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What is Web Hosting?

Web Hosting, which is a service used to store and publish websites online, makes websites accessible to internet users around the world. Website data such as code, text, images, and other files are hosted (stored) on computers called servers.

Domain names are like street addresses for the internet. Someone who wishes to view a website enters the domain name in their web browser address bar. The correct hosting server is contacted and the data -- usually website pages -- are retrieved and displayed.

What Kind of Hosting Do You Need?

The number of web hosting choices available to someone looking to get a website up and running can be overwhelming. It is possible to get web hosting for just a couple of dollars per month, and in some cases, you might even be able to get free hosting.

However, there are also plans out there that cost hundreds - even thousands! - of dollars per month.

For the uninitiated, it can seem like all hosting plans are the same — in fact, it can sometimes look as if the cheap plans are the best since they come with more promises: unlimited bandwidth, storage, email inboxes, and so on.

If that's the case, why do more expensive options exist? Why doesn't Amazon get in on that action and host its website on a plan that costs just a couple o' bucks a month? For those with mission-critical websites, how do you ensure that you're getting a reliable web hosting provider?

As always, there's more to a given web hosting plan than meets the eye, so in this article, we try to explain the differences between your options so that you can make an informed choice as to what's best for you and your website.

Types of Web Hosting

Generally speaking, you can categorize a majority of the web hosting plans available in five categories:

Let's take a closer look at each type:

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting is the cheapest & most popular web hosting option.

With a shared hosting plan, you are renting space on a server that you share with other website owners. This also means you're sharing resources like bandwidth, memory, and processing power. This can be a problem, because a web host company typically supports hundreds, even thousands, of websites on a single server. Most of these websites will get very little traffic, allowing those who do see higher levels of traffic to use the resources they need. Nevertheless, there are no guarantees that you will get the resources necessary to support your website.

Shared hosting plans offer sufficient power for many small business and personal websites at affordable prices. Furthermore, you are not responsible for any type of web server management — you have all the functionality of a professionally managed web hosting, but you only shoulder a small portion of the server's cost or hassle.

It's important to note, however, that not all shared hosting is created equal. Different companies use different servers, each configured with different amounts of resources, and with different features. Furthermore, some companies host more websites on a single server than its peers. As such, that $10 per month shared hosting plan probably has many benefits over one costing $0.99 per month.

VPS (Virtual Private Server)

If your website exceeds the resources of a shared hosting plan (perhaps you've seen higher levels of traffic), the natural next step is a virtual private server (VPS) hosting plan. A VPS hosting plan will get you increased performance and larger resource allocations without saddling you with the full cost of your own server.

VPS plans are similar to shared plans in that both feature multiple websites hosted on a single server. However, VPS plans maintain a strict separation between clients and websites when it comes to resource allocations. Your site gets its share, and no one else may use your resources (conversely, you may not cannibalize the resources allocated to others' websites either).

In addition to providing you with greater performance and larger resource allocations, VPS hosting gets you full control of your server environment. Though a VPS is not a physical server, you can control it as if it were.

If you have special needs for your server, you have the control to address them. With that said, you'll need to have some degree of comfort with server technology to manage a VPS. This is typically done using the command line, though you can opt to purchase a GUI-based control panel, like cPanel or WHM, for ease of use.

Cloud Hosting

Cloud hosting is similar to VPS hosting in that the server isn't actually a physical machine. Rather, your hosting is distributed across multiple servers, all of which are connected (by the web host provider) to form a network of sorts.

Due to its infrastructure, cloud hosting is extremely stable and scalable. Your website has access to multiple servers, which allows for redundancy and fallback. Furthermore, if you outgrow your allocation of the cloud network, you can easily ask your hosting provider to increase your allocation.

Unlike VPS hosting, which is limited by the physical server on which your website is hosted, cloud hosting allows you to use resources offered by multiple machines. For example, if you find that your website is lagging because of lack of bandwidth, you can increase the amount available to you. Often, you can make this change yourself via the host's control panel.

If industry-leading uptime and rapid-scalability are your two biggest concerns, cloud hosting might be just what you're looking for. Cloud hosting will get you access to a cluster of servers from which you can quickly provision resources when you need them. Along with having enough separation from unruly neighbors, your application should be kept safe. VPS and Cloud services are sometimes combined into a hybrid service called Cloud VPS or Scalable VPS.

Dedicated Hosting

Dedicated servers are exactly what they sound like: an entire server dedicated to hosting only your website. The web hosting provider has a physical server, and everything with which it has been configured is used only for your website. If you're done sharing web server resources with other clients and websites, this is the option for you.

