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Different types of web hosting explained

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The number and types of web hosting packages available today can be overwhelming to anyone unfamiliar with the web hosting landscape. Well look no further, this handy guide will explain the most common types of hosting available.

Free Hosting

If you’re just starting out with a small blog or site, then free hosting might be right for you. As the name suggests, there is no cost for this type of hosting.

So, what’s the catch? With free hosting, you get very little control or flexibility with your hosting account. You generally can’t use your own domain name with free hosting. For example, with free hosting, your website address would be something like http://www.freehosting.com/users/bills-pizza instead of http://bills-pizza.com.

In addition you don’t get no control over your hosting, apart from, perhaps, superficial display options. If you need to install extra software or modules, then you’re out of look. You’re pretty much stuck with it the way it is.

Due to lack of flexibility, resources, and domain usage, free hosting is not recommended for serious businesses or sites with a lot of visitor traffic.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting, or Virtual hosting (not to be confused with VPS or Virtual Dedicated hosting) is basically entry level hosting. It gets its name from the fact that the actual computer hardware that is used for the hosting is shared between a number of customer’s and their websites. Each customer and website is given a separate user account on the same operating system, which means that they will be competing for CPU and RAM. While the operating system can try to allocate resources fairly between the different customer websites, the machine can become overwhelmed when too many websites are each competing for resources.

Over loaded shared hosting

Less reputable hosting companies will often cram hundreds of websites together on the same physical server, to maximize profits. This of course has the knock-on effect that websites on shared hosting can be slow and unreliable, as the operating system spends most of its time swapping between the different websites.

Generally you do not have much control over the server in this kind of hosting. Shared hosting providers will usually have the most common options installed, but once you need something slightly out of the ordinary, then you might run into trouble because you will rarely be able to install the software you need. You sometimes can get restricted shell command line access with shared hosting, but often this is not provided.

This type of webhosting is not recommended for serious businesses.

Virtual Private Server / Virtual Dedicated Hosting

In this type of webhosting, the server hardware is shared amongst different hosting account users. Although the hardware is being shared, the operating system is not. This is what differentiates VPS hosting from Shared/Virtual hosting. Each separate virtual server runs its own copy of an operating system, which behaves as if it is its own server with its own IP address.

Despite the hardware being shared, VPS hosting providers usually make a promise of minimum resources available at any time. So unlike with shared hosting, you can be quite sure that noisy or bad neighbors can’t hog the CPU and RAM resources in the same way they can with share hosting.

VPS hosting is more expensive than shared hosting, but less expensive than dedicated hosting (next paragraph). VPS can provide very reliable hosting at an affordable price, giving nearly all the benefits of dedicated servers at a fraction of the price.

You will usually have full command line shell access to your virtual server, so you are free to install and set it up whatever way you like.

VPS hosting is often offered in managed or unmanaged. If you go with managed hosting, then the web hosting company will look after all the technical maintenance and security of the server, and you all you need to do is get your website files onto the server to get up and running. With unmanaged hosting, you are responsible for the technical maintenance and security updates, so if you aren’t technical, or don’t have somebody to look after these things for you, then you should go for managed hosting.

If you want to steer clear of shared hosting for your business, but aren’t sure if you need dedicated hosting, then VPS hosting can be a reliable and affordable safe bet.

Dedicated Hosting

Dedicated hosting is a step above VPS hosting, and is more expensive too. With dedicated hosting, you get to host your website and services on a computer dedicated solely to you, without having to share the computer with anyone else. This makes it more secure, and faster.

Since this is your dedicated machine, you are free to set it up whatever way you like, and install whatever programs and software you need whenever you want.

With dedicated servers, you will have full command line or shell access, which allow you to login and execute commands from the terminal. This gives you full control of the machine, but of course requires technical knowledge.

Again, dedicated servers are often offered as managed or unmanaged. If you can’t or don’t want to managed the technical details of the server then you should go for managed.

Sometimes the nature of a business can dictate whether dedicated or VPS hosting is chosen. Some businesses may have security requirements, such as sensitive user data, that requires a dedicated server, where a VPS might otherwise have been sufficient.

If your business has such security requirements, or has a lot of visitor traffic that can’t reliably be handled by VPS hosting, then consider going for a dedicated server.

Cloud Hosting

Cloud hosting is the daddy of hosting. Websites and services are hosted on single or multiple machines by a cloud hosting company. Instead of being hosted on a single dedicated machine, sites are hosted on virtual hosting spaces, that can use resources such as disk-space and CPU from an effectively unlimited pool of underlying physical computers. This means that cloud hosting offers unrivaled reliability and scalability: because the hosted services don’t depend on any one physical machine, the underlying hardware can be swapped out and upgraded as it gets older, without interrupting the services sitting on top.

cloud computing

Cloud-hosting is usually very flexible. You can usually reserve computer resources for as small or as large requirements that you anticipate. And if you have underestimated, you can always scale up pretty quickly to handle the extra traffic or load.

The pricing for this kind of hosting is usually quite flexible too. Generally there are pay-as-you-go billing models, or pay-in-advance models, where you book in advance the resources you think you will need for a slightly cheaper rate.

Generally quite a bit of technical competence can be required to successfully make use of cloud hosting, if not managed for you. Application server instances, load balancers, and database clusters are just some of things to be considered!

Amazon EC2 and Rackspace are probably the most well known names in the cloud hosting, but most webhosting companies of a reasonable size will offer some sort of cloud hosting package.

If you’re reading this article, you probably don’t need cloud hosting. This type of hosting can be used for huge websites and services with a very large volume of visitor traffic, and with serious scalability and uptime requirements. Think Facebook, Flickr and Instagram type services etc.: giant platforms with millions of users.

Conclusion

Most hosting packages discussed here can be offered on Windows or Linux operating sytems, and can offer RAM ranging from hundreds of megabytes (MB) to tens of gigabytes (GB).
There are options for SSD and HDD disk storage, with available space offered in gigabytes and terabytes (TB). And varying network bandwidth and quotas are also offered.

Generally, for all of these specifications, higher is better, but also more expensive! For a deeper discussion about web hosting, including details about hardware and software choices, take a look at our What is webhosting article.

Main image: Flickr
Content images: Tomomi, JD Hancock