Web Hosting: Shared, Managed, or Dedicated?

This is part two in a series on starting your own website. At the most basic level, a web host provides a place to store the files (code, images, etc.) that make up your website, and display your site to anyone on the Internet. Web hosts come in all shapes and sizes though, and wading through the maze of options can be a daunting task.

First, we’ll look at the essential bits of WordPress web hosting. Then I’ll explain the various types of web hosts and the services offered by those types of web hosts. Lastly, I’ll share my own experience with several web hosts across those categories.

What is Web Hosting?

First, I’ll be using the word “server”, which is a specific type of computer (like a desktop or laptop), but with specialized hardware to allow it to handle a lot of tasks in parallel. So, a web host runs a fleet of servers, sometimes in various locations, running “web server” software. This software enables the servers to take the files and content you’ve posted to your website and display it to the visitors that come to your site.

Servers in a data center

A website is a collection of pages (content), and this content is transmitted from your web host/server to your site’s visitors in code known as HTML. Along with the HTML, most web pages include images, along with styling via CSS files, enhanced functionality using JavaScript (JS), and often web fonts. We won’t dwell on those too much, as the beauty of using a system like WordPress is that the average site owner doesn’t need to know about any of the code involved in building/displaying their site content.

WordPress Hosting

Now, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, so don’t confuse this with hosts that offer “WordPress Hosting”, which we’ll cover in just a bit. With a WordPress site, there are some “static” files (images, CSS, JS, and fonts), along with “dynamic” content that is stored in a database. As you might guess, this means a WordPress host is providing more than just “a place to store your content”.

Just about every web host out there has the basics needed to run a WordPress site, which includes the software to run PHP code and connect to a MySQL database. At the very least, make sure the web host you’re looking at includes those, or says they support WordPress.

Types of Web Hosts

We can typically put web hosts into one of three categories: shared hosting, managed hosting, and dedicated hosting. Naturally, some web hosts don’t quite fit into those traditional molds, and we’ll talk about some of those later on.

Shared Hosting

Think back to our description of a server as a computer that can “handle a lot of tasks in parallel”. If your site isn’t getting a constant stream of visitors, then the web server could be better used doing other things in between visitors. Oh, like maybe serving visitors to other websites! That’s exactly what shared hosting does: it puts a hundred (or two or three hundred) web sites on a single server, so that they can make the most of their resources and not have idle servers puttering around doing nothing all day long.

This results in lower prices for you, but it also means that if another site gets too popular and consumes too many resources, it could slow down your website. A quality shared host will have measures in place to reduce the impact of a busy site–which means if that (overly) busy site is YOUR site, then your site will be slowed down intentionally to prevent it from impacting everyone else on the shared server. Then it’s time for you to upgrade to a higher plan (or a better web host).

Shared Hosting Bonuses

While shared hosting is typically the “bottom end” as far as resources go, they often strive to give you everything imaginable, including a bunch of stuff you’ll never need. One useful thing that is quite common in shared hosting, is that these hosts often include one free domain registration with your web hosting.

Along with that, they will usually handle all the DNS details for you–which is just fine until you find yourself moving web hosts for the third time. But hopefully you read this entire article and make a solid hosting decision that keeps those moves to a minimum!

Managed Hosting

Web hosts use the term “managed” to mean varying things, but “managed hosting” should mean several things. First, they take care of more of the mundane details of operating a web site for you, including automated upgrades and reliable backups. Second, their servers should be faster and customized to run WordPress more efficiently. Lastly, it should come with better tech support. Don’t gloss over that last one, as it can make a huge difference in the amount of time you spend troubleshooting the inevitable issues that will crop up in the future.

In the end, this is still “shared hosting”, but unless you have a million visitors/month, it will provide the resources you need. A managed host will usually have different plans/tiers based on the number of websites you can have on your account and the total amount of visitors/traffic you are allowed. However, they usually won’t throttle your site (slow it down) when it gets busy. But they will expect you to upgrade promptly when requested, and might even need to move it to a more high-powered server in the process.

Managed Hosting Limits

Managed hosts also tend to be more focused than your typical shared host. While a shared host will offer every service under the sun, managed hosts are more streamlined and are often limited to just hosting. Things like domain registration, DNS management, and even email hosting will often be intentionally excluded from their offerings. While it can be annoying to have separate providers for all of this, it also keeps you from putting all your eggs in one basket. Then, if you find yourself with a bad egg (or basket), you can just move hosting without having to change everything else.

