A Comparison of Shared and Cloud Hosting, and How to Choose

shared vs cloud hosting

Do you keep hearing about cloud hosting and wonder how it differs from a regular hosting plan? Perhaps you just built a new site and are wondering if you should give the cloud a try?

Cloud hosting is a more reliable, scalable, and secure option than a regular shared hosting plan. But shared hosting is, usually, cheaper and easier to set up.

In this article, I’ll cover everything from control panel options, migration issues, and the pros and cons of each option. We’ll get to see what each option is about and —hopefully! — help to you decide whether it’s better for you to stick with shared hosting, or if you should switch to a cloud plan.

Once Upon a Time on a Shared Hosting Plan …

Traditionally, when we needed to put a site online, we’d buy a domain, get a hosting plan, and FTP the site from our computer to the web. We grew so used to it that it became second nature.

We would typically have features such as a very comprehensive control panel, statistics, and email hosting for the domains registered on that account, among other things. But also some hard limitations, such as a certain amount of disk space, a given bandwidth, and a fraction of the CPU and the server memory.

For many brochure, portfolio, blog and small business sites, that’s perfectly adequate. But for many businesses, it’s not ideal. And even for a freelancer maintaining a couple of simple sites, it’s possible to run out of resources for a given site from time to time. (It’s no fun being asked by a client why the site is down.)

The VPS and Dedicated Server

One way of upgrading is to buy a bigger, slightly more expensive plan with a little more resources, in the form of a VPS (virtual private server). And if that doesn’t cut it, you can rent a dedicated server — that is, a full rack on a hosting company’s data center.

With a dedicated server, you get all of the server resources in a non-shared environment for, let’s say, $100 a month. Yes, about a 20x more expensive than a basic shared hosting plan — but hey, you wanted the whole thing, didn’t you?

Whether you’ve stuck with shared hosting or jumped into the world of the VPS or dedicated server, it has probably all worked just fine, and you may never have contemplated trying anything else. Believe it or not, though, there’s now a generation of web developers that barely know what FTP is, having never used it.

… and Then the Cloud Hosting Plan Came Up

When Amazon Web Services (AWS) was first introduced, everything was new and it seemed like you needed to take an intensive course before you were able to start operating with this cloud infrastructure.

But things have changed since then. Not only have more providers come onto the scene, but also more solutions that can be used out-of-the-box, including cloud hosting.

Features

The “cloud” implies that, somehow, your site is not tied physically to one server, but spread over multiple locations and data centers; and you are not renting a “CPU” and a certain amount of disk space and memory, but rather, just accessing a huge pool of resources on-demand.

This brings many innovations to the table. On one side, you don’t need to worry anymore about running out of resources, because you can get as much of them as you need, when you need them.

Under a shared hosting environment, you can scale up your needs to as much hardware is available. On the cloud, you can jump from 2 CPUs, to 10, to 100, to 1,000, and back to 2, pretty much on-demand.

Same with your storage demands: you can upload and store as much stuff as you need to. Sure, you’ll be billed for that later, but you won’t ever reach a hard limit, and additionally, you can pay only for what you’re using, not for idle resources.

Another huge cloud hosting improvement over regular hosting involves latency — that is, the time it takes to send a request (“I want to see this page”) until it’s processed and delivered back to you (“sure, here it is”). Because the cloud is distributed to several data centers around the globe (you should check with your provider exactly where), requests are transparently routed to the nearest spot.

Visitors to your site in Chicago, IL may have a very low latency (low is good) because there’s a nearby data center. But with cloud hosting, visitors in Saint Petersburg, Russia, can also experience fast loading if they’re also near a data center.

There’s yet another advantage in terms of security. With cloud hosting, data is distributed through different places, often not quite as regular files but as “packets” of data which are constantly checked for integrity. So, data corruption (an HD crash) is something you can totally forget about. Also, because of the very nature of its huge pool of distributed resources, the infrastructure itself is more resilient to attacks such as DDoS and others.

As a result, fairly complex tasks that used to take a lot of effort and were very costly to implement, such as load balance, mirroring, data security, are all incredibly simplified with the cloud.

Okay, but How Does It Work?

Hiring a cloud hosting service is very similar to getting a dedicated server, in that you get the server that you need to set up.

Many providers, however, offer “images” with an already preset configuration for, say, hosting a WordPress site, or a gaming spot, a database cluster, or a processing hub. So you’ll just fire up, for example, an “Ubuntu Server 16.04 with WordPress” image from a control panel, and in a minute or two you’ll be up and running. (Curious about how this works? Check out Understanding Docker, Containers and Safer Software Delivery.)

Providers

You could, technically, get a cloud computing service like AWS or similar, and build yourself your own cloud hosting solution, setting your own server, storage, database, and even networking. However, we’ll skip all that and focus on services that are already targeted at cloud hosting.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive list!

  • Brightbox. “Simple and flexible UK cloud hosting for teams that insist on 100% uptime.”
  • Codero. Very competitive cloud hosting configurations (starting at $5/mo), with plenty of options.
  • DigitalOcean. A very popular cloud computing company, offering very easy to use control panels for speedy setups, and quite a big and active community with lots of docs, which is a big plus.
  • ElasticHosts. Another completely cloud-based service with “hosting for sys admins, developers, and engineers.”
  • HostGator. The popular shared hosting company also has a cloud hosting offering.
  • Kyup. Scalable cloud hosting on Linux containers, with prices starting as low as $10/month.
  • Linode. “Lightning-quick SSD servers for only $5/mo.” Hard to get any more competitive than that! Plus: also very extensive documentation and active community.
  • VPS.net. “1,000% SLA” for zero downtime on their Cloud VPS Servers.

