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Blogging Pitfalls: Unlimited Hosting

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It’s a promise we’ve all heard before. Web hosting companies all over are offering “unlimited” hosting for mere dollars per month.

On the surface, it seems like a great deal. For a low monthly price you get to stop worrying about bandwidth and server space caps and focus on running your site. You can host as many domains, get as much traffic and store as many files as you want.

However, unlimited hosting is much more myth than reality. It just means that the host doesn’t place “hard” caps on storage and transfer and instead has replaced it with soft ones that could come back to bite you at almost any time.

Fortunately, it is a relatively avoidable pitfall if one is willing to be realistic about the limitations of such hosting and take precautions to avoid abusing it.

The Pitfall

Though unlimited hosting is a tempting offer for a variety of reasons, it is an offer that we should be able to recognize as somewhat misleading right off the bat. After all, if unlimited hosting truly were unlimited, then Google, Microsoft and other companies could save millions on datacenters and just spend a few dollars per month at a regular host.

The truth about unlimited hosting is that it is indeed very limited. If you read the fine print on any unlimited contract, you’ll find that a variety of restrictions are placed on the account, including, in many cases, bans on providing streaming media, image hosting or other bandwidth/storage-intense activities.

Even if there are no such caps, the host always has a clause in their TOS that allows them to disconnect, temporarily or even permanently, those who use too much resources and cause problems for other accounts on the same server or network.

In short, your use of the server is only “unlimited” as long as it doesn’t cause a problem and, if it does, you may find that your site goes dark.

The Danger

The danger of unlimited hosting is illustrated very well by what recently happened to the Frogpants podcast network. The network, which was hosted on an unlimited account at Bluehost, went dark for a day after Bluehost cut their account for using too much of their resources.

While it was poorly handled by Bluehost, they should have offered warning before cutting the account, it illustrates the problem. The network, which includes several very popular podcasts, simply used up more of the host’s resources than they could afford to provide with the account that they were using and their host shut down the sites.

Frogpants was able to recover quickly, after being offered hosting at a different company and given the chance to recover its files, but it was down for over a day and other sites are not so lucky. Many sites that suffer sudden terminations aren’t given adequate opportunity to move and don’t have another company waiting to scoop them up.

Without adequate backups, this can be a very deadly pitfall for a blog and one that is well worth avoiding.

How to Avoid It

Avoiding this pitfall completely may seem to be fairly simple, but it really isn’t. This is especially true considering that most shared web hosts offer unlimited hosting as their primary account type and most low-end hosting accounts claim to be unlimited.

That being said, there are several things you can do to avoid this problem and having your account disconnected:

  1. Avoid “Unlimited Hosting: This one seems simple enough, find a service with a hard cap and stick with it. The limits might be lower than with an unlimited host, but at least you can be sure what the limits are.
  2. Read the TOS Carefully: If you do choose or have to use an unlimited host, read the TOS carefully. Most likely, the terms place a limit on what you can and can not do with your account dealing with media streaming, image hosting and FTP access.
  3. Don’t Host Media: Media, including both audio and video, are the biggest bandwidth and space hogs on a server. You can use other services, such as YouTube and Talkshoe, to offload your media content and make your site much more lean.
  4. Be Realistic: If your site grows beyond what one would expect to be a typical use for that level of a hosting account, upgrade to a larger account. Not only will it prevent a possible termination, but also make your site faster.
  5. Warn of Traffic Spikes: If you get warning of a traffic spike, such as a story making its way to the front page of Digg, warn your host so they can prepare. They may be able to move your site to a lower congestion part of the network or a server with smaller load. That way, you won’t create problems and you will be working with them to resolve issues.

To be clear, this is actually a separate issue from the downtime many sites see when they are hit with a traffic spike. Hosts often temporarily disable accounts or individual sites during such spikes as their memory and CPU usage reaches dangerous levels. This is almost unavoidable on shared hosting accounts.

Unfortunately, these steps won’t do much to mitigate against those temporary outages but will go to great lengths to mitigate against the far less common, though far more worrisome, account closures that often happen when an unlimited account is overused.

