Managed WordPress Hosting: The Pros and Cons

Charles Costa

Choosing a web host can be one of the toughest decisions you make as a web development professional, because your decision plays a significant role in whether your client’s business will succeed or fail.

Unfortunately web hosts are now a dime a dozen. Plus the fact that many hosts white-label their services to third parties means that the company you recommend to a client might not even have direct control over the servers they claim to provide.

In the past, web hosting was simply a service where the host provided the hardware, and the client provided the code. Today however, managed WordPress hosting has emerged as one of the hottest offerings in the web hosting space.

Some of the biggest players in this sector are WP Engine, and Pagely, as well as traditional hosting companies such as Media Temple and GoDaddy who now also offer specialized WordPress hosting. Of course, we can’t forget WordPress.com and WordPress VIP (who offer high end hosting).

White Glove Service

Unlike traditional web hosts which focus on providing a generic platform for developers to build on, managed WordPress hosts focus only on supporting WordPress. In fact, they install the software for you and tune the servers to maximize performance for your site.

Literally set it and forget it, managed hosts have emerged as a way for WordPress users to focus on their business, rather than server logistics. Unfortunately, with quality comes a slight premium over other web hosts.

Pricing Premiums

While a typical web host bills based on a bucket of server resources, managed WordPress hosts instead bill by the WordPress install. While a typical shared hosting account costs around $10/month and an entry level virtual private server (VPS) might cost around $30/month from a reputable vendor, many managed WordPress hosts charge at least $20/month for a single WordPress install.

Billing metrics aren’t the only difference when using a managed host. The other major thing to keep in mind is that the resources allocated per user on a managed site are a fraction of what you would find on a traditional host.

For example, while many hosts promise unlimited or astronomical storage caps, most managed hosts provide 5GB-20GB storage on their entry plans. Additionally, when it comes to bandwidth, managed hosts often bill by ‘visits’ or have low bandwidth caps (usually 5GB-20GB).

Benefits of Managed Hosting

Despite carrying a significant price premium, there are some key features which make managed WordPress hosting a solid solution for many web development professionals.

Key benefits include:

  1. Pre-tuned systems mean you don’t need to worry about server optimization
  2. Automatic updates ensure you can focus on your business rather than site maintenance
  3. Built in snapshots that ensure that you always have backups in case disaster strikes
  4. Built in development tools simplify staging and testing new features
  5. Integrated Content Delivery Network (CDN) systems that ensure maximum performance

Do It Yourself

As a web development professional, the only special sauce of managed WordPress hosts is the level of convenience they provide to customers. Security, CDNs, performance tuning and more are all things which can be implemented with ease by using common off-the-shelf WordPress plugins and a basic understanding of your server.

All-in-One Performance Tuning

When you want to enable caching, CDN support and more within WordPress, W3 Total Cache or WP Super Cache are the plugins for you. With only a few clicks, these plugins allows you to enable caching for your website and they support CDN integration with a variety of vendors.

Caching plugins work by generating static html files from your WordPress site. Caching can help performance by reducing the amount of database queries your server makes when visitors request pages. Regardless of whether you’re just looking to improve the user experience by making things faster, or if you are dealing with a swarm of traffic on a site which went viral.

Although virtual private servers and dedicated servers require some tweaking to fully take advantage of the service, the changes are trivial if you have a basic understanding of the server. These plugins include thorough documentation outlining how to go about making the appropriate server changes which will vary depending on your environment.

Harden WordPress

While server security is a vast field which cannot be covered in a single article, if you are using a shared or VPS server, your host typically handles security out of the box. To further harden your WordPress install, you can install iThemes Security on your site. By using this plugin, you can easily fortify your WordPress install from the most common threats with only a few clicks.

iThemes Security is not the only security plugin on the market worth considering for your WordPress website. WordFence is another leading tool which provides users with: two-factor authentication, built in security scanning for malware and common vulnerabilities, real-time traffic monitoring tools and much more. WordFence provides users with more advanced tools which allow tech savvy users to take a proactive approach to security. Aside from the previously mentioned features, WordFence also includes a firewall for your website which allows you to block bots, malicious attackers and anything else which you define via custom rules. Although the learning curve is a bit steeper than other tools on the market, WordFence is worth looking into if you know your way around WordPress.

Regardless of whether you have a security plugin installed, conducting routine security scans of your website is crucial to protecting it from malware. Rather than spending hundreds or thousands on security scanning services, Sucuri offers a free plugin which checks your website for malware, spam, blacklisting and other security issues. Sucuri also offer other WordPress security plugins worth checking out.

Backups

Although there are many backup utilities available for WordPress, one of the most versatile is WPMU Snapshot. This tool allows you to schedule backups of your WordPress site to fit your schedule. In terms of storage, you can send your backups to Dropbox, Amazon S3 or a remote server via SFTP. You also have the option to store backups on your server and download them to your local workstation.

If you’re looking for an affordable option to streamline your website backups without worrying about managing a second storage point, VaultPress is a solution worth considering. As the company is a division of Automattic – the creators of WordPress – you can be sure that this is a reliable option for your backup needs.

