Kinds of Hosting Explained (Shared, VPS, and Dedicated)

I was going to write this post like 6 months ago when I moved from shared hosting to a dedicated server, but I never posted it because I was afraid no one would be interested. But then on Twitter, April from Good Books and Good Wine said she would be interested! And thus here we are.

I’m going to talk about the different kinds of web hosting that are available: shared hosting, virtual private servers (VPS), and dedicated servers. The reason why I thought no one would be interested is because 99% of book bloggers are going to want to use shared hosting. Period. But, a very small amount of you may be interested in VPS or dedicated hosting, so this post will help you with that. (Or maybe you’re just curious!)

Managed vs unmanaged

Before we dig into the kinds of hosting, I need to talk about “managed” vs “unmanaged” hosting, because I will be throwing those terms around. Managed vs unmanaged come into play once you start looking at VPS and dedicated servers.

Managed hosting – you get customer support!

That’s the gist of it. If you buy a managed VPS, the host will set up your server space for you. They will install the operating system, set up the security, do routine maintenance/updates/etc. for you. If you ever run into any problems, you can fill out a support ticket and they will help you.

Let’s use buying a new Macbook as an example. If you were to buy a “managed Macbook”, you would pay the fee, they deliver the laptop to your doorstep, there’s a little post-it note on it with the login details, you turn it on, you log in and you’re all set! All the basics are installed for you like Safari, iTunes, iPhoto, and Mail. You can install more things if you want, but the main thing here is that it’s ready to go straight out of the box. If you ever have a problem, you call up your Macbook Genius friend and they help you with anything you need.

Unmanaged hosting – you’re on your own!

With unmanaged hosting you get ZERO support. You’re given login details to the server and left alone. You have to install everything from scratch.. and that doesn’t just mean installing WordPress. You have to install the operating system, any applications you need, set up the security, etc.

To use my Macbook metaphor, the comparison would be this: you pay the fee and they deliver a box to your doorstep. The box contains a Macbook and 3 different discs. There’s no instructions booklet or anything. You turn on the Macbook and you can’t immediately login. Instead it’s yelling at you to install the operating system from one of the 3 discs. You have to pick the one you want. Once you sort that out, you can set up an account and login. But then it’s a blank slate. Safari doesn’t exist. iTunes doesn’t exist. Nothing is there. You have to manually install every application you’ll need.

If you get stuck or don’t know how to install an application, there’s no one to call. If you call the Macbook Genius guy, the conversation will go like this:

You: “Help! How do I install Safari?”
Macbook Genius: “Is the laptop itself working?”
You: “Yes but—”
Macbook Genius: “Then it’s not my problem. Bye.”

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting is the most common kind of hosting and is what 99% of book bloggers use (and should use). The main reason being: it’s the cheapest.

Share hosting is exactly what it sounds like: hundreds (sometimes over 1,000) people share one server. That means they share all the resources (RAM, CPU), and this is one of the key reasons why some web sites on shared hosting can be slow.

Imagine like 30 people all sitting around one computer. Each person has their own application open and is doing their own project. With 30 different applications open running different processes, the computer is going to start to get slow or laggy.

Have you ever had your blog get super sluggish? Or maybe go offline all together for a few hours? This is likely because you either have too many people on your server, or because one (or more) person on your server is experiencing a huge traffic spike and is using more than their fair share of resources. Basically they’re cutting into what should be your resources, and that’s why your website becomes slow.

 Disadvantages of sharing a server

  • Sites can be really slow/laggy if someone else on your server gets a traffic spike.
  • You’re more likely to have site downtime.
  • When you share a server with other people, it means you all share the same IP address. So if someone else on your server uses their hosting for spamming or illegal activities, that IP address can be banned from search engines or even entire countries (like China). Or the IP could just be flagged as a “spam IP”, which could affect some services.
  • Since you have more people on each server, there are more opportunities for security holes.
  • You can’t install your own applications. Most people won’t want to do this, but one disadvantage is applications/plugins that require a certain version of PHP. Some web hosts claim they have that version of PHP, but really they just have a “patched” version, which means they don’t actually have the full thing, they just have an old version with some of the functions from the newer version.. but there are still some bits missing. There is no way for you to manually install the full version that you want/need. (The Ultimate Book Blogger Plugin used to be affected by this.)
  • You usually have a limited number of e-mail addresses you can create, or limits on other kinds of features (like how many databases you can have, or how many e-mails you can send out).

