Recently, I just moved from shared hosting at Bluehost, to a dedicated virtual server at Media Temple. I had a difficult time finding the right fit for my site, and at first, it really seemed like there were a gazillion types of hosting services.
Here, I try to group the various WordPress hosting options available, briefly review them, and highlight their pros and cons.
In particular, there were 4 important dimensions when considering hosting providers for my WordPress blog –
- Cost – How much we need to pay per month.
- Page speed – How fast our blog pages will load.
- Support – Amount of technical support provided, how quickly we can get our questions answered, and quality of the answers or solutions.
- Control – Amount of control we have over our site. For example, some hosting providers may only allow certain approved plugins, may not support WordPress multi-site, may not allow database access, or may have other restrictions.
1. Shared Hosting
Most people start with shared hosting. This is what I started with at Bluehost.
In shared hosting, we share a server with a group of other sites. Given that most shared hosting plans are very low cost, there are usually many sites sharing the same server, which leads to a lot of competition for limited server CPU cycles and memory. This usually leads to slower page loads.
Some hosting companies provide distributed shared hosting. In this case, instead of a group of sites sharing a single server, we have everyone sharing a group of servers. If done right, using a group of servers is more effective because there is more flexibility in balancing out traffic loads and resource usage. However, load balancing across a set of distributed servers is much more complex, and requires more sophisticated software and support. Performance may be better than the single server case, but likely, the cost will be higher as well.
Media Temple, for example, offers shared hosting across a group of servers (Grid Service). Media Temple’s grid service costs $20 US per month, compared to other shared hosting services which cost between $3.50 – $7 US per month.
Shared hosting is cheap, provides good flexibility and control, and support is usually quite good.
I was at Bluehost for several years, and they provide both phone and online support. Turn around time for answering questions was good, and they handled most server side issues including updating server software, doing backups, server configurations, and more.
I had access to all my WordPress databases through a browser interface (phpMyAdmin), could transfer files back and forth, could install whatever plugins I wanted, and had full control over my WordPress installations.
Pages take a long time to load, and will only get worse as our site grows. I was able to offset some of this by using very aggressive caching with w3tc, but the load time for uncached pages still remained very high.
In addition, because I cached my pages for long periods of time to avoid the extra load of page regeneration, my site became very static and pages did not update with the most recent comments, posts, or other more dynamic data.
I also do plugin and theme development, which can often be painful due to lack of server resources.
I really wanted to switch to something better and faster. This will give visitors a much better site experience, as well as enhance site development and administration tasks.
2. Fully Managed WordPress Hosting
The first thing that I looked into is fully managed WordPress hosting. The current leader in this space is probably WP Engine.
There are many glowing reviews on WP Engine and it has funding from Automattic (WordPress parent company). This likely gives them a leg up in terms of WordPress technical know-how.
Another oft-mentioned feature of WP Engine is their Hacker Cleanup Guarantee which basically states-
If you get hacked, we fix your site for you.
Other fully managed WordPress hosting providers that are frequently mentioned include Pagely, ZippyKid, and Synthesis.
The really nice thing about fully managed hosting providers is that they handle everything for you. They will work to make your site fast, they deal with security, backups, caching, and everything else.
You do not need to spend time managing your server, or even muck around with many of the WordPress administration tasks.
Getting all that support is really nice, but it comes at a price. Full WordPress hosting services often cost a lot more than other hosting plans. WP Engine, for example, charges $99 US per month for 100k visitors. The next leg up is $249 US per month for 400k visitors.
WP Engine is probably the most well-reviewed of all the hosting providers of its class, therefore not surprisingly, we must pay for that additional oomph in quality of service.
Pagely and ZippyKid are lower cost alternatives in this space. Pagely charges $49 US per month for 200k visits, and ZippyKid charges $25 US per month for 100k pageviews. However, in all of these plans you want to pay attention to the details. Many of them have limits on the number of domains, may not provide multi-site support, and may have other resource restrictions.
