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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.

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Why Choose Shared Hosting?

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.

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