High-End

There are also other companies that offer “managed” services; that is, the back-end may very well be AWS or the Google Cloud, whereas the front-end is the 3rd-party site, and you can even call your account manager with a certain configuration request and they’ll take care of setting things up for you, performing updates, etc. Naturally, these are a higher-end solutions, so expect higher prices.

Companies offering these services:

Recommended Hosting

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Different Clouds on the Same Sky

Just so you know, the “cloud” is, in fact, a very broad spectrum of possibilities, not only for hosting but for many other things. For more, have a look at these companion articles:

Now Wait … a Hybrid Was Born

Let’s talk software as a service (SaaS). Basically, any website that somehow replaces a desktop or mobile application, where the software that runs the site is the service itself, falls under this category. It could be any web email service, or photo editing site, or online calendar, or online [enter your app type here]. Even hosting itself can be integrated into a SaaS product.

Take Squarespace. This is a website where a complete novice can create an amazingly professional-looking website in minutes. We’re not talking about uploading templates, or setting plugins: that’s already all been taken care of, and you just load some content and pay for the hosting of it. Basically, it’s software so easy to use that it’s putting out of business many “web professionals” around the world … and with reason! Who’ll pay $700 to get a site in a month with a couple of bugs from a somewhat unreliable developer, when you can get the thing online right now for $16/month — for a result that might even look a lot better? (Yes, the web is changing, and you’ll have to add more value now!)

WordPress.com — the commercial hosting service of the very well known, open-source blogging software WordPress.org — is another example of this business model: you take care of the content, they take care of everything else. WordPress.com realized that developers would very gladly pay for a hosting plan to have some of the powerful features they already like and know from the WordPress.org software (even including, as of now, uploading plugins and themes), while letting things like updates, hosting, mirroring, distributions across the globe be dealt with by somebody else (Automattic).

And no, we’re not off-topic. All of this becomes relevant given it’s hosting we’re discussing here. You can get hosting sorted out in the cloud, while also solving even bigger problems at the same time, such as updates, settings, uptime, etc.

OK, Let’s Compare!

  Shared Hosting Cloud Hosting
Management Usually simpler, with standardized control panels. Lack of standardization, with every company having its own API and interfaces.
Resources Limited. Unlimited.
Reliability Somewhat reliable, though downtimes are to be expected. 100% uptime.
Security Updates, patches and upgrades need to be addressed individually. Poor data security, and vulnerability to DDoS attacks, among others. More resilient infrastructure, better data security, and managed services.
Scalability Only up to the resources that had been put available to the user. Unlimited scalability and automation of deployment (DevOps orchestration).
Interoperability Fully interoperable: a site can be taken out of one host to another most of the time seamlessly as a drop-in replacement; only minor settings issues would need to be replicated. Certain cloud implementations may have their own ways to operate. With hybrid services like Squarespace or WordPress.com, transferring a site to a different server can be even more problematic, when not impossible.
Cost breakdown Per month with a flat rate, no matter what resources or services are unused (idle). Per month, hour, and even minutes; with on-demand capabilities in order not to be billed by idle services.

When to Share Host

If you’ve got simple sites, static or dynamic, with not many visits, which you just need to FTP somewhere, then shared hosting is still your best call. But remember that when the PHP/ASP version gets updated (if not now, then in a few years), chances are that things will get broken. But OK, maybe it won’t be your problem by then.

Also, if you’re making static websites and are convinced that this is a business with a future, again, shared hosting is probably your best option.

When to Cloud Host

If you’ve got a slightly international audience, if your website’s likely to get plenty of visits, if you’re likely to need some extra space at some point, extra CPU for the database, or are somewhat dissatisfied with your experience with share hosting, then consider giving the cloud a try.

Also, I’d argue that if you’re considering a VPS or dedicated server, you should rather go cloud. Costs are nearly the same, and can even be quite cheaper if you properly manage your resources. And you’ll have a lot more flexibility in nearly every aspect.

When to SaaS Host

As a front-end developer, you can rely on services like Squarespace to quickly and tightly customize a site that suits your clients’ needs, add your extra value tweaking welcome screens, pictures and stylesheets to make something unique. And you can totally forget about everything else, for good, by just paying a bit extra for hosting (which your clients pay for anyway).

As a programmer, you can benefit greatly from WordPress.com, since you can focus on the value you want to add to your client (being plugins, customizations, even design) and get the peace of mind of not needing to deal with maintenance ever again — for just a small monthly fee.

Wrap Up

Hopefully I’ve clarified some key aspects about shared and cloud hosting, how they differ, and where they offer maximum value.

Statistically, shared hosting is slightly in decline, while the cloud seems to be expanding:

Data sourced from Google Trends

That doesn’t mean shared hosting plans will disappear any time soon, but you can see where the tide’s been turning for some time now.

So, when choosing hosting, focus not just on what you need now, but what you may need later on. From that perspective, there’s often a compelling reason to get started with cloud hosting.