Another problem area for full hosting solutions is loss of control. Likely, the most you will get is ftp access. Because they have to ensure site security, there is usually a fair number of restrictions on the plugins that we can use. In addition, many of them will automatically update our WordPress installations. While this ensures better security, it may compromise site stability. Active themes or plugins that no longer work on the updated installation may just be turned off, and our site may revert to a default theme.
I read several reviews where Pagely was criticized for taking a very heavy hand in such matters.
However, I must admit that the idea of having someone take care of all backend issues is a very appealing one. As a test, I moved one of my small sites, for a brief period of time, to ZippyKid. My pages loaded a lot faster, however, I ran into the following problems –
- They do not provide multi-site support.
- My site generates slightly different HTML for mobile and non-mobile devices. However, since I did not have control over my cache, I was unable to properly configure it to handle these site specific requirements.
- It can take up to 24 hours or more before my support tickets were answered. I was on the free test plan, so I am not sure if this will be different under the paid plan.
- I did not have good access to my database. After moving my site over, I had an issue with some orphan comments that I could not properly delete using the WordPress interface. In the end, I had to delete them by writing PHP code.
A fully managed hosting service may sound very tempting, but we also lose control over many key aspects of our site. For me, I really want control over my cache, database, and filesystem. I also want full control over the plugins and themes that I can use.
3. Unmanaged Hosting
The other two options open to me are unmanaged hosting and partially managed hosting.
Firehost is probably the best reviewed provider for unmanaged hosting. Firehost charges $200 per month for a base cloud server. This includes a 1 processor core, 1 GB of memory, and 30 GBs of storage. As I understand it, they set up the initial server and make sure that the hardware is always up and running. All the rest is up to us.
Since I don’t have server administration experience, I know that at this point, I am not ready for unmanaged hosting.
4. Partially Managed Hosting
This left me with partially managed hosting.
There were two well reviewed contenders in this space – Media Temple and Rackspace. In fact, at the writing of this article, Rackspace is the server guts used at ZippyKid.
The nice thing about Media Temple is that they offer a wide range of service plans. I can start with a 512M virtual server for $50 US per month, and then move to a higher plan if I need the extra resources.
I can add in CDN support for $20 US per month, and they also have an Otto support service which will help me configure and optimize my server for a price.
As a result, there is a lot of flexibility, and a nice balance of price, speed, and control. What most worried me though, is how much server knowledge I would need to have. In their virtual server (dv) plan, I would be responsible for software updates, backups, configuration, and more.
However, they do have some nice features that help with server management –
- They provide a control panel and they handle control panel updates.
- They have one click WordPress installations.
- They have phpMyAdmin installed, and I can straight away get access to my databases using an interface that I was already familiar with.
- They have a pretty good set of articles on common server handling tasks.
I have found that with this plan, it is necessary for me to start learning a lot more about server-side software, as well as relearn Linux commands and command line interfaces such as vi.
There is pretty good documentation on all of these things, but it still does take up a non-trivial amount of time. In addition, I may not be able to quickly resolve server issues that crop up, and I may mess things up and cause extended site downtime.
With great power there must also come great responsibility.
Rackspace offers up a very interesting proposition. From what I can tell, they provide a similar plan as Media Temple’s dv service. In essence we buy guaranteed server resources, thereby ensuring reliable server response times and page load speed.
However, they also offer flexible managed solutions. Here is what they say on their site-
Our staff can help you optimize your Linux or Windows web, application, and database servers. We can also help configure FTP, SMTP, software firewall rules, and even website caching. All while providing Fanatical Support®.
The managed service, of course, comes at a price. It adds $0.12 per hour per server plus a flat $100 US per month account fee. This will increase the cost of hosting by about $180 US per month.
The pricing structure of Rackspace is also a bit more complex than Media Temple. In particular, we pay for each GB of outgoing bandwidth. As such, it may be difficult to gauge what our monthly fees will be initially, and unexpected spikes in traffic will increase our monthly costs.
Even though the cost can be rather high, especially for the managed plan, I really like what Rackspace seems to offer. In particular, we can get good support for our site, while still retaining as much control as we want over site cache, database, filesystem, plugins, themes, and more.
Realistically though, managed solutions will run at no less than about $250 US per month.