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What is Unlimited Hosting?

Many web hosting providers entice their potential customers with promises of "unlimited" features. But, what does this mean? Why are "unlimited" plans often the cheapest?

Unlimited?

You've probably seen:

  • Unlimited domains
  • Unlimited email addresses
  • Unlimited storage
  • Unlimited bandwidth
  • Unlimited databases

With so much unlimitedness, its easy to wonder why anyone would choose a hosting plan that allows for only so many databases, or charges usage rates for bandwidth volume.

The first thing to consider is that there really isn't such a thing as "free."

When you purchase hosting, you are paying for three things, even if they aren't itemized on your bill:

  • Disk space on an actual drive
  • Processing cycles on an actual computer
  • Bandwidth on actual internet cables

Naturally, each one of these has a plethora of underlying expenses to whoever is providing your web hosting account: electricity, security, air conditioning, real estate, insurance, staff.

The more disk space, CPU time, and bandwidth that you actually use in your web hosting account, the more it costs the hosting provider. Web hosts that offer unlimited use plans have already taken this into account with their pricing structure, averaging out the actual costs across all customers.

This means that if you are a relatively low-volume web host user, you may be paying for services that you aren't actually using.

Conversely, if you are a fairly high-volume user, running several large websites from a single unlimited-use shared hosting plan, you are costing the hosting company money.

Providers of "Unlimited" hosting plans have a strong economic incentive to limit the amount of use each account generates, because every database query, every asset request, and every email costs them something. Those fractions of pennies really add up.

Unlimited, but with limitations

Because of the cost-averaging pricing structure described above, most shared hosting providers take a number of different steps to specifically limit their unlimited plans.

Terms of Service limitations

Almost all unlimited hosting providers use Terms of Service (TOS) agreements to legally restrict what their hosting service can be used for.

One common limit on unlimited storage is a restriction on the types of data that can stored. For example, a hosting company might specify that only files directly related to publicly accessible websites can be stored, disallowing personal file storage or site backups.

Another limit you may find in shared hosting and unlimited use plans is a restriction on reselling or subletting of use. This can affect small-time and freelance web developers who might want to host several clients' websites on a single shared hosting plan.

Mass email is also a common target of TOS agreements, with hosting companies specifying that you can not use their mail servers for high-volume email marketing.

Hidden limits

Though all shared hosting providers deny the claims, there are many unverified reports of shared hosting providers throttling back speed and performance of higher volume sites in order to maintain their average costs and discourage overuse.

All web hosting is not created equal

Even if you are well within the "limits" of unlimited hosting, and don't need to do anything that would violate your TOS agreement, unlimited hosting is essentially a commodity service.

One of the reasons the bandwidth and storage capacity is more expensive in premium web hosts is that a lot of money and expertise has gone into optimizing the web hosting environment. This includes high-quality hardware, proprietary server software, multi-redundant backups, and a number of other enhancements needed by high-volume and mission critical web sites.

How to overcome the limitations of unlimited hosts

If an unlimited use hosting provider is the best, or only, option for you at this time, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from running into their actual limitations.

(Note: These strategies are also helpful if you are paying for bandwidth and storage capacity. In fact, the way to make the best use of unlimited web hosting is to treat it as if you were baying for every bit.)

Use a Content Delivery Network
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) moves your static assets to optimized edge servers closer to your website's visitors. This is done to make your website load faster, but it also reduces the bandwidth and request load on your hosting account because assets are being delivered from the CDN's servers, not your own.

Optimize your website
Cleaner code, better SQL queries, minified CSS and JS files, right-sized images, and a number of other improvements to your website design can have a significant impact in reducing overall use.

Third party applications
Many website-related functions, such as blog comment systems and lead capture forms can be integrated at the browser level from third-party SaaS providers. For low volume use, many of these services are even free.

Cross selling opportunities

An interesting way that unlimited use hosting providers make additional profit from their hosting plans is by cross-selling products and services that fill in the gaps made by their limitations.

If you plan to do implement a CDN, a website optimizer, a third-party commenting system, or another similar "load reduction" technique, be sure to shop around and look at independent recommendations. There is a strong probability that the suggestions for these services coming from your hosting provider are sponsored.

Who should use unlimited hosting... and who shouldn't

Shared hosting with unlimited use plans is a great option for personal blogs and websites that don't get a lot of traffic. They are also a good choice for small to medium sized non-tech organizations that need reliable, but not mission-critical, marketing and PR websites.

Internet focused businesses, SaaS providers, media-heavy websites, and large company should usually avoid unlimited use plans.

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