Dedicated servers are used to power complex applications and high-traffic websites. You might also opt for one if you serve a large quantity of media, such as high-resolution images, audio files, and streaming video clips, or you see very high levels of traffic (or perhaps both are applicable). Dedicated hosting also provides the highest level of security and server customization possible. Also see: Colocation.

Reseller Hosting

Reseller hosting options are a special type of hosting plan. Essentially, if you want to start a business and sell web hosting while someone else maintains the server, reseller hosting is the way to go. With a reseller plan, you buy access to server resources in bulk, and then resell it under your own brand.

There are multiple types of reseller plans: shared, VPS, cloud, dedicated, each popular with web designers & web agencies.

Reseller plans aren't for those who are new to web hosting. You'll have to provide your customers with customer and technical support.

Specialized Web Hosting

People use websites for all kinds of things, and exactly what you want to do will dictate what kind of web hosting you need. In addition to the types of web hosting we covered in the previous section, which can generally be used for many different types of websites, there are specialty options that cater to a specific subset of users. We will cover these options below.

WordPress Hosting

WordPress is one of the most popular content management systems (CMS) in the world, and as such, many web hosting providers offer options that cater to this rather large niche. You can certainly host your WordPress site on a standard shared hosting plan, but by choosing a WordPress-specific option, you'll spend less time configuring and managing your WordPress installation.

Generally speaking, such plans come with WordPress already installed in your environment, regular updates to your WordPress core and extras, such as free themes, better performance and specialist plugins.

Most plans make setup easy, but some even set your website (and WordPress) up for you, leaving you more time to personalize your site and create content.

The majority of web hosting plans are compatible with WordPress, if you need more server resources or run a mission-critical website - then a specialized managed WordPress package might be ideal.

Java Hosting

Java is an object-oriented programming language for applications and websites that was first released by Oracle in 1995. While Java has lost some of its popularity as a client-side programming language, it still sees heavy use in server-side applications — especially at big sites like Amazon and eBay. If you want to implement server-side features powered by Java, you'll want to make sure that your website host supports the use of Java.

Joomla Hosting

Joomla is a flexible content management system and web application framework. It is also the second most popular content management system (CMS) after WordPress.

Joomla is a bit more technical than WordPress and therefore less friendly to new users. If you want to build a website powered by Joomla, check out our Joomla hosting page.

PHP Hosting

PHP is a server-side scripting language. PHP originally stood for "Personal Home Page," but it is now known by the recursive acronym, "PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor."

PHP is supported by most hosting providers, and it is theoretically available on just about any server (especially since it is one of the most popular scripting languages in the world). Many popular applications are written in PHP, including the three most popular content management systems: WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.

PHP is sometimes used to handle searches. For example, let's say you sell t-shirts on your blog:

  • A user clicks on the sizes to see if you have any large shirts left.
  • PHP is like the intercom from the front of your store. It calls back to your warehouse, "Hey guys, got any large t-shirts back there?"
  • The warehouse (your product database, sometimes played by MySQL) answers back, "Yup, we've got three more back here."
  • PHP then delivers the info back to the user.

ASP.NET Hosting

ASP.NET is a server-side scripting framework released by Microsoft. It is extremely powerful, and you can use it in conjunction with pretty much any language you want to create your website.

In some ways, ASP.NET is kind of like the Microsoft's equivalent of PHP. However, for those who are established Microsoft programmers and who are therefore proficient in Visual Basic or C#, ASP.NET is a great choice.

Which Operating System: Linux VS Windows

Besides choosing the type of web hosting you need, you'll also need to decide whether you want your website hosted on a Windows-based system or a Linux-based system. In some cases, the needs of your website dictate the operating system you choose. If not, read on for an overview of the similarities and differences between the two options.

Use the top navigation to quickly find hosts that support Windows, Linux and other OS options.

Please note that you don't have to run Linux on your computer to use Linux hosting, or Windows to run Windows hosting.

Linux Hosting

Linux is the most commonly-used operating system for web hosting in the world, and Linux servers are a popular choice for many websites and applications. It is the industry-standard operating system, and in fact, one of the most popular groups of applications used to back websites is commonly referred to as LAMP, which stands for Linux, Apache (a web server), MySQL (a database), and PHP.

If you're looking for an option that can handle today's most common programming languages and applications (such as PHP + MySQL databases) consider choosing a plan that offers Linux hosting.

