Shared, VPS and Dedicated Hosting – What's the Difference?

Many modern offerings of web hosting will offer you cloud-esque descriptions of their product, as if there was an evolutionary leap in the way websites are hosted online. This is mostly marketing terminology, and aside from sounding new and shiny, doesn't really give a practical description of what you're buying. Pretty much any hosting service can be broken down into three different plans.

At the most basic level, hosting you acquire is assigned to one server, a box that sits in a rack with many other servers inside a hosting datacenter. The number of resources alloted to you on that box depends on which of their plans you're signing up to.

Types of Hosting

Dedicated Server Hosting

With this hosting plan, all the resources of the box are dedicated to you, you don't share any of the RAM, CPU or disk space with anyone else. You have full administrative privileges on the server. You'll have at least one dedicated IPv4 address. Dedicated servers tend to be the most expensive option of the three hosting types.

Although the hardware resources are dedicated to you alone, you may be sharing the network pipe to the rest of the Internet, though it's possible to also buy dedicated bandwidth

VPS Hosting (Virtual Private Server)

Here, you have (virtually all) administrative privileges on the box, but only a share of the hardware resources. Multiple users are assigned to the same server, though invisible to you through the use of virtualisation.

You'd typically be given a dedicated slice of RAM and disk, and fair use of the CPU and network. More often than not you'll have a dedicated IPv4 address. VPS' tend to be less expensive than dedicated servers, but more expensive than shared hosting.

Shared Hosting Server

With shared hosting, you're sharing resources with many other users (typically more than you would on a VPS), and have very little administrative privileges. You will be able to install a pre-defined list of software, and all resources will be fair use, though some hosting providers may dedicate a minimum (and/or maximum) amount of resources you can use.

Cloud Hosting Server

Worth mentioning aside from my comment about it purely being marketing… cloud hosting is a hybrid kind of hosting that generally means hosting provided by more than one server. The principle behind cloud hosting is that the provider can have a bunch of servers ready to perform work, and use their collective power when required. For (usually) a little extra money, you get this additional power and redundancy. For all intents and purposes, any cloud hosting you acquire will offer you dedicated resources and/or administrative privileges, so essentially behaves like the other three hosting types.

Which one is best?

"It depends" probably isn't enlightening for you but it's the correct answer. You can follow these general rules though, with regards to hardware requirements

Best for Hardware Requirements

If you're hosting a low traffic site (something with less than a 1000 visits a day), a shared server is more than adequate. You'll save money and won't have to worry about the administrative duties of hosting the web server. Generally most new websites for personal use or small businesses can start on shared hosting.

Best for Price

Best for Support and Server Management

With shared hosting, there is generally nothing required of you in managing the server, you're limited to maintaining your website alone. Depending on whether your hosting plan is managed or unmanaged, there may be someone on hand to help out with your website too.

With VPS and dedicated hosting, the management of the server is dependent on whether you have a managed or unmanaged service.

Managed versus Unmanaged

When the service is unmanaged, your hosting provider takes on the responsibility of providing you with network bandwidth and server resources, and what you do (and break) on that server is your responsibility. On dedicated servers you can reinstall the operating system for example, but generally if you break it - it's on you to fix it.

With managed services, you pay (often a lot) more for your service, but the provider will offer you technical assistance with the software that's running on your server. Want to install a mail server and configure it? Ask the provider. Speed up your Wordpress installation? The provider will help.

Managed services invariably cost (a lot) more than unmanaged services, because the provider needs to have experienced technicians on-hand for whenever their managed customers come-a-calling. If you have little technical experience or don't have someone at-hand to fix problems that are beyond your technical ken, you will probably want to opt for managed hosting. That said, there are a lot of hosting providers that will assist you with software issues without you paying a large overhead for a managed service, but bear in mind that's dependent on the niceties of the provider rather than a paid-for service.

The more technically experienced (or geeky minded) will opt for unmanaged hosting because they can configure their server the way they want, and if anything breaks they're able to fix it.

Regardless of technical experience, often managed hosting is the better choice if it's affordable, as any problems that arise can be dealt with without your own human resources being diverted into maintaining it.

The Conclusion

Which type of hosting is best for you depends on the factors described, though if you have a good idea of hardware requirements, how much you're willing to pay, how much help you need maintaining your server and website and you're willing to compare a number of providers and how well they've been reviewed – you've already taken the major steps in choosing a provider.

Take a look at Facets of a Hosting Service to delve deeper into the factors you should consider before choosing a host.