Understanding the Different Types of Web Hosting: Which Type Do You Need?
Figuring out which type of web hosting you need for your website can be challenging given the sheer number of options available.
That's one of the reasons we created this web hosting compare tool for you. If you are new to web hosting, you may not realize the differences between the hosting types, their features, or why prices vary so much. So let's cover some basics here.
What Will We Cover?
Anyone operating a self-hosted website will need some sort of hosting service to store their site's data on and to help deliver web content to site visitors.
That's why today we are going to break down everything you need to know about web hosting.
- Features to look for in a web host
- The different types of web hosting that are available
- How to figure out which hosting plan and type will best suit your individual needs.
What Is Web Hosting?
When a site visitor clicks on your website in a search result they are actually viewing coding languages that have been rearranged by their browser into understandable and viewable content.
In other words, the code has been formatted to look like the written text and images you have on your website so site visitors can view it.
Websites are Code
If their browser did not format the coding language that makes up your website's data, and instead delivered the actual code to their computer screen, they would have no idea what they were looking at.
Xbox program manager Jasmine Lawrence and Tumblr founder David Karp explain the basics of how computers access web pages.
The code that makes up your website's data is compiled into a bunch of separate files depending on the type of data it is.
What Type of Code Does a Website Use?
Your site is typically broken down into:
- HTML code
- CSS (Cascading Style Sheets),
You need somewhere secure to store all of these files making up your website.
|HTML||Formatting/General layout of page|
|CSS stylesheets||Define page style (including shapes, colors, backgrounds, fonts)|
You need a way to "deliver" your site (which as we see, is made up of various files) to visitors around the world who want to see it.
That's where a web server comes into play.
What Is a Web Server?
A web server does two things for your website:
- It stores the files that make up your website
- It helps deliver those files to site visitors when they click on your website.
What are Physical Servers?
Physical servers are large computers that physically store your website's data for safekeeping.
Servers are stored in highly secure places called datacenters. These datacenters are located all across the globe.
The closer a site visitor is to the physical server storing your website's data, the faster they will receive the content on their computer screen.
Now, we are talking mere seconds, but you should know that website loading speeds are crucial to the user experience and play a large role in whether site visitors will engage with your site's content or leave.
Physical servers are also the component that supports the exchange of data between devices that connect to the internet, such as the computers or mobile devices your site visitor is on when they click on your site.
In other words, the physical server "serves" your website's content to site visitors when they want it.
However, physical servers cannot fully serve up website data without the help of software servers.
What are Software Servers?
This is important because web hosting providers use specific types of operating systems when they store your site's files and deliver them to your visitors.
Linux vs. Windows
And, while Linux operating systems are the most commonly used by hosting providers, there are those that offer Windows services as well. If you prefer a specific operating system, it's important to look into this before signing up with a web host.
If you are not familiar with the differences between Linux and Microsoft Windows servers, check out our helpful comparison here.
That said, concerning yourself with the type of operating system your hosting provider uses is not something you need to do. Most web hosts provide you access to your server account using a browser-based control panel such as cPanel.
Plus, most website applications, like WordPress are cross-platform.
Why Do I Need Web Hosting?
Unless you are using a platform like WordPress.com to operate your website, you will need web hosting for your website so that it appears live on the internet and others can view it.
And, while having a WordPress.com website is great for those just starting, because they offer free hosting, and a limited number of other features, we recommend you invest in a self-hosted solution such as WordPress.org instead.
Having a website that requires web hosting offers a number of benefits to website owners:
Downsides of Free Platforms
Using a free platform like Blogger or Tumblr limits your control.
For example, you must agree to their terms of service and at any time they can shut your website down without notice. If you are serious about starting a blog or an online business, this is not something you should risk.
Another common issue you'll run into if you use a free platform is the lack of customization options.
