What’s the Difference Between Web Hosting Server Types?

You’ve bought your domain name and you’ve learned that you need a web host, like HostGator, in order to publish your website or store online; granted you’re not using a service like Shopify or Wix. There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a web host, but we’ll assume you have decided on one already.

Now you’re at the point where you need to figure out which type of hosted server you need. Determining what you need and figuring out the difference in what the company offers can be quite confusing. Let’s try to break it down in to the four main categories you’ll see offered by most web hosts:

Shared Web Hosting

Sometimes just referred to as “Web Hosting”

Overview

Shared web hosting is the most basic, popular type of web hosting available. It’s referred to as shared because your site will reside on one large server, shared by any number of other websites (from other clients). It’s possible that hundreds, or even thousands, of other websites are running on the same server as your site. This is often why the cost is so low, because the company is able to charge so many clients for the use of one server. That doesn’t mean that other clients have access to your website, files, or passwords, etc; everything is kept securely separated. For the sake of comparing these types of web hosting, let’s say that the large server is a house and each website represents a person in the house.

Pros:

  • Extremely inexpensive. HostGator has a shared hosting plan starting at only $3.96 per month (at the time of writing this).
  • Flexible packages are often available where you can pay more for more memory, bandwidth, speed, and other features.
  • Often fully supported by the hosting company’s technical staff.
  • The host company is responsible for everything including uptime, fixing any issues that arise, backups, security, and everything else.
  • Often comes loaded with extra features like email accounts, one-click software installations, shopping cart software for your online store, analytics, and much more.
  • Often provide easy-to-use control panels, like cPanel, which allow you to configure everything easily (like your email accounts).
  • Setup is handled by the host company and you can have your website online in a matter of minutes.

Cons:

  • Due to the sharing of a server, performance could be an issue if other sites on your server are consuming too many resources or causing other problems.
  • Generally, limited server resources are available for your site, meaning that things could run slow in general.
  • Not ideal for complex web applications that require a powerful host server or sites that are getting a lot of traffic.
  • No access to modify the server to install software not provided by the host, or alter server configuration (both of which would only be required for technical people).

Virtual Private Servers

Usually referred to as “VPS Hosting”

Overview

Virtual private servers, or VPS, are a relatively new type of server being offered by web hosting companies. Virtualization is an amazing technology that is lowering the costs of doing business and making web hosting companies much more efficient. It can be confusing to non-technical people, so I’ll try to explain it in simple terms. A server is basically a powerful computer with an operating system, just like the computer you’re probably using right now. Virtualization is software that essentially allows you to take a large server and split it into multiple, independent servers which act exactly like separate, smaller computers. They have their own operating system, software, users, resources, and everything else that comes with a normal server. You can even turn them on and off.

As a simple example, if you had a large server that had 8GB of RAM, 8 core processors, and 800GB of hard-drive space, you could create 4 virtual servers that each had 2GB of RAM, 1 core processor, and 200GB of hard-drive space (or any combination desired). When you sign up for a virtual private server, you get one of those smaller servers from the example above; and you obviously pay more for extra resources. To use the analogy from above, if the house is the large server, a bedroom is the virtual server which can contain whatever you want to put in it, including any number of people (or websites). But since you have the entire room (or server) to yourself, you can also change the paint, add or remove furniture, open the windows, etc; basically, you can do whatever you want to the entire machine.

Pros:

  • Less expensive than dedicated servers, with potentially similar performance.
  • Full control over the software and functionality of the entire server.
  • Only your websites are being hosted on the virtual server.
  • Easily increase performance by adding more server resources, since it’s software-based and no hardware is required.
  • Available in a wide-range of sizes and prices.
  • Usually instantly available after purchase.
  • Capable of hosting high-traffic and complex websites and online stores.
  • Might be fully-supported for technical issues by the hosting company.

Cons:

  • More expensive than shared hosting.
  • Performance could still potentially be impacted if another virtual server on the same master server has serious issues.
  • Usually requires some server administration knowledge.
  • Often responsible for configuring and maintaining things you normally would not have to with shared hosting, like backups and security.
  • Depending on the server and the hosting company you choose, these servers:
    • Might come with no software at all, requiring you to have the time and skills to install and configure everything.
    • Might require you to fix anything that goes wrong.
    • Might come pre-loaded with software and administration panels that you do not want.

Dedicated Servers

Sometimes referred to “Dedicated Hosting”

Overview

Dedicated hosting is as simple as it gets. You are renting an entire, physical server all for yourself. Using the analogy from before, you are renting out the house.

Pros:

  • Essentially the most powerful hosting option.
  • Complete freedom to do anything you want on the server.
  • No risk of performance implications from other websites.
  • Guarantee that your website or store has 100% of the server’s resources available.
  • Usually offered with resources greater than any VPS option.

Cons:

  • Can be quite expensive.
  • Might take some time to become available after your purchase.
  • Difficult to increase resources since you will have to migrate your data to a completely new server.
  • Comes with a lot of responsibility and almost always requires technical knowledge.
  • Depending on the hosting company, you may be completely on your own if any problems arise.

Reseller Hosting

Reseller hosting is something you most likely will never want or need. Hosting companies offer this option for people or businesses that want to either sell hosting services to their clients or start web hosting businesses themselves. If you purchase a reseller hosting package from a web host you pay a fixed price for a set amount of resources like memory and bandwidth, and in turn, you can sell hosting packages to people looking to host their website. You would profit if you were able to sign on enough clients paying more in monthly fees than the web host charges you.


In conclusion, hosting can be confusing to people new to the industry. Hopefully, our explanations made things a bit more simple for you. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us and we’ll talk about what your best options are. Odds are, if you don’t know at this point, starting with a shared hosting package is your best bet. If you haven’t yet chosen a web host, take a look at the criteria we require when choosing a web host, or take a look at the web hosts we endorse, including HostGator.

What type of web hosting do you use and how do you find it for your purposes? Let us know in the comments below.

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3 Comments

  • zulu

    Reply Reply November 23, 2013

    And what about the “cloud” hosting that seems so popular now?

    • osn

      Reply Reply November 23, 2013

      Cloud often refers to the VPS hosting; it’s used more as a marketing term rather than anything specific. The concept is that you’re not buying a server, but rather hosting on the endless grid of servers provided by a host – which is the “cloud” that you can ever expand in to seamless.

      Use Digital Ocean as a great example. That’s who we use to host this site. It’s labeled as “Cloud hosting” but it’s really just VPS. From a functional difference, “Cloud” hosting companies usually offer very flexible platforms where you can easily spin up or delete servers with the press of a button – and the servers usually can be any size, operating system, architecture, etc. These platforms are really only appealing to people with the technical knowledge to operate them. The servers usually come bare and require you to configure everything you want. But every provided is different, so do you research always!

  • richh

    Reply Reply November 26, 2013

    wow great job with the detailed explanations. that really does help clear it up without too much technical terms.

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