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The range of hosting options has become bewilderingly complex during the past few years. The basics are simple: a computing device has software installed which can respond to a network event such as a request for a webpage. How that hardware and software is installed, configured, organised, packaged, promoted and sold is the primary difference between all hosting options.
Those running large websites or applications could opt for a dedicated server. This would provide a device for their sole use in a data center capable of handling with thousands of daily visitors and heavy processing.
However, a dedicated server is overkill for the vast majority of websites with a few dozen pages receiving a few hundred visitors per day. The cost would be prohibitive and the device would run idle most of the time. Shared hosting becomes a more viable option.
Web hosts such as SiteGround provide shared servers where you lease private space for your website. Many other companies will be leasing space on the same device so the processing, storage and costs are shared accordingly. In essence, it’s a dedicated server with multiple users.
Ease of Use
Shared servers are possibly the easiest hosting option because you will be provided with a set of pre-installed technologies such as PHP, MySQL, email, web builders, WordPress, free templates, etc. Systems such as cPanel also offer simple configuration through a graphical web interface.
Hosts normally offer a wide range of software because, once it has been configured and tested, every client on that system can benefit.
The range of software provided on a shared server can be extensive but you get what you’re given. That may be all you need if your requirements are fairly typical.
However, you will not normally be able to install your own software. Options such as Git, Node.js and NoSQL databases are rarely provided because they’re in less demand or more difficult to lock-down. You may need to shop around to find the exact service you require.
Shared hosts normally limit disk space, processing and bandwidth. It’s rarely an issue but your site could be taken down if it exceeds those maximums. The host cannot provide a lesser service to other clients because your site is receiving thousands of requests owing to a successful SEO campaign.
However, hosts normally offer upgrades should you require better support, more regular back-ups, additional disk space or migration to a more powerful server. These are often seamless so you can upgrade when necessary.
Performance is dependent on the server’s capabilities and what others are doing on the same device. Resources are shared so your performance will be affected if someone else’s site is busy. As mentioned, hosts may throttle or take down a busy site to ensure performance remains stable.
Hosts also vary. Those offering free hosting may assign thousands of clients to an underpowered server. Better hosts will typically assign a few dozen clients to a faster machine. You get what you pay for.
Like dedicated servers, a shared server is only as reliable as the hardware. It will eventually fail.
That said, most shared servers have good reliability. A failure could mean dozens of angry customers so hosts have a compelling reason to monitor devices and back-up regularly.
A shared server is locked down to save users from themselves. You won’t be permitted to do anything dangerous or access another user’s account.
It’s more difficult to go wrong but a shared host won’t prevent you from trashing a database or deleting every file. Fortunately, back-ups may be a click away.
Security is the host’s responsibility so the server will be resilient to attack. However:
- A Denial of Service (DoS) attack on one clients website will affect yours. Hosts should react quickly but you should expect some downtime.
- No host cannot prevent you using weak passwords or publicly publishing credentials!
Shared servers are one of the most cost effective hosting options. In essence, the cost a dedicated server is split between multiple clients. Prices are typically a few dollars per month and rarely rise. Some hosts even offer free shared space in exchange for advertising on your site.
Who Should Choose a Shared Server?
Shared hosting is ideal for beginners or smaller sites with typical requirements and fewer than a couple of hundred visitors per day.
It’s easy to shop around for a service which matches your requirements and most hosts provide easy (often free) migration services should you want to change provider. SiteGround is offering up to 65% off for SitePoint readers.
Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.