The vast majority of Web hosting accounts you can purchase are managed. All shared hosting accounts, including GoDaddy, Hostgator, Dreamhost and so on are managed, meaning that the user does not have root access to their server and the host itself is responsible for maintaining the software that runs the account including the operating system, the control panel and any applications that come pre-installed.
However, as the needs of individual hosting clients have grown more complicated and many who previously would have used a simple shared account are now lining up for VPS hosting and even dedicated servers, many hosts have been competing to make their services cheaper and give these more-demanding customers the features they need. As part of that, many have begun offering unmanaged services.
For some webmasters, this has been a boon, for others it has been a headache. However, every site owner, when they decide to move up from shared hosting needs to make a decision about which is right for them.
Fortunately, it is actually pretty easy to know which kind of hosting you need.
The difference between managed and unmanaged hosting is essentially a matter of how much and what kind of support the host provides.
On a managed solution, the host offers support and service for nearly the whole hosting package. Though most will not provide support for applications that you install yourself (for example, if you install your own WordPress) but the operating system, control panel, server setup and any pre-installed applications are all supported. Also, most managed solutions provide some level of automated backup and some form of server monitoring, to let them know when the server goes down.
Unmanged servers, on the other hand, typically only provide support for the hardware. They’ll replace failed components, reboot servers, maintain the network and keep the lights on, but won’t support any software. This makes it the Webmaster’s responsibility to implement security patches, fix any issues that come along and generally maintain the entire server. Many hosts won’t even provide a control panel or even an actual Web server on unmanaged systems, instead requiring the owner to set up their own system from scratch.
The upshot of having an unmanaged system is total control. If you are on an unmanaged server, you will have sole administrator access and will be able to do virtually anything you want. Depending on the setup, you can install different operating systems, different OSes and different control panels (or none at all). Also, since unmanaged services do not require the host to provide support, thus saving them on expensive support personnel, unmanaged hosting is usually significantly cheaper.
Despite this, most webmasters strongly prefer managed solutions. Not only do they require less work, but they also require much less expertise. One does not have to be comfortable with the ins and outs of a server just to run a Web site if they are on a managed solution. Further more, typical setup are usually fine for most Web sites as they are built around the most common needs.
In addition to wholly managed and unmanaged solutions, there are some companies, such as Layered Tech, that provide hybrid solutions. These setups will give you root access to your server, but will still provide a limited amount of support, usually in the form of a limited number of hours with a tech support agent.
So which solution is correct for you? Here are some simple ways to find out.
Which Solution is for You?
The vast majority of Webmasters are better off with managed hosting solutions. Typically the market for unmanaged solutions is for those who know that they need and are comfortable with the risks. In short, if you’re in doubt, you’re probably wise to make sure you have the support there if you need it.
That being said, here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding between the two:
- Am I experienced enough and comfortable enough to fix a server should it go down?
- Do I know how to remotely patch a server with new security fixes?
- Do I have have special needs that can not be met by a regular managed solution?
- Is the cost benefit of a unmanaged solution worthwhile to me?
- Will the time required to maintain the server be a hindrance to me in other ways?
If you answer “No” to most of those questions, you may be a good candidate for an unmanaged solution. If you need the flexibility of an unmanaged server but don’t have the experience needed to run it effectively consider a hybrid solution or, there are a few hosts, such as Westhost, that provide managed dedicated servers with greater flexibility than most managed solutions.
However, these usually come at a much higher cost than even a regular managed solution, simply because they require more technical expertise and more manpower to properly support.
When it comes to hosting and support, you typically get to choose two out of the three: Flexibility, Fully-Managed and Low Cost.
Fortunately, most individuals don’t need a great deal of flexibility and those wanting to setup a simple company site or a blog will get along just fine with a basic hosting account. No flexibility is needed. It is only when one needs to run their own Web applications or servers that things become worrisome.
If you’re not comfortable tinkering with the insides of your server, you should probably stick to a managed solution or, at the very least pay for a support contract.
What you sacrifice in flexibility and cost will be well-recouped the first time your site has trouble.
Sadly, even with the best server technology, that is not a matter of “if”, but “when”. With that in mind it is best to be prepared.
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