Windows Hosting

Windows is the operating system offered by Microsoft. If you want a server that can handle Windows applications, databases, and programming frameworks like ASP.NET, you will need a hosting plan that offers Windows. Note, however, that you still have the flexibility to utilize common web programming languages like PHP and MySQL.

Traditionally, Windows-based hosting costs more money than Linux hosting as a result of the licensing fees assessed by Microsoft (Linux is open source and therefore free to use). However, this is less true today. Some companies, like 1&1 and GoDaddy offer hosting packages that cost the about same, regardless of which operating system you choose to run.

Domain Name Registration

One of the things you need to consider when setting up your website is the domain you want people to use.

Domain names, which are the addresses that you type into your browser to visit a website. They usually take the format of "," but there are a wide variety of other forms they can take. Domains are like street addresses for the internet.

Many web hosting providers, such as GoDaddy & are also domain name registrars so that you can kill two birds with one stone — when you purchase your web hosting package, you can also purchase a domain name.

Alternatively, you might choose to purchase your domain names from one provider and your web hosting from another (especially as the available domain names vary and different hosts may offer different domain extensions, such as .tech or .bike).

Keep in mind that you'll need to renew your domain registration every year. Sometimes, a hosting company will cover your registration fees as long as your account meets specific criteria and is in good standing, while other companies require you to pay the registration fee.

Add-Ons and Extra Features

In addition to website hosting and domain names, many web hosting companies offer add-ons and bonus features, such as security suites, website builders to help you craft a new site, and so on. The options bundled with a given plan vary, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Website builders, including drag-and-drop options
  • SSL certificates
  • Dedicated IP addresses
  • Spam filters and malware protection tools
  • Automated backups of your data

Such features might end up tipping a certain plan in your favor — depending on what you're using your website for, you might save yourself money by opting for a plan that includes the extras you need.

For example, if you're planning on launching an online store, you'll likely need a private SSL certificate and dedicated IP address to help protect your customers' data, so a plan that comes with these items would be beneficial.

What About Unlimited Hosting?

Almost all hosting providers offer at least one unlimited plan where you are promised unlimited storage, unlimited email, unlimited bandwidth. There are even some providers that offer nothing but unlimited plans.

However, "unlimited" doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does. You probably expected unlimited plans to allow you to use as much of a given resource (whether it's bandwidth, disk space, or email addresses) as you need, but it's more likely that your web host hasn't set a limit on your resource usage.

Sounds good? Not so fast. None of us likes reading the fine print, but in the case of your web hosting provider, it's essential that you read their terms of service (TOS). Luckily for all of us, pretty much every TOS says the same thing: you can't abuse their servers.

Regardless, there may come a time when a traffic spike brings your website down, and that's because your host has deemed your usage "excessive." This is unlikely, but definitely something to keep in mind.

Take our little joke about Amazon above. If Amazon decided to host its website using HostGator's unmetered Hatchling Plan for a couple of dollars per month, Amazon would crash the server it was running on. But more important to Amazon, crashing the server means that its website becomes unavailable, costing them millions of dollars.

And that provides an important lesson to website owners: it doesn't matter if your hosting provider will allow you to go crazy with server resources if it ends up with your website loading slowly or going offline.

So remember that while unlimited web hosting plans do free you up to have a more casual approach to your resource usage, you still need to find a plan that is equivalent to your needs. Think of it as having a classic American Express card. You have no pre-set limit. But you aren't going to be able to buy things you can't ultimately afford.

Server Location & CDNs

The cliche in the real estate world is that the three most important considerations when buying a home are location, location, location.

On the internet, there seems to be no location. You can visit a site out of Beijing as easily as you can from Topeka. But just because you can go everywhere in the world on the internet doesn't mean that the internet isn't localized. If you want your website visitors to be served as quickly as possible, your best bet is to host your site on a web server as close to your users as possible.

There are two ways to serve your website from a server that's as close to your visitors as possible:

  • Choosing a web host based on datacenter location
  • Using a content delivery network (CDN)

Datacenter Location, Is it Important?

If the vast majority of your visitors are from a particular country or region, your best option is to choose a server that is located near there. For example, if your website focuses on the music scene in Berlin, you should opt for a hosting company with a datacenter in Germany.

Not all hosts have multiple datacenters, and even those that do don't always offer the choice to their customers.

Web Hosts that let you choose datacenter location:

  • SiteGround - US, UK, EU & Asia - based options
  • GreenGeeks - 4 locations including US east & west + Canada & Amsterdam
  • A2 Hosting - Two USA locations plus Europe and Asia options
  • WP Engine - Multiple datacenters including US, UK & Belgium
  • InMotion Hosting - Choice of US east or west coast

Using a Content Delivery Network (CDN)

The second approach to serving your website from a location that's close to your visitors is to use a content delivery network (CDN).

