The Myth of “Unlimited Everything” Hosting Plans

By Jeff Smith
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Server

Whether you’re building your hundredth client website, or you’ve just finished up Responsive Web Development and are looking for a host for your first portfolio site, you’re hunting for the best hosting provider. Because you’re probably looking for both the best and the cheapest, you may run into the mythical “Unlimited Everything” hosting plans offered by some hosts. You’ve probably seen them before. “Unlimited Storage Space” or “Unlimited Bandwidth” or perhaps even “Unlimited Server Resource Usage” (Memory, CPU power). Have you ever wondered how providers of shared hosting can provide those unlimited resources?

Technically, they can’t.

Unlimited Everything vs Practically Unlimited

There are two separate terms to consider here — “unlimited” and “practically unlimited”. Unlimited simply means without a limit. Of course, the issue with unlimited storage space is that you are aware of the fact that it’s not possible to give storage space, with no limits at all, to every customer. Or to any customer. Eventually you’d run out of space on the drives, on the server. Eventually that user will be requiring a data center to be created on their behalf, which of course would be preposterous for most use cases.

However, some hosting companies offer it anyway. They put a big “Unlimited Storage” or “Unlimited Disk Space” sign up and people flock to it only to find out later that there are some hidden limits, some masked lines that cannot be crossed, because of course there are. And therein lies the issue – if there are limits, don’t the users deserve to know about them? Unlimited is a good marketing buzzword, but when it isn’t true, it may just cause problems down the road.

If something is practically unlimited (the phrasing is mine, but the gist is the same) then they’re going to be, for all intents and purposes, unlimited. They’re unlimited if one considers normal use case scenarios, and the technological limit is beyond what a normal customer would use. There are therefore no practical limits that the customer would care about. However, if one goes beyond what the company considers reasonable, one will run into a wall.

Instead of dumbing this down and calling it “unlimited” in order to make the customer (and the company’s) life easier, the best plan would be to make practical limitations available (easily) to the customer, so that they can assess the service with as much honestly delivered information as possible.

Unlimited Storage

Unlimited storage space is perhaps one of the biggest offenders. Plenty of hosting companies offer “Unlimited” storage space. Some give reasonable caps, an amount measured in gigabytes, of space which will be reserved for your tier of hosting, or for your VPS. Others call it unlimited, but then bury fine print in the terms of service about what they can and cannot be used for, how much space constitutes a legitimate usage of their service, and more.

Unlimited Bandwidth

Unlimited bandwidth is another culprit. There clearly is no such thing as bandwidth without limits. As a developer, getting terminology correct can be important, and one host that seems to get this one right is SiteGround. SiteGround claims “unmetered” bandwidth rather than “unlimited” bandwidth, which is an important distinction. If one reads their tooltips and informational paragraphs, they explain.

They claim to not meter and arbitrarily limit the bandwidth of their customers, but they also acknowledge that there are real limits to what a customer can use – if their requests are surpassing the capacity of the container they’re in, for example, there is a hard limit there.

This acknowledges something that we all know – there are limits to the amount of data one can send back and forth. It’s merely a question of whether those are arbitarily enforced limits, or technological ones.

Unlimited Resource Usage

Server resources are more often claimed to be unlimited in a shared hosting environment than in a VPS one. VPS sales often indicate their avaialble resources on the server – memory, CPU cores or speeds, storage space, and bandwidth. Shared hosting sometimes mention bandwidth or storage space, but rarely dictate amounts on CPU usage or RAM, sometimes going so far as to say that they are unlimited commodities.

These are perhaps the most finite resources of all. A host must allocate a particular amount of CPU and RAM to a server, and to containers within that server. These resources are harder to expand than storage, and are very finite. Will most shared host sites run into this problem? No, but some might – and if the host is selling these server resources as “unlimited”, then the customer may have no idea they’re beyond the physical limits of the platform, and begin wondering why their app is failing.

Make sure to check tooltips, footnotes, etc when looking at hosting plan charts. Sometimes, when the word unlimited is used, hosts will provide further information below – allowing a casual user to understand that it is, in most cases, an irrelevant limit, but still providing the necessary specs for developers who need them.

What to Avoid

In conclusion, the takeway point here is not to believe the promise of “Unlimited Everything”. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that the hosts offering unlimited resources are bad, but they need to be providing you with a way to understand your limits. You as a developer need to be able to count on your platform to meet performance expectations, and you can only do that if you have an accurate understanding of the practical limits of your hosting services.

We teamed up with SiteGround
To bring you the latest from the web and tried-and-true hosting, recommended for designers and developers. SitePoint Readers Get Up To 65% OFF Now
  • This is the worst article I’ve ever seen you write. Normal users don’t understand what unmetered is. That’s why people say unlimited instead. They don’t say unlimited speed. They say unlimited transfer. Maybe you shouldve bothered asking questions of people with such wording instead of assuming they’re trying to rip people off. As it is, if you had used any names you would now be civilly responsible for libel.

    It’s like you didn’t ever bother thinking about what you were writing.

    • Firstly, I think that such a passionate response stems, perhaps, from your feelings about your own hosting company – but relax, no one is targeting anyone specific here. No one has made any claims about people intentionally ripping other people off. And I think that slinging around accusations of libel is a bit much.

      Secondly, I 100% agree with you that some users might not understand “unmetered”. But those same users also won’t understand the technical limitations behind “unlimited” – that’s the exact point I’m making, that the information should be available. If a company is saying something like “unlimited”, but there are really some technological limits… that should be somewhere a user can find it. That way someone who doesn’t care / doesn’t know enough to care can just roll with it, and someone with more experience and potentially more strenuous requirements can locate the restrictions they need to know about.

      • I’m completely honest with mine. Unlimited Bandwidth @ 200mbps or 1gbps. The Burstable speed levels are listed as the asterisk. Not the dedicated. But to accuse people of purposely misleading people over using a common term instead of a network engineer term is far fetched to get some clicks on a blog, and makes people being completely honest look bad too.

        Those of us at small companies using the terminology change just to not have to field tons of support tickets with the same question are being grouped into your article.

        • How much effort would have it taken to ASK a few smaller and a few larger companies why they used that terminology? I’d bet the answers are wildly different.

          • Man, I don’t think there’s anything else I can say here. No one is vilifying any particular company. The reason why a company uses a vague term and provides no other info for customers doesn’t even matter to this article, since this article isn’t attacking any hosts, and doesn’t call out a single one by name, either.

            The point is that the customers deserve to have that information available, in my opinion, and should consider it in their choices if they think they need to. It doesn’t have to be on the front page, but somewhere accessible. No one is saying that companies who use the word “unlimited” are universally bad or trying to mislead people. You’re going after a straw man here.

            And I’m glad to hear that yours are honest – that’s good of you.

  • M⃠ ⃠S⃠ ⃠i⃠ ⃠N⃠ ⃠L⃠u⃠n⃠d⃠

    Nice.
    Now take down those bastards behind the movie “Never ending story”.
    Think of the children!

  • shahroze nawaz

    There is nothing like Unlimited in hosting platforms. You are absolutely right. There are limitations but somehow the package mostly hosting providers are providing mostly enough for the normal website. Obviously you will first see the requirements and opt for the hosting. I also recommend a dedicated or managed VPS to use for it.