shared hosting vs cloud hosting

In our best web hosting guide, you’ll find a long list of providers that each have a different lineup of plans. Some web hosts, such as JustHost, condense their lineup to make it accessible to newcomers, while others, such as WestHost, provide services across many tiers and price points (read our JustHost review and WestHost review).

We’re here to help clarify the difference between the services web hosts offer by providing a hosting types overview. In addition to explaining how each type of hosting works, we’re going to suggest providers we like best for each type of hosting, as well as which kind of websites should use which type of hosting.

What Are Hosting Types?

what is web hosting

Web hosting is an easy to understand concept. It’s the process of storing and serving your website to any visitor that enters your domain. Though the process behind web hosting is complex — read our what are DNS records guide for a brief look — the idea of web hosting is simple.

That said, not all web hosting is equal. Though the concept of storing your website’s files on a server and serving those to users is the same, the way your website gathers computing resources differs depending on your hosting type.

Web hosts use different methods of hosting to accommodate websites with different needs.

For example, a personal portfolio doesn’t need much computing power because there’s limited content and few visitors, so it doesn’t make sense to buy costly, dedicated hosting. Alternatively, big companies with IT staff may want to configure hosting in a particular way, so full resources and customizability is preferred.

This guide is meant to explain what the most popular types of hosting are, going over what each offers and who it’s best for. That said, if you’re new to the world of web hosting and overwhelmed by the number of options, you shouldn’t be too worried about hosting types. Going for a web host’s “web hosting” or “shared hosting” plan is usually the best bet for beginners.

Hosting Types Overview

Now that you understand what a hosting type is, we’re going to go over the four most popular versions. In addition to explaining how each type of hosting works, we’re going to give recommendations for who should use which type of hosting. We’re also going to pull from our web hosting reviews to offer provider recommendations along the way.

If you want to skip the gory details, here’s a quick overview of the different types of hosting:

Shared hosting

  • Allows multiple users to host websites cheaply by taking advantage of economies of scale.
  • Suitable for small businesses, portfolios, informational websites and personal websites.

VPS hosting

  • Offers the configurability and consistency of dedicated hosting without the price tag by virtualizing a private server on a shared server.
  • Suitable for medium-sized businesses, developers and medium-sized news outlets.

Dedicated hosting

  • Provides a server and all its computing resources to a single user.
  • Suitable for multi-site networks, large businesses, large e-commerce outlets and large media outlets.

Cloud hosting

  • Combines aspects of shared, VPS and dedicated hosting by allowing your website to pull resources from the cloud, effectively making it impossible to go offline.
  • Suitable for any website that needs high traffic and low operating costs, particularly medium to large media outlets and blogs.
  • Can be used by large corporations or multi-site networks with a custom configuration.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting is and should be the default choice for most websites. It’s the baseline type of hosting to which all other types should be compared because nearly all web hosts offer some form of it. iPage, for example, almost exclusively offers shared hosting (read our iPage review).

Instead of allowing each user to have their own server, shared hosting puts multiple users on the same server. The server has a finite amount of resources, so those websites share what’s there. If hosting represents housing, shared hosting would be living in an apartment.

Like shared living, there are pros and cons to shared hosting. The highlight is that it’s cheap. By grouping users on the same server, the web host can save money on servers and pass those savings to you. Though there are plenty of expensive shared hosts — read our Arvixe review for an example — there are cheap options, too, such as Namecheap (read our Namecheap review).

Everything comes at a price, though, and in the case of shared hosting, that’s your neighbors. Every website is pulling from the same pool of resources, so if the web host is greedy and hosts too many websites on the same server, your website may run out of resources to accommodate its users (read our GreenGeeks review for an example of that).

Because of that, shared hosting should be considered for websites with small amounts of traffic. Any website with sudden spikes in users, such as a news website, will struggle to keep up with the flowing requests, resulting in page load errors or slower speeds.

Most web hosts offer some form of shared hosting, but we’ve found Hostinger and Hosting24 to be the best. They’re one in the same, which, thankfully, Hostinger doesn’t try to hide. Both offer competitive pricing and great features, but more importantly, they don’t overstuff their servers with users. Read our Hostinger review and Hosting24 review to learn more.

Shared hosting caters to a specific audience. Any website that has little traffic or is online purely for informational purposes will benefit from it. That includes small business websites, personal portfolios and informational pages. Those websites generally attract little traffic, so running into a resource shortage shouldn’t be a problem.