 Advantages of sharing a server

  • It’s super cheap! It only costs between about $4 and $8 per month to rent shared hosting space. That’s like the price of one ebook per month!
  • It’s really easy. You don’t have to do much set up or management. You just set up the very basics through easy interfaces and then you’re basically done.
  • If you do something wrong or need help, there’s usually some kind of hosting customer support that you can turn to through email, live chat, or phone.

Virtual Private Server (VPS)

A VPS is basically in between shared hosting and a dedicated server. You still share a server with other people, but it’s significantly less (maybe 10-40 others). And furthermore, each person is isolated from the other, which means you do not share resources at all. Each person gets a certain amount of resources allocated to them and you can’t “steal” them from other people. So if someone else has a traffic spike, your blog’s loading time will not be affected.

You also have the power to do some server configuring, installing your own server applications, etc.

 Disadvantages of a VPS

  • It costs more than shared hosting. It’s upwards of $20 per month. And depending on your blog traffic, you might not be able to go with the lowest option. For example, one of the best unmanaged VPS companies is Linode. Their cheapest package ($20 per month) offers 1GB of RAM. That would not be enough for my blog, so I’d have to use the next package at $40 per month.
  • This is where you start getting into the area of “managed” vs “unmanaged” and you have to be careful. If you have no server knowledge, you have to ensure that you buy a “managed” VPS, which means you have people set up everything for you. If you get “unmanaged”, you could end up in a situation where you have no idea how to set up your blog. But the downside is that “managed” hosting (which almost all book bloggers looking at a VPS would need) is SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive than unmanaged.
  • You’re still sharing a server with other people.

 Advantages of a VPS

  • You still share a server, but you are isolated from everyone else, which means you don’t share resources.
  • You will always get the amount of resources promised to you.
  • You can set up your own server and install your own applications.
  • You don’t have any limits on how many e-mails/databases you can create.
  • You have your own IP addresses so you’re not affected by other peoples’ spam/illegal activities.
  • You can easily buy additional IP addresses if you need SSL certificates/etc.

What book bloggers would want a VPS?

Some book bloggers may have to have a VPS. If your blog gets A TON of traffic, your web host may “kick you out”. Which actually means they say, “You have to upgrade to our VPS option or else we’ll have to shut down your account.” They do that when your blog starts using way too many resources to accommodate the traffic, and it starts affecting other people on the server.

So a VPS is for bloggers with a ton of traffic who have “outgrown” shared hosting.

Or, some bloggers may not be kicked out of shared hosting, but may still want a VPS. These are the bloggers who can afford to spend $30+ per month and maybe they just want a faster or more reliable server.

Dedicated Servers

A dedicated server is one server all to yourself. You don’t share with anyone; it’s all yours. This is very much a case of “you get what you pay for”. You buy a server with a certain amount of storage space, a certain amount of RAM, a certain CPU, and that’s exactly what you get. All those resources belong to you. You have full and complete control over the configuration of your server and everything that goes on there.

But on the other hand, you need to be a tech genius to run your own dedicated server. (Luckily for me, I have a boyfriend who happens to basically work as a server manager.)

(Or, if you’re not a tech genius, you can pay like double the price for a “managed” dedicated server, which means you pay to have the host’s support team set everything up for you.)