Bottom Line

In the end, account terminations due to overuse of “unlimited” hosting plans are actually rare. Only a small number of accounts will see any kind of action taken against them and most of the time the response is much more tame than termination.

That being said though, it does happen and it is worth addressing since most of the steps are simply good hosting practices on any account.

In short, if you are smart about your hosting- you should work with a reputable provider and managed data center service, you will most likely find that it will serve you well. Try to get more than your money’s worth out and you will probably be facing an unplanned outage in the near future. Likely an extended one.

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Comments

  1. Wallace ) says: 8/5/2010

    you should always beware the unlimited quotas hosting, i wrote a article about the same topic about dreamhost, you can have a read,
    http://www.webmastercrunch.com/dreamhost-anti-spam-unlimited-policy-cpu-minutes-secrets-reveal/

    Reply

    • Jonathan Baiely ) says: 8/5/2010

      Thanks for the link on this one, interesting article. Sadly, I doubt Dreamhost is the only or the worst with these kinds of secret limits. But it’s a very interesting look behind the scenes there, even if it is technically public info (just well buried).

      Reply

  2. Miz ) says: 8/5/2010

    Great article! I can already hear masses of web-hosts screaming in agony. I spent some time arguing about the very same topic on the Webhostingtalk forum years ago. Most web-hosts will fight this by saying they have every right to ‘upsell’ which is true, they sure do have every right to run their business any way they please, but they should also know that lying to their customers will come back to haunt them.

    Reply

    • Jonathan Baiely ) says: 8/5/2010

      I hope that the hosts are cringing but I seriously doubt they are, this has really been an open secret for some time and they continue to get away with it. They get away with it because, even though people know better, they still believe it. It’s an extremely frustrating problem.

      Reply

  3. Kay says: 8/7/2010

    Thanks for this post. I am in the process of (finally!) making my blog a full website. I’ve been overwhelmed with the specifics (hosting, domains, marketing, etc).

    I had narrowed it down to Bluehost and Dreamhost because they both offer unlimited and are recommended by WordPress. Now I see that I should go back and read the fine print!

    Although I’m sure my little blog will be well within the limits, I wouldn’t want to have to worry about this in the future.

    Thanks again!

    Reply

  4. Samantha says: 8/8/2010

    This is in fact a great post, and just couldn’t be truer.

    @Kay, I’ve used BlueHost in the past, and as long as you don’t foresee needing to upgrade and expand, they’ll probably be great for you. Their customer service was always speedy.

    Reply

  5. brad ) says: 8/8/2010

    while i believe there is some truth to this, i don’t really necessarily think it’s as dire as it sounds. common sense needs to prevail here.

    how ‘unlimited’ webhosts get away with it is overselling. on a single server, they can cram dozens or even hundreds of customers on the same server with the same resources and they simply don’t have enough resources to give everyone everything. they do this based on the reality that the vast majority of sites won’t do a single thing (or next to it). even semi-dedicated servers could be sharing the physical server with dozens (but generally not hundreds) of other sites.

    naturally there would be practical limits such as on items like CPU — and there should be. and a webhost has every right in their power to cut off the root of the problem as soon as it occurs because it negatively affects the rest of the sites sharing the server. immediately banning or closing the account is what’s extreme here. but suspending should be welcome because it means you’re being looked after as well should you not be the offender.

    now unless you have rogue processes, particularly in PHP, that are eating up resources and causing problems, one should actually be flattered that the incoming traffic is enough to cause problems and that’s when one should consider going semi-private VPS or to their own server, because it’s really no longer a hobby.

    before i went VPS, I used and loved hostgator and yes, I did occasionally get suspensions, but their support was always good about handling it. essentially Network Security would spot the problem, shut the account down (which also meant changing all my file permissions to 0) and email me about the action. support would be able to work with me and security to get me operational (but theyd always want to know what I was doing to help improve the performance of the site so it wasn’t as likely to happen again).

    on the backup note, it’s always a good idea regardless. even though hosts do routine backups, that’s only for their benefit should they have a server issue, not yours. if you need something restored for whatever reason, host providers generally won’t do this for you, or will charge a premium for doing so.

    Reply

  6. cheapbagswholesalelScx1 ) says: 10/7/2010

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