You may not be able to:
- Launch an e-commerce website
- Change the design of your blog
- Extend the functionality of your website to do things like:
- Publish contact forms
- Optimize for SEO
- Allow user registrations.
Security and Predictability: Two Benefits of Using Professional Web Hosting
With a hosted website, you have the assurance of your web host that your website's data is safe and secure.
Remember, your data is stored on servers located in datacenters.
These datacenters are staffed by security guards and utilize technology such as video surveillance to make sure your site and all of its files are safe.
Florida's HostDime provides a video tour of their U.S. datacenter. Security features like biometric access points are highlighted.
As you can see, investing in a web hosting provider is going to make building, securing, and operating your website a lot easier.
Now all you have to do is decide which type of hosting you need.
Managed vs. Unmanaged Hosting
Before jumping into the different types of hosting services available, it is important to note the difference between unmanaged and managed hosting so that when these terms come up you have a full understanding of what they mean.
Unmanaged hosting is a hosting plan that has very limited services.
For instance, you will receive server space to store your website's data on that has an operating system such as Linux or Windows on it.
And that's about it.
Do You Have the Technical Skills Required for Unmanaged Hosting?
You will need to install all of the necessary software on your server such as Apache and PHP, and even web applications like WordPress, without the help of the hosting provider.
In fact, any time you need to manage your web server in any way, you will have to take care of it yourself. If you are not tech savvy and able to manage your own server, this hosting plan will not work for you. If your server goes down, you must fix it.
Installing complex software may not be something you know how to do. Accessing your server through a control panel will not be available, making things more difficult for you.
Do you even have time to manage your server at this level, along with managing the daily operations of your website? Most likely not.
A Plus: Advanced Server Control
The good thing about unmanaged hosting is that you maintain complete control over the server as though it were your own, despite the fact that you are renting it from the hosting company.
Unmanaged hosting services are generally much cheaper alternatives because you are simply renting space on a server and are responsible for everything else.
On the other hand, managed hosting is when the hosting company you choose helps you "manage" the server your site's data is stored on.
This means that anything your server requires, whether that be maintenance, repair, or even upgrades, your hosting provider will take care of it.
Benefits of Managed Hosting
It also means that in addition to the Linux or Windows server operating systems, you will have:
- Software like Apache and PHP already installed.
- Access to easy one-click installations for WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and other popular content management systems (CMSs) that websites are built on.
- Access to easy one-click installations of hundreds of modules that extend the functionality of your website. These modules typically inclue marketing, shipping, email, and online community features like forums.
- An easy-to-use control panel such as cPanel or Plesk.
You may also have features such as automated backups of your website with easy restore options like:
- Status monitoring of the server
- Status monitoring of your individual website
- Security sweeps that include identification of malicious activity
- Hack fixes and alerts
This, of course, is all dependant on the hosting plan you choose.
Features to Look for in a Hosting Provider
In addition to knowing whether you want to have unmanaged or managed hosting, it is important to know which hosting features are the most important to you.
While most web hosts offer similar features, it is good to know what separates the best from the rest.
Take a look at these key features any reputable web host will provide you in, no matter which type of web hosting you decide to use:
- The amount of storage available for your website's files
- How much bandwidth is available
- Database support
- The number of domains and subdomains you can register
- Whether you can install web applications such as the CMS WordPress
- What kind of tech support is provided
- If shell access is provided
- Whether you will have automated backups of your site and easy restore options
- If you can choose operating systems
- Uptime guarantees
→ Storage is necessary for your site's files.
→ Bandwidth is the amount of data your web host will let you and your visitors upload and download each month.
→ Explore database support if you need something other than the typical MySQL database.
→ Shell access, which lets you use the command line remotely, is great for advanced website owners that need more control.
→ Uptime guarantees are for cases when the server crashes or needs maintenance.
Specialized Hosting Features
Other specialized features include:
- Free SSL certificates
- Content Delivery Network (CDN) services to speed site loading times
- Email accounts
Though this list is by no means exhaustive, it does give you something to reference when researching a hosting provider. After all, with so many options available you need to know what to look for.
