Shared hosting, at its most fundamental level, is when many different websites share the same physical server and its resources. It is easily the most common form of hosting on the planet and the one used by nearly all of the largest hosts including GoDaddy, Dreamhost, Bluehost, etc.
While this might sound like a bad approach to hosting, it’s actually a very good one for many, if not most sites.
Simply put, the majority of websites don’t require that much space, bandwidth or server resources and they can fit in a tiny fraction of a reasonably powerful server. It’s not until sites grow significantly in terms of traffic or size that they begin to need more resources than what a shared hosting account can provide.
However, as you might imagine, the format does come with more than a few drawbacks. In many ways, shared hosting is an ugly business and there are some universal truths about the practice that you just can’t avoid, not if you don’t want to spend more than $10 per month on hosting.
With that in mind, here are five of the darker truths about shared hosting and what you need to know about them.
1. Unlimited Never Means Unlimited
There’s a simple truth when it comes to “Unlimited” hosting, it is anything but unlimited.
Every day hosts disconnect accounts on “unlimited” hosting plans for using up too much resources. This precisely what happened to the Frogpants Network and countless other domains over the years.
Hosts have very real limitations including hard drive space on their servers, bandwidth to their datacenters, processing power, RAM, etc. that limit how much any one site can do.
You can’t host Google on a $5 “unlimited” account so it stands to reason that there has to be a barrier somewhere and that barrier is usually whenever your activity jeopardizes the server or the other sites on the service. Whenever one site uses up too much resources, it will be disabled to spare the rest of the “flock”.
So, if you pick up an “unlimited” hosting account and assume that will be the last hosting decision you ever make, you’re either not planning on growing much or you are sorely mistaken.
2. All Shared Hosts Oversell
But what if you get a good, inexpensive shared hosting plan that isn’t “unlimited” and, instead, uses hard caps that are way above what you’ll likely need.
While that might be preferable, it doesn’t mean that its perfect. The problem is that shared hosts routinely oversell their servers. This means that if every account on a physical machine used up all of the resources it was promised the server would not be able to take the load.
This includes hard drive space, bandwidth and other server resources.
Hosts can get away with this because they know that most accounts will not use up anywhere near the maximum amount of resources. Most sites use up almost no space, bandwidth, etc. and the few that do will be spread out across servers, keeping the load low and even.
So, if it’s done well, overselling is never a problem but if a host takes it too far or doesn’t spread the high-volume sites out appropriately, then it can have a serious impact on the servers and start to slow down all of the sites hosted there, which is potentially in the many thousands.
3. Your Neighbors Can Be Problematic
Speaking of other sites on your server, you have to note that the accounts on a shared server do not get an equal amount of resources. The resources, instead, are shared by all of the sites on the server, which, most of the time, simply use what they need.
Since there’s no division between the accounts as there is with a VPS account. If the resources on the server are used up and your site needs more, say for a traffic spike, then they simply aren’t there and you are out of luck.
However, the bigger problem is what happens when another site or account on the server has a problem. Though most hosts have safeguards to prevent one customer from having too much impact on others, the fact of the matter is that they aren’t perfect and often times servers have to be taken offline to repair something on an account completely unrelated to yours.
In short, since you share the same physical server, same operating system, same resources and, often times, the same IP address with many other sites, what they do can and at some point probably will affect you. Especially if they have technical issues, start sending out spam or otherwise do things that negatively impact the server and its performance.
4. You Don’t Matter Much as a Customer
The simple truth about shared hosting companies is that they turn a profit and earn money not on your $10 per month, but on the fact that they have thousands of customers like you, many of which use almost none of their actual service.
Shared hosts can not and will not hesitate to remove problem accounts. This includes sites that are using up too many resources, have too many abuse complaints or simply need too much support.
This doesn’t mean that the host will kick you out or ban your account, though in some cases they will, but it does mean that there is only so far a host will “bend over backwards” for you. It doesn’t take much hassle from your account for the amount you pay per month to be a net loss for them and, if you take your business elsewhere, you’re likely helping their bottom line.
If you want a host that is willing to do more for you and work with you more, you need to consider spending more money. However, most sites won’t likely run into this problem as only a small percentage actually become enough of a burden to warrant any kind of action from the host.
5. If You Grow, You Will Outgrow Shared Hosting
Finally, speaking of getting too big for your host, most sites, if they stick around long enough, do exactly that.
As sites grow they tend to grow both in terms of the traffic they draw, the amount of space they need, the size of their databases and so forth. Eventually, a shared hosting account just can’t keep up.
At this point you’re going to have to consider moving to a different kind of host. Whether it’s a cloud/grid-based hosting account, a VPS or even a dedicated hosting plan, you’re going to need more muscle.
If you’re happy with your host and they offer more powerful accounts, you may be able to move your host to a new plan there. Otherwise, you may be looking at making a very big and very challenging move.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with shared hosting. It’s how most sites get started and it can be a great way to quickly and cheaply get set up, try out an idea or start a new project. Shared hosting is plentiful, simple and low cost.
However, getting hosting for only a few dollars per month comes with some pretty significant drawbacks and, while that doesn’t make shared hosting a bad deal, you need to be aware of them so you can make good hosting decisions.
Shared hosting is great and very popular, but it isn’t right for everyone and, as your needs change, it may not be right for you some day either. It’s important to be aware of its limitations and be smart about how you use it.