How to host your site: shared vs dedicated vs virtual

Web pages are made up of text, image and media files that are stored on a server and viewed through a browser. In effect, your site is a document that the user opens, and it needs to be stored somewhere anyone can access. There are three choices: shared servers, dedicated servers and virtual private servers.

With all types of hosting, you’re paying a company to store your website on a server, on their premises, connect­­ed to the internet. You produce the necessary files using whatever web design software you prefer (or pay someone else to do this) and upload them to the server, where other users can access them by entering your web address into their browser.

Factors that affect what you can and can’t achieve with your site include the speed and reliability of the server and what types of content it supports.

In this article, we take a closer look at the differences between the three basic types of hosting arrangement.

Shared hosting

As the name suggests, this is where you share a server with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of other websites.

Shared hosting is the cheapest option and, usually, the easiest to set up, because you’re not taking control of a computer, just adding your files to one that’s already set up.

On the other hand, the fact that you’re sharing the web server means your site’s performance can be compromised by the sheer weight of traffic the server has to cope with.

Even if only a few people are trying to view your pages, you’re also affected by the number accessing the other sites that may be on the same server.

A good-quality shared hosting plan is a perfectly sensible choice for many online businesses, including those selling products online

Having said that, a good-quality shared hosting plan is a perfectly sensible choice for many online businesses, including those selling products online or simply using the internet to publicise themselves.

You don’t have the level of control over your hosting that either VPSs or dedicated servers offer, but in many cases, you simply don’t need it, and you might not have enough technical knowledge to take advantage of it if you did.

As you would expect, the quality of shared hosting varies hugely between providers and across their product ranges.

A package costing £2.99 per month is likely to be aimed at “home” use. At that level, you could expect to be squashed on to a server with many hundreds of other sites and to have a very limited range of features.

Most hosts also offer “business” packages, and these will include greater bandwidth allowances (so more people can access your site before you start incurring extra costs), more sophisticated management features and promises of better performance.

Performance essentially is the difference between visitors seeing your website straight away or being left waiting while pages struggle to load.

Dedicated servers

A dedicated server is a physical machine leased in its entirety by you. You get complete control over your machine through a browser-based control panel and root/admin-level access. These computers usually run either Linux or Windows Server.

Choosing a dedicated server package

Dedicated servers are much more expensive than shared hosting, with prices beginning at around £100 per month, but they’re almost always the right choice if you’re developing a web application.

In other words, if your core product is delivered to the customer via the internet, rather than being a physical product that is merely ordered online, a dedicated server is likely to be the best choice.

It’s also worth considering for any kind of online store that aims to attract large numbers of customers, as a shared service is unlikely to cope with high demand, even in short bursts.

Virtual private servers

VPSes sit between shared and dedicated hosting in their cost and features. To you, they offer all the functionality of a dedicated server for a fraction of the price: indeed, what you get appears to be a dedicated server in every detail.

What you get appears to be a dedicated server in every detail

In reality, a single computer is running several “virtual servers”. Each copy of the server software thinks it’s running on its own computer, but in fact the machine’s processor is handling them all at the same time, while each has its own hard disk partition.

Since the physical resources of the server are shared between the virtual servers, you can expect to get less hard disk space, lower memory and some competition for processor time, reducing performance.

However, VPSs are an excellent halfway house between shared hosting and dedicated servers. For around £30 a month you get most of the benefits of dedicated hosting for a price closer to business class-shared hosting.

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