I recommend Cloudflare or Namecheap for domains and DNS. For email hosting, Google Apps (Gsuite) and Office365 offer affordable options, though you can even get free email hosting with Zoho.

Dedicated Hosting

In contrast to a shared host, a dedicated host gives you a fixed amount of resources (CPU and memory) to run your website. This can be fantastic for performance, but when you’re starting out, it’s going to be very expensive to have a dedicated server just for your site. Shoot, even for a site with 25-50k visitors/month a dedicated server is overkill.

Hybrid and VPS Hosting

These are similar to dedicated hosting, but thanks to the advent of “virtual servers”, a single high-powered server can be split up into dedicated “containers”. These are called Virtual Private Servers, though the amount of “privacy” and “dedicatedness” will vary between hosts.

Some hosts (like DreamHost and A2 Hosting) will allow you to pay for a fixed amount of memory (RAM) and CPU on their platform, which guarantees the minimum resources your site will have available. Everything else will look just like their shared hosting service, but with their VPS hosting you have guaranteed resources for your site. This is “managed VPS” hosting, because they take care of all the server software just like a shared host would.

There are also a few hosts that integrate with popular (unmanaged) VPS providers and offer varying degrees of support/customization. In other words, they leave the server management to someone else, and they take care of installing the software for you.

For example, Cloudways builds on top of Digital Ocean, Google Compute Services, etc. and operates similar to a managed host with their own custom control panel. They take care of all the underlying server software and settings, and the customization is very limited. SpinupWP and GridPane take a little different approach, where they set things up for you on a VPS, but you still have full control of the server (if you need it), and can customize just about anything. Gridpane offers full tech support with their (paid) plans, whereas SpinupWP offers lower pricing and optional support plans.

Hosting Recommendations

Shared hosting can be very affordable, but the cheap ones are only cheap because they don’t invest as much in tech support (people are expensive). If you find a great deal that just seems to irresistible, check the fine print. Every hosting promo is for a limited time, and the real pricing kicks in months later. Be sure the host you choose is one you can afford long term, because switching hosts is a pain in the you know what!

While I love SpinupWP for hosting my dev sites, I wouldn’t recommend them for a beginner. That is, unless you are the sort of person (like I was when I started) that loves tinkering and getting to know all the ins and outs of how a server works. And that really is a lot of fun if you have the time for it!

That’s not to say VPS providers all require you to learn the ins and outs, but a solid shared or managed host takes care of details you don’t need to worry if all you want is to build a website. I used DreamHost for many years happily, and also used A2 Hosting for several years before switching to managed hosting with WP Engine. Flywheel is a WP Engine company that caters to smaller sites and gives you great service at half the price of WPE.

Final Considerations

There are three things I look for in a web host: Performance, Support, and Reliability.

Speed and performance may not be critical when you just start out, but if you get stuck on an overloaded server that causes your site to take 10+ seconds to load, Google is going to demote you in the rankings, and you’ll never get your site off the ground.

No company offers perfect tech support, but some do it better than others. Of the hosts I’ve mentioned, I would rank them in the following order: WP Engine, DreamHost, GridPane, Flywheel, A2 Hosting, Cloudways, SpinupWP (based on their basic support, I’ve not tried SpinupWP’s paid support options). You’ll not go wrong with any of these if you go into it with the right expectations.

Naturally, when you setup a website, you expect it to be reachable by your visitors, but two things that are often an afterthought are security and backups. One of the best things about managed hosts like WP Engine is that they take an aggressive approach to software updates, which helps to keep your site secure. They also have advanced firewalls for further protection from unknown threats, which is something you don’t get with shared hosting or a VPS provider.

Unfortunately, site backups are more important on the cheaper hosts that have crappy backups. But they can also be critical when you apply an update that sends your site into a tailspin. It’s not just having a site backed up, but the ability to restore it easily is just as important. WP Engine excels in this area, and even reminds you to backup your site before upgrading plugins/themes. Most of the VPS providers have an option for weekly whole-server backups, which is a nice failsafe. But it doesn’t give you the ability to download a backup and retrieve specific files/information if needed, nor do they let you backup your site on demand.

In a pinch, you could use something like ManageWP’s backups to supplement a lackluster backup system. I use ManageWP for a lot of my own sites, and their (premium) backup system is very slick to use.

Ultimately, I use WP Engine for all my production sites, and that’s my top recommendation, but there are a lot of good web hosts out there. Sadly, there are a lot of garbage hosts, and hopefully you can now avoid having your site sucked into the abyss by a poor hosting choice!

Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash

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