you know how reliable the service is.

Last but not least, be sure you are backing up your website regularly. Don’t depend on your host to do it for you. You’ve put in a lot of hard work building your site and you don’t want to lose it.

Have you used unlimited hosting before? What do you recommend new webmasters look for when searching for hosting?

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