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Is Free Hosting Right for You?
With free web hosting, you can get your website online at zero cost. Sound too good to be true? Sometimes you do get what you pay for; free hosting plans lack a lot of the features of paid hosting. If you're wondering whether free hosting is for you, check out the details below to see if it's really worth the cost.
A free hosting plan just might fit your needs and save you some money, especially if you...
- Want to get a feel for what web hosting is like before you buy
- Are testing out a website idea you aren't sure you'll continue with
- Need to host a small, simple website on a short-term basis (like for an event)
Otherwise, you may want to look into a paid hosting plan if you need more reliable hosting with better customer support. Shared hosting plans can be as low as $5 per month, or even lower. If the success and reliability of your website really matters to you, investing in a paid hosting account will be worth it if you can fit the expense in your budget.
But even shared hosting may not be enough if you're looking to... start an eCommerce site, create a website that runs on a large database or depend on your website for the success of your business. If any of those sound like you, you may want to look at VPS or dedicated server hosting.
Free PHP Hosting
Most popular web applications are written in PHP, and most free hosting users will be particularly interested in how well free plans support popular PHP scripts. In addition to the limitations that apply to any potential use of free hosting, limitations that often include severely limited email and FTP support, slow customer support response times, and severely limited or non-existent automatic installation scripts, there are additional considerations that apply to users who hope to run a PHP application on a free hosting account.
Typical Minimum Requirements for PHP Applications
To get a sense for the minimum server requirements for some popular PHP applications let's take a look at three of the most common scripts: WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal.
- WordPress requires PHP version 5.2. and MySQL version 5.0.
- Joomla requires PHP version 5.3.10, and MySQL version 5.1.
- Drupal version 7.38 requires PHP version 5.2.5 and MySQL version 5.0.15.
In every case, higher versions of PHP and MySQL are recommended by the software developers, but the applications will run as long as these minimum version requirements are met.
In terms of storage, a typical small website built with any of these applications will require between 50-100 MB of disc space before taking media files into account. Media files, and streaming media types such as podcasts and videos in particular, can quickly increase this figure dramatically.
Taking those minimum requirements into account, two issues are immediately apparent. Every free plan we looked at advertises PHP 5 and MySQL 5, however none reveal the exact version running on the free account server. An installation of any one of these three applications will have problems, and potentially fail to function at all, if the version of PHP or MySQL isn't sufficiently up-to-date.
With free plans you can expect the page load time for PHP applications to be poor. If you were planning on just hosting static HTML and CSS files, you'd probably be ok, but a PHP application imposes a much heavier load on server resources, and free hosting servers are notoriously resource starved. One host went so far as to admit that the number of accounts hosted on a free-account shared server was very large. In addition, ZendOptimizer was not offered by any free plan we saw, which will further slow down PHP processing.
While the disk space included in every plan was adequate for an installation of a typical PHP application, the database size allowed was very small. Every plan allowed only a single MySQL database with a maximum size between 10 and 20 MB. That will be enough for a very small blog and website, but websites with a considerable amount of content, as well as certain application themes and plugins, will quickly burn through the allowable database size.
Another limitation imposed by every free plan we looked at was the inability to customize settings in the php.ini file. Without the ability to customize PHP settings, runtime, maximum file upload size, and other PHP parameters will default to the server settings, and if those settings don't work for your application, you're just out of luck.
Lastly, PHP offers a mail function that many websites use to send contact forms to a designated email address, or to send notification emails to visitors who opt to subscribe to website updates. However, since free hosting attracts a lot of unsavory activity, such as heavy spamming, it's likely the free hosting server will be flagged as a spam originator by most ISPs, and block delivery of these emails.
The Bottom Line for PHP Scripts & Free Hosting
Most common PHP applications will probably install and run acceptably on free hosting accounts. However, you can expect website visitors to have a pretty poor experience due to slow load times. Users of free hosting accounts should not plan on hosting very many media files, or streaming media from the server.
In addition, free hosting customers should not plan on using the PHP mail function since it's likely any mail originating from the server will be flagged as spam. Finally, it's quite possible that the free account server may be running an antiquated version of PHP or MySQL causing compatibility issues with the PHP script you have chosen.
Pros and Cons of Free Hosting
Looking at free web hosting plans, you may be wondering what the catch is. It's true that they're not for everyone. Here are a few of the pros and cons:
- Anyone can start a website at no cost.
- You can try out a web host before you choose a host to commit to.
- Most web hosts with free hosting make it very easy to upgrade to a paid hosting plan if your site's traffic grows beyond the free hosting limits.