Who Should Use Shared Hosting:

  • Small businesses
  • Writers, artists, etc.
  • Personal websites
  • Informational pages

VPS Hosting

VPS hosting is a step above shared hosting in terms of price and performance. Like shared hosting, multiple websites are stored on the same server, but instead of arbitrarily sharing the resources, you get a set dedicated to you.

That’s accomplished by setting up virtual servers on the physical server (VPS stands for virtual private server, after all). Instead of allowing the resources to ebb and flow as needed, the web host segments sets of the resources to specific websites, virtually letting them have their own dedicated hosting environment.

For example, if a server has eight CPU cores, 16GB of RAM and 2TB of SSD storage, there could be four virtual servers, each with two CPU cores, 4GB of RAM and 500GB of SSD storage.

Though it may not appear so at first, the difference between VPS and shared hosting is immense. The most obvious upside is that you get dedicated resources instead of sharing them with others. That means your website can accommodate traffic for as many resources as it has, regardless of what the other websites on the server are doing.

That said, the more important aspect is that you can customize your server. Because the web host is offering a dedicated hosting environment, you can make changes to your server and how it’s configured, which, most of the time, you can’t do with shared hosting.

Unfortunately, not all VPS plans are the same. The gory details will be on the product page for the web host you’re interested in, so be vigilant if you’re looking to purchase a VPS plan. You could just use A2 Hosting, though. As you can read in our A2 Hosting review, it’s one of the fastest hosts we’ve tested, and comes with a high level of configurability, to boot.

The main reason we recommend A2 Hosting for VPS hosting is that you get a choice between Linux or Windows on your server, as well as managed or unmanaged plans. We’ll talk about the latter in a later section, but the short of it is that A2 Hosting offers maximum flexibility for developers.

DreamHost is also a great option for VPS hosting. Its DreamPress plans, which use a VPS for WordPress, are why it made our best web hosting for WordPress guide. There are also non-WordPress VPS plans that range from basic to enterprise applications, which you can read about in our DreamHost review.

VPS hosting is more expensive than shared hosting but cheaper than dedicated hosting. It’s a middle ground that’s perfect for medium-scale businesses, growing news outlets and medium-sized blogs. They’re also great for developers who need to configure servers in a particular way.

Who Should Use VPS Hosting:

  • Medium-sized businesses
  • Small to medium news outlets
  • Developers

Dedicated Hosting

Dedicated hosting is the simplest type of web hosting to understand, but it can also be the most expensive. Unlike shared and VPS hosting, dedicated hosting gives you a server to yourself. Instead of splitting the resources, you can use as much or as little as you want, which opens a lot of possibilities.

In the most likely case, dedicated hosting will be used for large websites or multi-site networks that need a lot of resources. Those are generally large news outlets, large businesses and e-commerce websites.

That said, like VPS hosting, dedicated hosting comes with the upside of flexibility. Some providers allow you to not only have a server to yourself, but also to build it from the ground up based on your needs (read our SiteGround review for an example). Plus, dedicated hosting usually gives you full root access to the server.

There’s a lot of variation in price between dedicated servers, though, because the specs of the server largely dictate how much it’ll cost. For example, WebHostingBuzz has clearance servers that are under $50 per month, while LunarPages has servers that reach well over $500 per month (read our WebHostingBuzz review and LunarPages review).

Where you purchase dedicated hosting will be largely dependant on your needs, but we like 1&1 IONOS a lot. As you can read in our 1&1 IONOS review, it offers competitive dedicated pricing and impressive specs, including tons of NVMe storage and Cloudflare Railgun (which you can learn about in our what is Cloudflare guide).

Dedicated hosting isn’t just for individual websites, either. Though great for large media outlets and e-commerce websites, dedicated hosting is also great for multi-site networks. For example, a large corporation may purchase a dedicated hosting package to host websites for all its brands instead of individual hosting for each one.

Who Should Use Dedicated Hosting:

  • Large media outlets
  • Multi-site networks
  • Large e-commerce outlets
  • Large corporations

Cloud Hosting

A line can be drawn through shared hosting, VPS hosting and dedicated hosting. Shared is great for small websites, VPS is perfect for growing websites and dedicated is necessary for large websites. Cloud hosting throws a wrench in that line, redefining how websites are hosted and the price you’ll need to pay for service.

Cloud hosting isn’t an option over VPS, shared or dedicated. Rather, it’s a variation of one of those types of hosting. You can have a cloud plan that’s also a VPS, shared or dedicated plan, but the way in which the server can access resources changes.