WordPress Multisite

If you’re in charge of a WordPress Multisite install, you will likely want to go with a traditional web host because as each website counts against the quotas, you can easily spend a couple hundred a month compared to ~$50/month for a standard VPS and a CDN service.

Conclusion

Although WordPress managed hosting is more expensive than many standard hosting plans, they provide added peace of mind which can be vital for companies that don’t want to worry about the mechanics of powering their websites.

For companies which only have one or two WordPress properties, a managed host can make economic sense since the client probably won’t come close to using the astronomical amounts of resources offered by traditional hosts.

On the other hand, if you’re a developer who is tech savvy, or running a large WordPress website, then a traditional host is most likely the best route. There are typically less restrictions and more flexibility using traditional hosting compared to managed hosting.

Ultimately the decision of whether managed hosting is worth the added costs will depend on your priorities and your expertise. While a DIY approach might appear to be cheaper, remember that the time spent maintaining plugins and settings can make a significant cut into your billable hours. On the other hand, if you know your way around WordPress, the maintenance likely would not be as much of an issue.

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  • http://mrxxiv.com/ Terrence Campbell

    The problem is that even with services like Media Temple is that they’re not optimized to handle heavy traffic when older servers can. We’re currently running a Level 5 VPS which is $750, I’m the developer of HyperBite. And we’ve managed to have one post gain over 50,000 Facebook shares, which is really heavy traffic for only a week that it’s been active. We’ve simultaneously 4 to 5 thousand users at once on the site and we’re only getting lucky. We have MaxCDN, CloudFlare Business + W3Cache and it’s still taking a pounding.

    The problem isn’t how to find a good server, it’s how to tune it in which most of us don’t know and I’m still trying to find answers on that.

    • http://tech4sky.com Agbonghama Collins

      I really do not fancy these manage WordPress hosting company.
      Just a thought: yet another means to collect money form innocent WordPress users who know next-to-nothing about servers.

      I doubt if there is any performance benefit of using these manage WP hosting over shared-hosting or DIY hosting like Digitalocean and the likes considering the server resources are equivalent and even lower than the shared hosting counterpart.

      • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

        Hello,

        Also an excellent point and based on my personal preference, I’m totally more of a DIY guy rather than a manged WP host person. To answer your question about the hosting types – I’d say that manged hosts are probably more stable than shared hosts because you’re getting a sandbox for your website whereas on a shared server, if one of the thousands of sites get hacked or hog resources, that can easily bring everything down.

        I happen to use Digital Ocean for my development servers and I *love* them. I’d say since they have SSDs – you’ll definitely get decent performance from them at much lower prices than a managed host. KnownHost is the company I use for my production VPS because I really wanted a managed VPS because things go wrong and it’s great having a support team to assist with code issues and things like that. Digital Ocean is I believe more hands off with their support which is why I only use them for development.

        As I mention in my article, the biggest benefit of a Managed WP host is convenience – similar to how a 7-Eleven charges ridiculous prices for stuff you can get cheap at the supermarket – that’s really where the price premium comes in.

        If you’re willing to put in the time to roll out your own solution however, I’d say go for it. You’ll save a ton of money in the long-run plus the time commitment really is nominal.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          Hi Charles, great article. I am using one of the mentioned managed WordPress companies, for the pure reason that I don’t want to spend any time on my hosting environment, especially when it breaks down. Sure I like to test, but not on my money making sites. DIY is great, but nothing beats sending a mail to support asking them to fix a problem ASAP and then go to sleep ;-)

          • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

            Hey Jacco,

            I definitely agree with you about the benefits of extreme support. As they say in Economics class (that’s actually my major) – you have to focus on opportunity costs. Sure, a DIY approach has a lower sticker price, but when you factor in your hourly rate if you’re not a techie, scrambling to manage everything – managed platforms can make sense.

    • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

      That is an excellent point. Ultimately the quality of hosting depends on the infrastructure and numerous other factors which I couldn’t dive into due to length concerns. I’m actually working on some guides on how to evaluate web hosts beyond the surface and also how to do tuning – but as those are such vast topics, it wasn’t practical to cover here.

      Overall I wanted to make it clear to readers that just because something is “managed” doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is so good that you can’t do it yourself.

    • colinwiseman

      I had many issues with Media Template years ago and we had hardly any traffic. We bounced around for a while, even running on a Windows machines when we got to 2million page views a month.

      But we finally moved on to Rackspace, and now at 11 million page views a month and not a single blip of a problem, I am finally happy. We use W3Total Cache as well as CloudFlare and couldn’t be happier. We also employ Varnish to cache full pages of HTML and this is served instead of hitting WordPress completely – although some things are still run in WordPress, you do need to change how things work, relying a lot on Javascript which is run every time.

      We have 2 web servers, a database server and a load balancing with Rackspace and we couldn’t be happier at our growth.

      Racksapce Cloud Servers rock!