 Disadvantages of a dedicated server

  • You have to know how to manage a server on your own. You basically set everything up via command lines. You have to set up all the applications, install everything, maintain updates, etc. There is no pretty, friendly graphical interface to do this for you. It’s a bit scary.
  • Dedicated servers are expensive, and you have to buy one that can handle your traffic. The bigger your site and the more traffic it gets, the more you have to pay. For example, my boyfriend and I both work for a site that gets millions of page views each month and it costs about $800 each month in server costs because we need a dedicated server good enough to handle all that traffic. However, for a smaller blog it’s possible to buy an unmanaged (no customer support) dedicated server for only ~$30 per month.
  • Unless you pay tons more for “managed” service, customer support will not help you if you screw things up. When you buy a dedicated server, it’s your responsibility. If you accidentally delete your blog, you can’t rely on the company to restore it or even back up your blog for you. You can’t rely on them to swoop in and fix it. It’s 100% up to you. The only thing they will help you with is if the physical server gets destroyed or something, or if you have some kind of billing inquiry.

 Advantages of a dedicated server

  • You can install whatever you want whenever you want.
  • You can easily set up scripts that will automatically take full backups for you reliably. (This is usually better than a WordPress plugin that does the same thing.)
  • You don’t have to worry about people hogging resources since you’re the only one on the server and you get exactly what you pay for.
  • If you pay enough, you can configure your own hardware and get exactly the CPU/RAM/storage space you want.
  • Since you’re not sharing with anyone and can install full protection, you’re more secure from attacks.
  • Your site will probably be much faster.

Quick comparison table

Shared Hosting VPS Dedicated Server
Price: Cheap
$4+ per month
Expensive
$20+ per month
Most expensive
$40+ per month
Speed: Can be slow Fast Fastest
Reliability: Somewhat reliable Reliable Very reliable
Downtime: Periodic Almost never Almost never
Flexibility: Almost none Full control/root access Full control/root access
Backups: Usually included Varies.
Sometimes included, other times you can pay extra for it, and other times it’s not available (you’d have to set it up yourself manually).
Usually it’s not included and you have to set it up yourself manually.
If you buy an expensive managed plan (hundreds of dollars per month), it may be included.
Customer Support: Included Option available at additional cost Option available at additional cost
Recommended for:
(These recommendations are with book bloggers specifically in mind)
99% of bloggers Bloggers who get a ton of traffic and shared hosting can no longer accommodate them. Massive tech nerds only!

Looking for hosting?

Consider some of these hosting providers:

  • Book Host (shared hosting for book bloggers and authors)
  • Bluehost (shared hosting, VPS hosting, dedicated servers)
  • RFE Hosting (shared hosting & VPS hosting)
  • Softlayer (dedicated servers)
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I'm a 27 year old California girl living in England (I fell in love with a Brit!). I like to inject a little #girlpower into the WordPress development community by teaching women how to be coding badasses. more »

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15 comments

  1. Question from a super-beginner who has only always used free or at most shared hosting: why did you left out reseller hosting?
    I’ve always thought Reseller was the step between shared and VPS – and that you hadn’t to forcedly use it to sell hosting; I thought it could be used as a personal hosting service.

    1. Hiya 🙂

      I didn’t include reseller hosting because it is shared hosting. You take out a reseller hosting plan when you want to sell parts of your hosting space to other clients.

      When you buy a reseller account, you’re given either: shared hosting space, a VPS, or a dedicated server (usually it’s shared hosting). The difference is that you then have the power to sell off portions of that to other people. But once you start doing that, the recipients of the portions have shared hosting since they’re sharing it with other people.

      As an example, if you get 500GB of hard drive space as part of your shared reseller hosting, you can then sell off portions of it for other people to use. So you can sell off a portion of 10GB to one person, 50GB to another person, then be left with 440GB yourself.

      So reseller hosting isn’t its own thing from a server perspective. Just the way you use it (the power to sell off pieces) is slightly different.

      1. Now I finally get it.
        Thank you for the reply and the extremely useful post; I’ve put this (along with your hosting reviews one) in my favs to keep them as reference.

  2. When it comes to hosting, it’s a very difficult to select the best one. There are just so many out there. I tried bluehost but the page load time was not acceptable so I switched to dreamhost. Let’s see how it works out for me. Anyways, great stuff!

  3. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back
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