In fact, cloud hosting is a little bit of all previous types of hosting. It works by hosting your website in a virtualized environment that pulls resources from a shared pool. Those resources can scale based on your website’s needs. The “cloud” part of it comes from the fact that your website can pull resources from the cloud, so you’ll always have access to what you bought.

In other words, it’s shared hosting in that economies of scale drive down the price by having multiple users pulling from the same pool. It’s also VPS hosting in that it happens in a virtualized environment and dedicated hosting because the pool of resources is so large that you’ll always have access to what you need.

That means you get the best aspects of all previous types of hosting, as well as increased security. By serving your website on a redundant network — meaning it can pull resources from anywhere — it’s much less likely, if not impossible, for your website to be taken offline by a massive traffic spike or distributed denial-of-service attack.

Many web hosts, such as HostGator, have begun including some basic form of cloud hosting in their lineup (read our HostGator review). That said, cloud hosting is powerful enough that there are hosts dedicated to it, including MDDHosting, Kinsta and Pagely (read our MDDHosting review, Kinsta review and Pagely review).

Any website can benefit from cloud hosting, but it’s particularly useful for websites that need to have high traffic and low operating costs, such as large blogs or media outlets. It isn’t as useful for corporate applications unless the provider is willing to configure the cloud to fit specific needs, which some web hosts, such as Pagely, will do.

Who Should Use Cloud Hosting:

  • Large blogs
  • Large media outlets
  • Anyone who needs consistent, redundant access to resources

Choosing the Best Type of Hosting

The type of hosting you choose comes down to the purpose of your website. As we’ve laid out throughout this guide, there are pros and cons to each type of hosting, so there’s no single answer for which is best for you. Below a quick checklist, for the full version check out our guide on how to choose a web hosting provider.

Usually, you want to start with traffic. Ask yourself how many simultaneous users you’ll need to accommodate, how often you’ll need to do so and how many resources each user will need. For example, if your website is composed of compressed images and text, you won’t need as many resources as a website that has the same number of users while trying to stream 4K video.

After determining your traffic needs, consider specific features your website may need. You may want to change the server software for hosting certain file types or need a particular way to serve content to users. If you’re content using WordPress or a similar platform, you can ignore this step.

Lastly, consider if you even need to purchase hosting. In many cases, there’s little benefit to buying hosting and building your site from scratch versus using a website builder if you’re creating a small website. Personal portfolios, small businesses and even small e-commerce outlets can get by just fine with a website builder.

We won’t get into all the differences here — read our best website builders guide for that — but website builders allow small businesses to quickly and easily launch websites for little money and with little experience. You’re still hosting your website when you buy a website builder, but you can bypass choosing between different types of hosting.

As far as website builders go, there are a lot of options, but Wix consistently ranks first. As you can see in our Wix review, it combines power and ease of use in a way that no other website builder does. That said, if it doesn’t suit you, you can read our other website builder reviews.

Managed vs. Unmanaged Hosting

If you’ve poked your head around web hosting websites, you’ve likely seen the term “managed.” Hosting can be unmanaged, semi-managed or fully managed, and understanding the difference can be a major factor in what plan you choose.

That said, it isn’t as big a factor as the hosting type you get. Many shared plans, for example, are semi-managed, though the web host may not explicitly say so. In most cases, you only need to pay attention to this aspect if you’re talking about WordPress-specific plans or VPS or dedicated hosting.

Managed hosting is where the web host deals with many of the technical aspects of the service. For example, if you have a managed WordPress plan from, say, InMotion Hosting, it’ll deal with updating the software, installing WordPress for you and ensuring your themes and plugins are up to date (read our InMotion Hosting review).

Unmanaged hosting is the opposite. The web host is hands-off, allowing you to tinker and tweak until your heart’s content. In most cases, you’ll find unmanaged hosting for VPS and dedicated servers at a lower price. That allows developers to tailor the server for their needs, which cuts down on the manpower the web host needs.

If the idea of managed versus unmanaged hosting is overwhelming to you, don’t worry. In nearly all cases, semi-managed or managed hosting is offered, and that’s what you should go with. Those who want unmanaged hosting usually know they want it.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot going on in the world of web hosting, and often, the confusion starts before you even hit the checkout page. Our hope is that guide helped define what the differences between hosting types are and which type of hosting is best for you.

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Which type of hosting are you using for your site? Why did you choose it? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.

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