Essentially, your website is placed on servers all around the world, and the web server that your visitor communicates with to receive your website depends on where they are.

Why Not Both CDN & Local Server?

While we present CDNs as an alternative to choosing a web host based on location, there's nothing that prevents you from doing both. Using CDNs sometimes incurs additional costs for you, but there are web hosting packages that come bundled with CDN use, like SiteGround.

Customer Service & Support

It is important to remember that when you sign up with a web hosting company, you are not just purchasing a set of technologies. You are also entering into a business relationship. There are many non-tech reasons why you might choose one host over another. You need to be able to trust your hosting company. This is where customer reviews can be very useful.

Pretty much every company will boast about the quality of their customer service and support team, but it's important to look into the specifics of their claims.

For example, you may certainly contact your host at any time, but when are they available to respond to your questions and concerns? How long will it take for someone to get back to you? Will there be someone to help you if your mission-critical website goes down at 3:00 in the morning? What language(s) do your host providers speak? Support in Malagasy is probably essential if you live and work in Madagascar, but fairly useless if you are in North America.

Finally, how can you get in touch with the team? Do they take phone calls during limited periods of time, or are they available via telephone, email, live chat, support ticketing system, and social media?

Managed Services & Consulting

One aspect of customer service is whether you can get help with issues that aren't typically covered by a support contract. For example, let's say that you want to implement a special feature. Can you ask your host for assistance? Such help might cost you a bit, but having this option is certainly valuable.

Help & Reference Resources

While it can be nice to have someone walk you through an issue, sometimes you just want to look up your issue quickly, make a small change, and move on. As such, take a look at the documentation that your web hosting provider offers before you purchase a package.

  • Is there documentation available?
  • What type of information is available in the knowledgebase?
  • Are there guided tutorials, either in print or in video form?
  • How up-to-date does the documentation look?
  • Has it been maintained, or does it look like it's been neglected for the past couple of years?
  • Is there a forum where I can get practical help from other customers?

Trial Periods, Refunds, and Money Back Guarantees

It's rare to find a web hosting provider that offers free trial periods, but luckily, money back guarantees are common. Typically, web hosts will allow you to sign up and purchase a plan, and if you find that what you bought isn't the right option for you, you can take advantage of the money back guarantee to receive a full refund of the fees you paid.

However, note that such refunds typically cover only web hosting fees. If you received a free domain as part of your purchase, the web host might deduct the cost of registering your domain from your refund. You should also know that things like setup fees, services (such as migration services), and VPS/dedicated servers tend not to be refundable.

(Pssst -- we track which hosts offer money-back guarantees, and we display that information on their hosting profile and review page.)

Real Hosting Reviews & Tools To Help You Choose

Deciding on what company and plan to choose for web hosting can feel like a complicated process, but we can make your life a whole lot easier by helping you narrow down your choices.

Use Our Web Host Comparison Tool

The number of web host providers currently in business can be overwhelming, so check out our plan comparison tool to narrow down the list based on your criteria. You can sort and filter your options by price and features (such as resource allocations, server location, platform, and special support for scripting and languages).

Looking to host a WordPress blog? Or set up an secure e-commerce store or just want a cheap host for your personal website? -- we track hosts for these and 100s of other specialized features.

Read Real User Reviews Of Popular Web Hosts

Once you've narrowed down the list of web host providers in which you're interested, read real host reviews written by people just like yourself.

We collect, vet, and publish reviews from real users, so you can get a better picture of what a host is like, both in terms of product quality and customer service — you won't be swayed the wrong way by one-offs (whether good or bad)!

Customer review and link from our SiteGround review page

We recommend taking a bit of time to look at ratings and reviews. You'll get answers to questions like:

  • Is the uptime as good as promised?
  • Is the control panel easy-to-use?
  • Is customer support helpful?
  • Is live chat prompt to reply?
  • Are there hidden charges or fees?

In addition to reading through reviews from actual users, check out our Expert Opinion section for a high-level summary of what you can expect from a given host, uptime stats, hosting plan summaries to see if the provider offers what you're looking for, and our FAQ pages to get answers to any final questions you might have.

Overwhelmed? Whatever your needs, we probably have a guide and FAQs to help you through the jargon and choose a suitable host. Whether you are looking for something that supports specific development framework, or need a host that accepts PayPal or Bitcoin — we've got you covered.

Questions? Ask one of our hosting experts by contacting us here.

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