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  • Shared Hosting

What is Shared Hosting?

If you're looking for your first web hosting package, you'll almost certainly buy a shared hosting plan. Shared hosting is essentially an entry level service, offering the resources that a personal site or startup will require.

Shared hosting provides a cost-effective, but still fully-featured, way to create a professional website. By storing the websites and associated content of multiple sites on one physical machine, shared hosting providers can cut costs while still providing quality service to their clients.

Choosing a hosting provider that fits your needs and your budget can be challenging if you’re on a budget or just starting out online. Dedicated or Virtual Private Server (VPS) options offer plenty of power and total control over your own (virtual) machine, but these perks come at a premium price.

If you’re looking to keep costs down while still building a professional website with the latest Web applications, shared hosting may be the way to go.

Shared hosting takes the powerful resources of a modern Web server and parcels them out among many clients. Imagine an apartment building with ten apartments. Each apartment has electricity, cable, and water services, but all of them are fed these services by tributaries branching off from the main lines that connect to the building itself. You have control over, and pay the bill for, your water, cable, and electricity, but for a big issue like a water main break, you call the super, who’s responsible for maintaining the building and its environs, and making sure the whole works doesn’t come crashing down around the heads of the tenants.

The same principle applies with a shared hosting server: you, and all the other customers who share your server, each receive your own partition, with a specific amount of storage space, processing power and Internet bandwidth dedicated to the health and operation of your website.

And instead of a super, you’ve got a server administrator, who’s responsible for making sure the server’s hardware is in good working order and that its operating system (OS) and related software (including any software offered as part of your hosting package) are up to date.

Shared hosting will probably be the best, most affordable option for you if you don’t plan to do extensive, custom application development or require the resources necessary to support a popular, high-traffic site. Shared hosting is also a great way to “test drive” a particular host without committing to a long-term contract or expensive hardware lease.

Is Shared Hosting Right for You?

When you start a website for the first time, it's difficult to predict the amount of space you'll need, or the size of the images and content you will produce. Regardless, when the site first launches, you probably won't attract masses of traffic without a major marketing campaign.

Shared hosting is the ideal solution to these unknowns. You essentially share a server with dozens (or hundreds - or thousands) of other customers, all of whom have small sites. Since all sites are relatively lightweight, and require few resources, the server never feels the strain of hosting them all together. The web hosting company can pass on huge savings by selling hosting this way, and customers enjoy hassle-free, cheap hosting for their small sites.

Why Is It Cheap?

Shared hosting won't make a dent in your budget. Many packages cost less than $100 per year. But given the technology involved, shouldn't shared hosting be more expensive?

The key here is volume. Hosting companies put masses of customers' sites on the same server, so everyone's contributing towards the cost of the server by chipping in a few bucks. Few sites use their full quotas, too, which means the host is able to cover the cost and make a decent profit on top.

Some hosts actually oversell their servers, which means they pack in more accounts than the server can theoretically handle. This is common with reseller accounts. Overselling is a risky practice, and it leads us nicely to look at 'unlimited' hosting.

Is Shared Hosting Unlimited?

Shared hosting is often advertised as 'unlimited'. Hosts will claim that customers get unlimited amounts of disk space, perhaps with unlimited bandwidth. Other features, such as email and FTP accounts, are also unlimited, according to the ads you've probably seen.

This is an effective marketing technique for hosts because new customers probably don't know how much disk space they're going to need. The idea of an unlimited package is appealing, since it seems like you'll never exceed the limits. However, unlimited hosting is clearly impossible to provide, since servers have finite capabilities. If you really offered everyone infinite disk space for a few bucks a month, you'd quickly be bankrupt.

Hosts use a little poetic license: they know that small websites can't possibly tax a server that much, so they make certain assumptions about the amount of capacity the average customer needs. In general, they're correct in their guesswork. Many of the people who buy shared hosting set up personal blogs, localised sites or niche resources that will have a relatively low readership, so they won't have any real impact on the server's resources. They could never cause an issue, so the host doesn't bother putting a limit on their activity.

If your site begins to stray wildly outside the defined range that the host considers acceptable, you'll be asked to upgrade your hosting package - most likely to a Virtual Private Server (VPS). This may happen if your site gets huge amounts of traffic, or a script causes the server to slow down. You can also cause issues for others if your visitors download masses of content. Frogpants, a podcast site, ran into this problem because its visitors were streaming and downloading big files.

Many hosts redefine the word 'unlimited' in the Terms of Service document. Others skip the unlimited claims and set high, but finite, limits. Essentially, these packages are all the same, and you'll be asked to upgrade to another type of hosting if your site grows beyond its virtual resource ceiling.

Naturally, this low cost solution has its limitations. But for many customers, it offers the perfect balance of adequate resources and an affordable price tag.

