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What is Cloud Hosting?

The cloud is an IT buzzword that means many different things. Depending on the context, it can mean remote storage, services or syncing. In terms of web hosting, cloud hosting means a more modern, more flexible approach to servers.

Before we define cloud hosting, note that different hosts have their own definitions of the term. We'll look at the two most common benefits: elasticity and reliability.

Before the cloud, website hosting meant renting a chunk of server space from a single physical device. Some types of hosting still operate within that boundary. For example, if you rented an entire server, you could choose the configuration of the server, within the limits of the device.

Cloud hosting allows you to break free of those confines, creating virtual servers that combine the resources of a cluster of machines, rather than just one. This allows hosts to sell packages that are much bigger and more powerful. It also means that hosting plans can scale up to meet demand, handling traffic spikes by increasing resource on the fly.

The other advantage of cloud hosting is increased reliability. By placing a copy of the site in more than one place, there's always a second node ready to take over if the primary node fails. Some hosts offering cloud hosting advertise much better uptime guarantees - 100 percent, in some cases.

Different hosts provide this redundancy in different ways; some will place the site on multiple storage devices, while some will use multiple virtual servers. Additionally, clouds are often spread across different physical locations for extra protection against 'Acts of God'. Some hosts use load balancing technology to make sure the virtual data center can cope with demand as it increases and decreases.

Cloud Security: Public vs Private

As the cloud becomes part of our relationships with tech companies, it increasingly hits the headlines around the world. High-profile security breaches have made some businesses nervous about adopting cloud computing, and research is being done to determine just how secure the cloud is.

However, most of these reports relate to cloud storage, where encryption is more of a concern. If you host your website in the cloud, your host will simply ask that you follow normal security practices, such as using unique passwords and keeping scripts up to date. The fact that your website is hosted in the cloud won't change security best practice.

The one caveat is that most sites are hosted in public clouds. The host deploys security that stops any customer intruding into the others' sites or servers, and most sites will run perfectly securely in this environment. For absolute best security, a private cloud is a better option, but this is naturally a much more expensive service.

Pros and Cons

Despite some industry predictions, cloud hosting hasn't made shared hosting obsolete. There are some situations when shared hosting still trumps the cloud. It's cheaper, for a start. And different hosts offer different types of cloud hosting; this in itself is a point of caution, because comparing cloud hosting is difficult.

In addition, there are other downsides to cloud hosting:

  • In some cases, the price jump from shared to cloud hosting is vast
  • You can't always control where in the world your site is being served from
  • You may lose some of the control you'd enjoy with a traditional server, since the hosting provider may place each server instance on their own cloud platform, removing some of the access dedicated and VPS customers enjoy

In the cloud's favor:

  • Many hosts only charge for the capacity you use, so it's cheaper for some sites
  • You can often clone, deploy and remove servers in an instant
  • Your site will never be restricted by the spec of a physical machine

Cloud Hosting vs VPS Hosting

Many hosting customers outgrow shared hosting, and the next natural step is a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or cloud hosting package. In truth, cloud hosting and VPS hosting are very similar:

  • Both use visualization at the core of their service
  • Both isolate customers' virtual servers so that they don't impede each others' service

The main pros of the cloud are:

  • Access to a pool of resources, rather than just one machine
  • Virtual servers can be quickly (sometimes instantly) scaled up and down
  • Uptime may be better

If you're not sure which service to choose, speak to your ideal host about your individual needs before locking yourself into a long-term hosting plan.

Want more info? See our chapter on cloud computing in our Ultimate Guide to Web Hosting.

Cloud Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is cloud computing?

    Cloud computing is a way of pooling computing resources together and treating a large group of computers as if they were a single computer. A cloud computing environment might have hundred or thousands of individual computers networked together and then run one or many virtual machines on of that cluster of computers.

  • Is the internet the cloud?

    No. The internet is a bunch of individual machines that can communicate with each other, but they act independently. A cloud is a bunch of machines that act as the foundation for one or more virtual machines.

