Unlimited Hosting: What’s the Catch?

Unlimited Hosting: What's the Catch?
Let’s just start with the obvious: You can’t get something for nothing, and there really is no such thing as unlimited, well, anything—especially not anything you pay for.

All-you-can-eat buffet places count on your getting full after a plate or two, the occasional hollow-legged, high-metabolism eater aside. And even then, some places will step in when they feel they’ve lost enough money on a big eater.

Hosting providers are no exception. What better marketing tactic than to offer unlimited hosting? What Web publisher wouldn’t want to take advantage of that? Hold on, now, before you run off and sign up for an unlimited hosting account and get yourself into trouble. Let’s take a look at what unlimited hosting really means, and what you really get for your money.

What is Unlimited Hosting?

Nearly every hosting provider out there offers an unlimited hosting plan, and they’ll tout features such as unlimited disk space and unlimited bandwidth. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, yes and no.

The majority of publishers choose shared hosting plans, for a few reasons. They’re cost-effective, and it’s usually only sites that have high security concerns or high traffic volume that truly need dedicated hosting. But the average blogger can get by just fine with shared hosting.

One commercial server may hold thousands of accounts. The actual amount of disk space occupied by one site with is often quite low. This is how shared hosting can exist in the first place, and why it can be made available at such a low price. Six or seven bucks a month for hosting might make you wonder how on earth the hosting provider can possible by profitable. Multiply that even just by 1,000 accounts, then by 12 months, then by the number of servers a host may have…you see how it adds up.

It’s really more about making you feel like you’re getting an awesome deal. Imagine how you might feel if a host said you could only have 50GB of disk space. Every time you uploaded something new to your site, you’d have to monitor how much space you’d just taken up, and how much you had left. As your site grew, you might even get to the point of having to delete older items to make room for new ones. What a hassle that would be!

But if a host tells you your space is unlimited, you can relax. You can upload whatever you want, whenever you want, and not obsess over how much room you’re taking up. And let’s face it, would you really be in a hurry to sign up for an account if the host said, “Unlimted hosting! Well, until you use up too many resources, and then you’re either going to have to pay more money, or we’ll cut you off!” Well, they do say that. It’s just in the Terms of Service (TOS) and not in the marketing materials.

So when a host offers unlimited disk space and bandwidth, much like that all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, it’s going on the very reasonable assumption that you probably won’t use much anyway. Basically, what it really means when a host says they provide “unlimited hosting” is that they don’t set a cap on disk space or bandwidth.

The Catch

Of course there’s a catch, but before you get all up in arms against your host for misleading you, consider this: Anyone who gets tripped up by the catch in unlimited hosting has no one to blame but themselves.

You read that right. Here’s why.

The catch is that if you sign up for an unlimited hosting plan, and then proceed to use tons of bandwidth by offering streaming video, hosting huge photo albums, or with the knowledge that the site you’ll be hosting sees a lot of traffic on a daily basis, you’ve already violated most hosting providers’ TOS. Didn’t read those? Well, again, that’s your own fault.

The majority of hosts’ TOSs say pretty much the same things. Most of them clearly state what “unlimited” means and does NOT mean, and it does not mean literally unlimited. It means there’s no imposed cap until your site’s activity puts a strain on the server, which means you’re hogging the resources you’re sharing with every other publisher who has a site on that server.

Sharing a server with others means you have to play fair. Trying to run a site that really needs a huge hunk of bandwidth on a shared hosting plan that only costs seven bucks a month is not a smart business decision. You may be able to get by that way for a little while, but when the host sees the congestion and drag on the server and investigates, they’ll discover your activity and take action.

What Happens if I Use Too Much Bandwidth?

You may lose your site. No, really. If your host discovers you’ve been taking advantage of your “unlimited” plan, they can disable your site, and deny you access to your hosting account, effectively locking you out and making it impossible for you to access your site’s files (if you haven’t backed them up elsewhere, which you really should do anyway).

If you’re lucky, the host will be gracious enough to allow you some time to collect your files before they delete them altogether, but they don’t have to. You violated the TOS; the host doesn’t have to give you any consideration at all.

How Can I Avoid Losing My Site?

Sign up for the right kind of hosting account in the first place. Use a hosting comparison tool and enter what you want to spend, how much disk space and bandwidth you think your site will need, and any other factors that apply to your site. This will help you quickly and easily identify which hosts offer what you need. You won’t have to spend as much time jumping from hosting site to hosting site to learn what’s available, and you’ll know from the start whether the host you choose will be able to accommodate your site.

Even if you’re just starting out with a small site, but you have plans for it to grow over time, be careful about choosing an unlimited plan. If things really take off, you may outgrow that plan before you know it. Rather than risking your site going down, and losing that momentum, choose a plan that allows you to add disk space and bandwidth as you go.

And this may fall on deaf ears, but you really should read your host’s TOS. The only thing worse than having your site taken down for a violation will be knowing it could have been avoided with a little self-education.

Case Study: The Problem with Unlimited Hosting

Hosting accounts are rarely totally unlimited – despite what the blurb says.

About Frogpants

In July 2010, Frogpants, a network of popular tech-oriented podcasts, went down.

The site was being hosted alongside 13 others on a $7/month ‘unlimited’ hosting account.

Frogpants is a large, bandwidth-intense network. While it was technically within its rights to interpret ‘unlimited’ hosting as unlimited, realistically, it would never have worked out.

Unlimited Means Limited

Frogpants was probably using a fair bit of bandwidth. And to protect its customers, BlueHost simply had to cut it off without warning under the Terms of Service document.

Bluehost found itself in a situation where it had to either anger and disconnect one customer or risk angering countless other customers by letting their service degrade.

Unlimited hosting customers could be cut off due to a range of factors, including:

  • High FTP Usage – bandwidth or space.
  • Excessive Email Usage – for example, using a low cost shared host for corporate email.
  • Violating the ‘Unlimited’ Restriction – when a host says unlimited is OK except for certain activities (like media hosting).

Learning the Lesson

Clearly, anyone who needs unlimited hosting needs to read their hosts’ terms and policies.

Nobody was a winner in this case, but ‘unlimited’ hosting is ingrained in the industry and is unlikely to change. As such, it’s up to the hosting customer to make sure they understand the limits of ‘unlimited’.

Page last updated: March 2015

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