Common Types of Web Hosting Services
Now that you have a solid idea behind the concept of web hosting, let's get into the different kinds of hosting services that are available so you can begin to make your decision.
What is Shared Hosting?
Shared hosting is the most basic, and cheapest, web hosting service on the market.
It is great for beginners with limited tech knowledge, people with low traffic websites, and those that don't have a lot of content on their website.
Plus, it affords those on a tight budget the ability to run their own website.
Why is Shared Hosting So Cheap?
With shared hosting, your site's data is stored on a single server along with hundreds, or even thousands, of other shared hosting customers.
This means that the total amount of resources that web server has in terms of CPU speed, RAM, and hard drive space is shared amongst everyone on that server.
This is how shared hosting companies are able to offer such low prices for their hosting services, which usually start at $3.95/month.
Limitations of Shared Hosting
The issue of sharing resources is not usually an issue for most small websites. If one website experiences an unusual spike in traffic or has bad code that eats up a large portion of the server's resources at one time, there is very little left for you and everyone else to draw from.
This results in slow page loading, errors, and even downtime, which is no good for any website owner, no matter how small their site may be.
And don't forget, your web server is the one delivering site content to site visitors when they click on your site.
Vicki from HostDime explains the different types of web hosting... using pizza.
And, every time they serve up this data, the server has to work to do so.
Slow File Delivery
If the server your site is hosted on has thousands of other files being delivered simultaneously to site visitors looking at those websites, imagine the strain that server suffers.
This can also lead to slower page loading and a poor user experience.
What is VPS Hosting?
VPS, or virtual private server, hosting is the next step up from shared hosting. It works in a similar fashion in the sense that you share server space, though it is virtual the similarities stop there.
VPS hosting is a good choice for e-commerce sites, web developers, and businesses with room to grow thanks to its ability to scale, its flexibility, and its reasonable pricing, which typically starts at $29.99/month.
With VPS hosting, your site data is stored on a virtual machine that exists as software on a server.
In other words, it's like having multiple computers installed on one larger computer, all having their own CPU, RAM, and hard drive space.
These resources are then split equally amongst those on the virtual machine. There are usually no more than 20 users on one server at a time.
Advantages of VPS Hosting: Control and Customization
Your allotted resources are yours and yours alone.
This means if someone experiences a traffic spike or uses up their resources because of bad code, your resources remain untouched and your website does not suffer.
How does VPS hosting work? This overview it is provided by Bluehost.
In addition, with VPS hosting you have more control when it comes to growing your business.
If you find yourself needing more resources than you originally signed up for, simply upgrade, and within minutes you will have more server space than before.
Control Over Your Server Environment
Plus, if you want direct control of the server itself, you have that too. In a shared environment, you cannot make changes to the server because any changes you make will affect every other user on the same server.
However, with a VPS server, you can do things such as install additional software on your portion of the server without affecting other users on that same server. This is a great feature for those in web development.
What is Cloud Hosting?
Cloud hosting is similar to VPS hosting in regards to scalability, though it takes growing your business beyond anything a VPS web host can do.
Rather than divide a single server into equal parts for users, with seemingly endless resources, cloud hosting takes a massive number of servers and combines them into one big virtual server for everyone to use.
Cloud Hosting: Only Pay for What You Use
Because of its unlimited amount of available resources, and the typical pay-for-what-you-use pricing model, this type of web hosting is an excellent option even for large websites with lots of traffic.
After all, you don't always have heavy traffic and don't want to pay for what you don't use.
It's Easy to Scale Up with Cloud Hosting
Despite its virtual appeal, VPS hosting has its limit because it still works off one single physical server.
And, while it may have plenty of virtual machines installed in it with its own set of resources, the truth is, that one single server only has so much space on it.
