A few years ago, web hosting plans were all limited. Users knew exactly how much disk space they were getting, how much bandwidth, RAM, CPU, and other quantifiable aspects of a web hosting plan. Today, many web hosting companies offer what is called unlimited shared hosting plans. Those who are knowledgeable with web hosting cringe at the very thought of the idea of unlimited plans knowing very well what unlimited truly means in the context of web hosting. Non-connoisseurs, however, may be led to believe that unlimited hosting means exactly that: hosting that offers unlimited resources. Unfortunately, the term unlimited has a whole different meaning in the web hosting industry.
Hosting companies offer unlimited plans only with their shared hosting plans, which should immediately raise some red flags since shared hosting means that server resources are shared among several users of the same physical server – a server that couldn’t possibly have infinite resources. You won’t find unlimited VPS or dedicated hosting anywhere in the web hosting industry, although both VPS and dedicated servers are considered to be superior to shared hosting plans in terms of the resources they offer. So, if unlimited hosting doesn’t mean unlimited resources, then what does it really mean?
The Truth Behind Unlimited Web Hosting – Don’t Skip the Fine Print!
The devil is in the details, goes the saying and indeed, reading the fine print of the hosting company’s Terms of Service does shed some light on the issue.
Unlimited hosting is a phrase coined by web hosting companies that seems to have a different meaning in this industry than in other industries. The word unlimited is a misnomer, a more accurate term that could describe the type of plans advertised as unlimited is unmetered, and some hosting providers like BlueHost actually use this term instead of unlimited to describe their shared hosting plans. In fact, BlueHost specify in their Terms of Service that they don’t have defined limitations for these unmetered plans and that you are not billed according to the amount of bandwidth or disk space you use, further specifying that “… of course these resources are not infinite”.
By their nature, shared hosting plans are designed to meet the needs of small to medium-sized static and low-traffic websites and blogs, that is, your website must fall within the range of normal usage as defined by the hosting company. Therefore, activities that are more resource intensive such as multimedia file storage or file sharing activities are not supported on these plans. If you engage in activities of this nature or activities that violate the hosting company’s fair use policy, your account can be suspended and/or terminated.
Unlimited hosting is also a useful marketing strategy for hosting companies that engage in hosting overselling, which, in a nutshell, is the practice of maximizing return on investment by selling resources that result from the gap between the average usage of resources and the maximum available resources. This is easily achieved by hosting providers by shrouding hosting plans in the obscurity of the “unlimited”, but it’s also how hosting companies can keep prices low for consumers.
What Does Unlimited Storage and Bandwidth Entail?
If resources are not unlimited how do you know how much you’re getting in terms of storage and bandwidth? Unfortunately, you don’t know until you’ve hit the ceiling of what is considered normal usage by your hosting company, and even that may change from month to month. Hosting companies continuously monitor their customer’s storage and bandwidth utilization and use the results of their analyses to define what falls within the normal range.
Storage and bandwidth are the two key elements that are advertised as unlimited by hosting companies, but they put a lot of limitations on these plans that range from file type and size restrictions to CPU, RAM, inodes, MySQL databases and connections limitations, etc. in essence determining you to upgrade to higher tier plans if you fail to fall within the confines of natural or normal usage.
If your website receives a lot of traffic, CPU processing power is taken up by the server to process all those requests. If the hosting company limits CPU usage for each account, your website will slow down and generate errors. Same goes with memory usage, another aspect of the hosting plan that you don’t know where it’s capped at. A server has fixed RAM and when multiple processes are run by the hundreds of websites on the same server, you’re bound to run into RAM issues, and your visitors will be met with error messages or a tediously slow website. An equally frustrating limitation that can be imposed by the hosting provider is database connections, and when more simultaneous database connection requests exist than what the database server can handle, “Can’t connect to MySQL server” type of errors may occur.
Unlimited plans usually also include unlimited email accounts, which means you can create as many email addresses as you wish, however, these too are ultimately correlated with the storage space of your hosting account.
Unlimited Shared Plans – Should You Avoid Them?
Does all this mean you should avoid unlimited shared hosting plans like the plague? No, you don’t need to avoid them, you just need to understand what they truly mean – unlimited has a different meaning in web hosting than what they might lead you on to think. There are plenty of budget-friendly and reliable hosting companies that have great unlimited shared hosting plans (e.g. InMotion Hosting whose unlimited plans are some of the most complex and feature abundant shared plans in the industry) that will meet the needs of your small personal blog or business website that doesn’t draw a lot of traffic. Some companies like BlueHost and HostGator avoid naming their plans unlimited and prefer using the term unmetered to describe the equivalent of unlimited hosting plans boasted by other companies. Other hosting providers like A Small Orange have only limited plans with clearly defined allocations of storage and bandwidth.
If you know in advance that your website will develop rapidly and you will receive a lot of incoming traffic, you should analyze whether an unlimited shared plan, however cheap it may be, would live up to your requirements or whether you should opt for a VPS hosting instead.