- Loading speeds can be very slow, and uptime is often unreliable.
- Even if the hosting is free, you may have to buy your own domain name, whereas many paid hosting plans include domains for free.
- Customer support can be very basic or even non-existent.
Choosing a Free Hosting Plan
Because free hosting can often be unreliable, be sure to read reviews before you sign up for the service. Once you set up your website on your free hosting account, set up regular backups for your data, just in case.
You can contact the hosting company's support with any questions on what's included with free hosting (and the response you receive can also be a good test of the quality of support provided).
Free Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
What is free hosting?
Free web hosting is web hosting that does not include any charges or fees for its users to put a website online. However, there are often many catches that come with web hosting that is free. Bloggers or businesses just getting started with building a website may be intrigued to try free hosting, but experienced webmasters or businesses looking to put a quality web presence forward should likely opt for a better supported premium solution.
What are some good reasons to use free hosting?
Setup with free web hosting is generally easy to get started - that, of course, is completely dependent upon who you select as your hosting provider. And of course, you don't have to pay anything for the hosting, so that's a plus, also. Free hosting is a great way to keep your costs at the absolute minimum for your website infrastructure while also getting your blog or business online.
Are there any reasons not to use free hosting?
Yes. For many website hosting providers, their free environments are not a top priority to their business operation. Because of this, free hosting can often have throttled bandwidth, limited support, and be prone to extended downtime or service outages. In addition to these headaches, many free web hosting platforms are also supported by advertising. Before you decide to go the free hosting route, make sure you review all of the terms and conditions that are presented to you by your preferred hosting provider.
What are the alternatives to free hosting?
The most common alternative to free hosting are free websites on platforms hosted by companies like Squarespace, Wix, Weebly or WordPress.com. In these hosted scenarios, you don't actually pay for your website hosting, but you also don't have the freedom of "owning" your own website. Instead, many of these platforms provide you with a subdomain of their own site (like yoursite.wordpress.com or account123.weebly.com) and limit the features you can use to have a customized website. If you are a business or professional looking for a unique presentation on the web, these free website builders and blogs probably will not have the positive effect you will be looking for to grow.
What are the requirements for free web hosting?
The requirements for free website hosting vary depending on the hosting provider you select to host your website. Generally speaking, your website will likely need to be hosted on an Apache server with a Linux-based operating system, a MySQL database and PHP programming. Aside from the server, all of these other items are open source - meaning there is no cost to your hosting provider. You shouldn't be too surprised if you are required to use an open source content management system like WordPress or b2evolution. Again, this keeps the costs down for your hosting provider, which they can pass on to you by providing free hosting.
Do I need to be concerned about installation?
Again, the amount of concern you will need to have about installation with a free hosting provider depends directly on who you select as the hosting provider. You likely will not have many options to choose from when using free hosting, so that should limit your concerns for messing p installation. However, if you are required to do your installation by yourself and lack experience in setting up a server or installing a content management system, you should likely consult with an experienced web developer.
Is there any reason not to use a one-click installation wizard?
With free hosting, 1-click installation is probably a safe option. Since there is a good chance you will be limited to one of the many open source content management platforms, you can probably choose from the list of systems available via 1-click installation and proceed without caution.
What does self-hosted mean? I don't have to run a server myself, do I?
Self-hosted websites do not require YOU to personally own a server and manage it to host your site. Instead, self-hosted simply means that hosting is not provided directly by the development team that created your content management system. Your free hosting service is a self-hosted platform, however you are likely sharing the server space with other website owners.
Can I host a blog on a free shared hosting plan?
Yes you can. In fact, the majority of free hosting services are setup to host blogs that are powered by the wide variety of open source blogging platforms like WordPress, b2evolution, Serendipity, and more. If the server your free hosting platform is built upon is open source, hosting an open source blogging software should not be a problem. Consult with your free hosting provider to make sure your blogging platform of choice is compatible with their server.
Do I have to know how to program to use free hosting?
Because free hosting is designed for beginners with smaller websites and standard requirements, you should not need to know how to program if you are going to use free hosting. However, if you have no programming experience, you may want to have a programmer available for occasional work if there are customizations you want to make to your website or hosting platform.
Do I need managed hosting in order to use free hosting?
The answer to this question depends on your answer to the question "how much responsibility are you willing to accept for the maintenance of your website?" However, most sites that offer managed hosting also require a fee to provide the management. The more complex your site becomes with plugins and additional features, the greater your need will be for professionally managed website hosting. This is the case with any self-hosted content management system - not just a website that runs on free hosting.