However, with cloud hosting, the minute resources start running out due to an increase in demand, all that is needed is another physical server to be added to the mix to add more resources.
Cloud Hosting Provides Protection from DDoS Attacks
Cloud-based web hosts help protect against DDoS attacks. During a DDoS attack, a massive influx of requests is sent out to a server.
These requests overwhelm and crash the server, along with every website being hosted on the server.
While this is not a direct security threat, the downtime harms the user experience and can result in a loss of revenue for many websites.
DDoS attacks easily crash a single server. But with cloud hosting, there are so many servers on the grid that an influx of requests, even at the DDoS level, will have zero effect.
What is Dedicated Hosting?
With a dedicated hosting plan, you rent the entire server your website's data is stored on.
Though the resources on your dedicated server are limited by its ability to store only as much data as it physically can, the good thing is no one ever touches any resources of yours or negatively affects your website in any way.
Ultimate Control: Customize Your Server
You can usually customize your server how you want, such as increasing the amount of RAM available or choosing the operating system you want to work with.
This is great for advanced website owners that really know what they are doing and want specialized server software installed.
What is dedicated server hosting? This video provides a simple overview.
Dedicated Server Challenges: You Need Some Technical Skills
That said, using a dedicated server comes with plenty of challenges.
You must be knowledgeable enough to manage the physical server itself. This is because most dedicated hosting companies don't offer managed dedicated hosting solutions.
And even if they do, you still need to know what you are doing in order to host your site's data on the server yourself.
In addition, if your hardware fails, your website is going to be down until the issue is resolved. This is a risk not many want to take.
Do I Need Dedicated Hosting?
Though dedicated hosting offers plenty of resources, and is suitable for large websites with lots of traffic, the truth is, the cost that comes with running a dedicated server. This is at a minimum will cost you $99.99/month, and the responsibility for maintaining it are hard to validate when other options such as cloud hosting are available.
What is Colocation Hosting?
Colocation hosting is unique in that you buy your own physical server and simply rent the space in the datacenter it sits in. The hosting company provides power, cooling, physical security, and the internet uplink to get you connected, while you provide the rest.
You also pay for the bandwidth your site uses each month.
Disadvantages of Colocation
One of the biggest drawbacks to colocation hosting is that if your hardware fails, you are out a server and your website is down.
Repairing or replacing a web server is an expensive ordeal. And, it gets even more expensive if your website relies on purchases made by site visitors. If your site is down, no one can buy anything until you are back up and running.
This loss of revenue can be devastating to even the most established online businesses. With this type of hosting, you can customize your server to your liking.
This means you can use any operating system you want, increase CPU speed and RAM whenever you feel like it, and install whatever specialized software your desire on it. This also means you need to be tech-savvy.
What is Reseller Hosting?
When it comes to reseller hosting you are actually investing in multiple shared hosting accounts and reselling them to your own customers for a profit. Reseller hosting packages come with many tools to help you manage the shared accounts you resell.
Reseller Hosting Tools
For example, the Web Host Manager (WHM) is ideal for controlling all accounts from one location, and the billing software that comes with your package is great for invoicing your users.
Other Reseller Hosting Services
Most reseller web hosts offer free web templates, white label capability and technical support, and private name servers so customers think you are an established company rather than a reseller.
Specialized (Niche) Hosting Plans
In addition to the common hosting types mentioned above, there are some specialized hosting plans worth mentioning for those that have specific hosting needs.
Many hosting companies offer managed WordPress hosting plans.
Since WordPress is the most popular CMS to date, many website owners seek experts in WordPress hosting and the platform itself.
Some web hosts, like WP Engine, provide specialized hosting that's geared towards a particular CMS, like WordPress.
Helping to keep your WordPress core, plugins, and themes up to date, as well as offering features like security monitoring, automated backups and restores, and dedicated WordPress support, this affordable hosting option is appealing to many WordPress website owners.
