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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).