  • Taruckus

    From the factors above, I would research and select managed WP hosting in most conversations. I have a hard time considering a plugin a truer solution, even knowing that some managed WP hosts use them in their WP installations. Even with a team to manage and maintain each plugin for backups, security, CDN integration, and updating those plugins, accountability is still issue. How many times have you seen a semi-popular WordPress where its lone developer disappears? or when a WP plugin startup gets acquired or disbands? I watched last year sites break completely if its installed ManageWP plugin wasn’t updated. DIY site owners with little technical knowledge had to figure out how to update the plugin via FTP.

    The advantages of a DIY setup are clear, but it looks like it requires some backend expertise and extra ongoing maintenance to minimize the use of WP plugins. Unless you have a designated team or person to manage the server and installation, dole it out for the service.

    • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

      Excellent points but if you have a good VPS or dedicated provider (I never would touch shared hosting with a ten foot pole), usually you can go into the server and install APC, Varnish and whatever else you need. You can even do Nginx if that’s your cup of tea.

      Managed hosts I think have that accountability to a degree – but than again, anyone can open a hosting company and claim anything regardless of if they’re “WP optimized” or a standard host. I even know a Drupal specific host which claims to be optimized for Drupal but they don’t even let their VPS users reboot the servers when they crash.

      I agree though about plugins – they aren’t the end all be all, but for many they are a practical solution. Personally I prefer going into the shell and installing everything but not everyone has that luxury.

      Ultimately whether you choose a plugin or a host – the key is in making sure that you’re going with a quality vendor rather than a fly by night company which can be a challenge when dealing with IT vendors unfortunately.

  • David

    I’ve got a few clients running on WPEngine, and it’s been a bit of a pain. They run a mix of NginX and Apache with all kinds of custom tweaks that cause minor problems. They’re also running old versions of PHP and IonCube, and have issues with cookies and sessions. You can see their PHP Info here: http://phpinfo.wpengine.com/info.php

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      With the risk of sounding like a fanboy: I am a big fan of WPEngine. I have most of my sites running with them, and their uptime is astounding. Speed is as fast as can be, thanks to their own optimized infrastructure. Never had any problems with themes or plugins, and they provide an alternative for every plugin they disallow. Also live chat support is excellent, and their pricing is very reasonable. Too bad you are having bad experiences with them though.

      • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

        I’m sure the content of the site is going to be the key variable – everyone is different which is why we don’t have a single host that’s great for everyone

    • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

      I agree when a host uses a hacked up server suite for the infrastructure – it’s something I frown on, but if it’s done correctly, then it can provide significant advantages. Just look at commercial software – if Adobe didn’t do things their own way, we wouldn’t have Photoshop!

  • colinwiseman

    $20 a month is not managed hosting. It is pure and simple shared hosting. $20 a month I would be surprised if they even answer an email within a couple of days let alone weeks.

    Managed hosting is where the company e.g. Rackspace do a lot of work in maintenance and upgrades of your infrastructure without you needing to lift a finger. Managed hosting is where you fire off an email/ticket and the guys will run around for you. The only part at the start that is right is that they will set it up for you, tweak it and tweak it, and you can go back to them to ask them to tweak it more based on metrics. Yes managed hosting comes at a major premiums e.g. Rackspace managed WordPress hosting for my site is $1100 a month, excluding data transfer.

    Another point of disagreement is managed wordpress hosting companies won’t upgrade plugins for you and they won’t upgrade WordPress either for you. These are business critical things and a change in a plugin or version of WordPress could bring your site down without your knowledge. These managed companies won’t know what is or what isn’t mission critical and would be liable for any loss if they updated your site without your knowledge.

    A $20 a month WordPress hosting company will care about security of only 1 thing…their server. They won’t care about the integrity of your data or WordPress install. Even a managed company would ask you to pay more than $20 a month for a software firewall or a hardware firewall. To install security inside your WordPress install is again a mission critical thing. And not something any vendor is willing to take the risk on.

    • http://mrxxiv.com/ Terrence Campbell

      I thought about Rackspace a while back, but I could never really work with their prices at the time until now, if we were to work with them.

      Because the site I’m working on is so large, I’m eventually hoping that we’ll reach out to WordPress VIP so that we’d never have to worry about server limitations ever again.

      • colinwiseman

        That’s be amazing to work with those guys! They are the best (I would hope…) but that is a massive premium they come with! $5000 / month starting off fee ($15k for self hosting, but to me that defeats the point of moving to the best if you do it yourself).

        Good luck!

        • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

          Considering how Automattic is the company behind WordPress, I’m pretty sure they’re the best. I know many large sites like GigaOM, Consumerist, and a ton of others all are VIP customers

      • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

        I’ve heard great things about LiquidWeb if you’re looking for something “bulletproof” and a bit more friendly towards your wallet. Also I currently use KnownHost – I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with their support but that’s only on the VPS. I’m not sure about dedicated systems

    • http://hightechrealm.com Charles Costa

      Many managed hosts however have additional features built into their servers (CDN, firewall, etc.) so you don’t need as many WP plugins on your end. As far as full-service management, yes, that’s much more expensive and usually for that you’re talking +$200/month for a dedicated system