E-commerce hosting caters to those running eCommerce sites that are in need of web hosting.
Features offered include:
- SSL certificates
- A DIY website builder
- Shopping carts
- Database support
- Payment processors.
This type of hosting provider aims to provide businesses the tools they need to set up and manage a successful online store.
Some web hosts, like iPage, offer DIY website builders that come with pre-built, professional templates. All you have to do is supply your content.
If you are running a gaming website, the hosting plan you go with is going to require many resources. In fact, you are going to need something like a dedicated gaming server or cloud hosting plan to meet the required hardware and resource demands.
The hosting services you need really depend on how much control you want over the gaming environment, what kind of customizations you want to make, and how many people you expect to visit your gaming site daily.
In the end, choosing the right web hosting type is going to depend on a variety of things such as the size of your website, the features you require, and your knowledgeability when it comes to managing server resources.
However, no matter which type of website you have, there is a specialized web host that has exactly what you are looking, that is within your budget and can store your site's data securely.
Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
Can I add a firewall to a shared plan to increase security?
Many hosts will offer some version of firewall protection, even for shared plans. Be careful, and make sure you know what you’re actually getting.
A shared firewall that’s just monitoring traffic going in and out of the server will help protect you from things on the outside, but not anything that has already infected another client on the same server.
Many hosts also offer dedicated firewall protection for an extra fee. If security is important to your site, this is definitely a better option. It works both on the hardware and software levels, so it can monitor your specific partition on the server.
Even with a dedicated firewall in place, you still won’t have the same level of security as with VPS or dedicated hosting, but it can provide decent, cost-effective protection.
Since VPS accounts still share the same servers, do they have the same security risks as shared hosting?
With VPS hosting, despite sharing the same hardware as several other VPS accounts, your actual server is completely separate from every other server.
If one server becomes infected with a virus or other vulnerability, that issues is contained within its own virtual environment.
Shared hosting is more akin to having multiple users on a single Windows workstation. If your kid downloads malware while trying to install her new favorite game, every other account on the computer is put a risk.
As a reseller, what kind of hosting can I offer?
You can offer any kind of hosting you want, dependent on the hardware and software available to you from your host.
Most reseller packages will allow you to offer shared and VPS hosting, but some may restrict you to just shared hosting.
Some providers will even give you the option to resell dedicated hosting, but that will be much harder to find and more expensive.
Be sure to do your homework and ask plenty of questions before signing a contract.
How does dedicated hosting compare to VPS hosting?
Dedicated hosting, in most cases, is going to provide the fastest, most customizable and secure hosting experience.
While VPS hosting allows for very easy increases in resources, they are ultimately bound by the hardware they are placed on, which is shared by many other VPS clients.
With a dedicated server, you have a finite amount of resources available to you, but those resources are completely your own.
With a VPS server, while you typically have root access to your server, your host may place some restrictions on software you can install and the resources you can utilize.
With dedicated hosting, you have complete freedom. In terms of security, both offer similar levels of security from outside vulnerabilities.
However, dedicated hosting typically provides a higher level of security from inside threats, including your hosting provider.
This difference makes dedicated hosting particularly attractive for businesses holding highly-confidential information.
What is the difference between colocation and dedicated hosting?
Like dedicated hosting, with colocation you will have exclusive access to the server equipment.
The big difference is that you are also responsible for providing and maintaining the physical hardware.
Colocation is a lot like setting up a server in your basement, except someone else is providing the electric, air conditioning, and internet access. With a colocation setup, if the computer fails, it’s your responsibility to fix it.
Likewise, if you outgrow your current system, you’re responsible for adding a new hard drive or upgrading to a faster CPU.
With dedicated hosting, the host maintains all of the server equipment, and the only thing you’re responsible for is the software it’s running.
If you need more storage, you request it from the host and they will add an extra hard drive (for a fee, of course). If you need more system resources, they will assist you with the migration to a new server or do it for you.