In Praise of Shared Hosting

So unlimited hosting has its problems, but that's not to say shared hosting isn't worth buying. Shared hosting is ideal if you're:

  • Starting your first website
  • Running a small business or startup
  • Experimenting with coding and web design
  • Making sites for family and friends
  • Studying WordPress, Joomla and other key applications
  • Making the most of a limited budget for hosting

The vast majority of hosting companies take great pride in their shared hosting packages, since they're the primary route of entry for customers that stick around for years - or even decades.

Shared Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is shared hosting?

    Shared hosting is a type of website hosting plan where many customer accounts are run from a single (often virtual) server.

  • How does shared hosting work? Wouldn’t our files and applications get mixed up?

    Each account’s files and applications reside in a separate partition on the server, with its own file directory tree. Users for each account have no access to either the root or to each other’s files. Computing resources and the web server are shared by all accounts.

  • Does shared hosting mean all the websites will have the same IP address?

    Typically, yes. Most shared hosting plans are, by default, “name-based virtual hosts.” This means that all the accounts share an IP address, and routing is done based on the domain name.

  • Will sharing an IP address affect security?

    Not directly. However, you can not use an SSL security certificate with a name based virtual host (most shared hosting plans).

  • Why can’t an SSL security certificate be used with shared IP hosting?

    When a browser connects to a server through the HTTPS protocol, the security certificate check and encryption handshake occur before the client sends the complete request header to the server. At that point in the process, there’s no way to determine which domain name the security certificate is supposed to be for.

  • Are there any other potential problems with sharing an IP address with web sites from other web hosting companies?

    Many firewalls and anti-spam applications use IP addresses to identify bad actors. Because of this, it is possible that you could find your IP address the target of blocking or anti-spam filtering due to the actions of others.

  • How many websites can be hosted on a single shared hosting server?

    A lot. It is essentially unlimited from a technical standpoint. Each web hosting company determines the density of their shared accounts based on the ability of their machines and their experience with actual usage statistics. (Author’s note: I run a small blog about church music on a shared hosting plan. I recently looked into what other websites were hosted at the same IP address and found that the server hosted over 1000 domains, some of which were associated with explicit content. I was a bit disturbed by this, and will be looking to move my blog in the near future.)

  • Can I get my own IP address on shared hosting?

    Yes. Many web hosting companies sell plans which they describe as “Dedicated IP.” With these plans, the routing is done through “IP-based virtual hosts,” which allow multiple IP addresses to be handled by a single web server. In this case, you have your own IP address, but are still sharing all the computer resources.

  • What computer resources are shared in shared hosting?

    All of them. Disk space, bandwidth, processing cycles, web server priority, memory.

  • Does sharing server resources in a shared hosting plan have an impact on my website?

    Yes. A web server can only handle so many requests for content per second. It’s possible for a single website to get so much traffic that it starts to lag with completing requests. With shared hosting, there may be hundreds of websites, each contributing to that same load on the web server. If more than a few of them become particularly popular, there can be a serious problem for all of them. Similarly with processing and memory. Many websites rely on interpreted languages like PHP and calls to a database. These require memory and processing time, and if there are too many of them, they can all be negatively impacted. Processing and memory can be more prone to ill effects than the web server because poorly written applications and slow database queries can cause problems even for sites with minimal traffic.

  • Are there any other drawbacks to using a shared hosting plan?

    Yes. You don’t have access to the server or operating system directly. This means that sometimes you cannot install applications you need or want, or change environmental settings. Most shared hosting environments are optimized for PHP and MySQL (and more specifically WordPress), and it can be a serious hassle (though, frustratingly, not entirely impossible) to run applications using things like Ruby on Rails, Node.js, or MongoDB. It’s also difficult to set up deployment and version control technologies like Git, or to do anything resembling continuous integration.

  • So I should probably just avoid shared hosting plans altogether?

    Not necessarily. For all their drawbacks, shared hosting plans do provide a very affordable way to get a basic website or blog up and running very quickly.

  • Is there anything I can do to improve my shared hosting experience?

    Use a Content Delivery Network to offload some of the web server work. Minify and combine resources like CSS and JS files to save both requests and bandwidth (these can also be delivered through a CDN). If you run WordPress or a similar content management system, use a caching tool to save processing cycles. Run organizational email through a third-party like Google apps, and use a separate email marketing service like MailChimp instead of sending mail through your shared server. If you have any issues related to illicit behavior from others sharing your IP address, contact your hosting provider right away.

  • What are the alternatives to a shared hosting plan?

    Virtual Private Servers (VPS) are the most common alternative, and more than adequate for most applications.

  • Shared hosting vs. VPS. Which is better?

    VPS. But you may not need or want the additional expense and the responsibility to manage your server environment. In that case, shared hosting might be better for you.

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