  • What is the cloud?

    The Cloud (with a definite article, as if there is only one) is a marketing buzzword that is more or less meaningless. Cloud computing is a way of dealing with massive amounts of computing resources, but there isn’t one “the Cloud” some place that all the cloud computing happens at.

  • So “the cloud” doesn’t really exist?

    No, not really.

  • Are there many clouds?

    Yes. Lots of companies and individuals are engaging in some form of cloud computing.

  • Can I have my own cloud?

    Sort of. You can set up a Virtual Private Server account and use it to run your own remote applications and utilities. But you would be using someone else’s cloud.

  • What do people mean when they say “the cloud”?

    Typically “the cloud” refers to consuming computing resources for which you are not directly responsible.

  • Can you give me an example?

    If Company A has a bunch of servers, and Company B rents them out and connects them into a big pool of computing resources with one single virtual machine running on top of them, and then Company C runs a hosting company on top of that virtual machine by installing a bunch of virtual machines on top of it, Company C will call its hosting “Cloud-based.” This conceals the fact that Company C doesn’t own any servers and likely has no idea what type of hardware they are using or where in the world it is. One (actual) company that provides managed WordPress hosting refers to itself as a “consumer of cloud infrastructure.”

  • Does that mean that cloud-based services are bad?

    No. And the cloud (whatever it is) isn’t bad, either. Cloud computing is doing for computing what globalization did for manufacturing — it is turning computing power into a commodity, and allowing individual companies to specialize in specific value-added services. No longer does a company have to do everything related to providing server support. One company can provide and manage hardware, another can deal with clustering and network infrastructure, another one can deal with operating systems and hosting concerns, another one with providing applications to the general public.

  • What are the benefits of cloud computing?

    Cloud computing is inherently scalable. The virtual machine on which is running any specific application is drawing computer resources from a large pool of resources. If activity spikes suddenly, more resources are readily available. If there is a growth trend, more computers can be added into the pool. This makes resource provisioning much more convenient. Additionally, cloud computing can be more reliable because the failure of one piece of hardware doesn’t usually take down the whole cluster.

  • What are the disadvantages of cloud computing?

    There can be security issues, since each layer of abstraction between application users and actual hardware might be run by a different organization and there is no real guarantee that service providers at the lowest level won’t spy, steal data, or shut down. There can also be problems related to the number of abstraction layers, which can slow down performance as compared with running apps on bare metal.

  • Is there anything misleading about the name cloud computing?

    As a metaphor, “cloud” is a problematic way of describing what is going on. A more accurate analogy might be “pooled resource computing.” This matters because it affects how people think about cloud infrastructure. People tend to think about it as some ethereal, nebulous entity in the distance which they can upload data to and play their music from. But it isn’t a cloud at all. We are talking about millions of real, actual computers sitting in buildings in real locations. That file you uploaded to Dropbox isn’t in the sky, it's on a disk drive in a box in a building somewhere. These resources cost money, take up space, use energy, and imagining them as a cloud helps ignore this reality. That makes it easy to ignore concerns about security, privacy, legality, and environmental impact.

  • What is cloud hosting?

    This depends on the company and the specific plan. Usually, it means that the hosting company is pooling resources from a large number of servers, which it may or may not own, and then running a bunch of virtual machines on top of that cluster. If you get a VPS account, your VPS is either one of those virtual machines or is running on top of one. Shared hosting plans are grouped together on one or more of them. This way of building hosting infrastructure allows for immediate scaling of resources if one site suddenly draws a lot of traffic.

  • Are most web hosts using some type of cloud hosting architecture?

    Yes. Even if they don’t advertise it as such, or they give it a different name (“grid” and “cluster” are both popular), cloud computing has become fairly standard for hosting companies because of the benefits of scaling and reliability. Web hosting companies that specifically play up the idea of “cloud hosting” might be trying to highlight these benefits to you or they might just be using a popular buzzword. It’s important to look past the headline and read what services are actually being provided by a hosting company.

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