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Here’s a situation: you’ve reached the point in your business or project of knowing you
need a website, and when you’ve researched how to build one you’ve heard a lot of good things about WordPress. You’ve seen that it powers
about a third of the entire internet, people have told you how flexible
it is, how you can build all kinds of sites with it, and how it’s free
to use for everyone. However they’ve also told you that if you want to
setup a WordPress site you’re going to need WordPress hosting.
The next question, naturally, is:
“What is WordPress hosting???”
This guide will take you through to having a complete understanding of what hosting is, then what WordPress hosting is, and from there what the different types of hosting are so you can decide what you need for your own site.
I’ve been working professionally with WordPress for the past 12 years. In that time I’ve used all kinds of WordPress hosting, and I’ve experienced first hand which problems can arise with it, and how to avoid those problems. I’ve also learned what to look for to ensure your site runs smoothly, and most importantly, stays online no matter what.
That’s the information I’ll be sharing with you through this article.
Before we get started I want to thank SiteGround for sponsoring this article. Where they have a hosting package that lines up with the information I’ll be sharing with you I’ll let you know about what they have on offer. That said, of course the information itself comes directly from my hard-won experience and will be relevant and correct, whichever hosting provider you elect to go with.
Before we get into answering the question “What is WordPress hosting?”, you first need to understand the two components that make up that question:
- “What is WordPress?”
- “What is a host?”
Let’s start there.
What is WordPress? And What is a Host?
When I raise the question of “What is WordPress?” in the context of an article about hosting, I’m not asking from the point of view of how you use it to build a site. The fact that you’re looking into hosting means you already understand that WordPress is a system for building and managing a site. What you really need to know is what is it about WordPress that means you need a “host” for it in the first place?
WordPress is a Bunch of Files
To put it in the simplest possible way, WordPress is a group of files.
When you download it from WordPress.org you just get a plain old zip:
And when you extract that zip, sure enough, you get a bunch of regular files of various types:
But these files won’t do anything by themselves. Sitting as they are above on my personal computer, they are effectively inactive, or “static”. Try to view any of these files in a browser and you’ll see absolutely nothing. No website, no site management tools, nothing.
What these files need is a stack of supporting systems capable of activating them and making them “dynamic”. These systems need to be installed and configured on a computer in a certain way. Once they are, they can take the regular old files you see pictured above, put them through some processing, and spit a website out the other end.
When you look around at various hosting services you’ll see lingo referring to these systems, things like PHP, Apache, Nginx, Linux, MySQL and so on. You don’t need to know about the technicalities of exactly what these systems do at this stage, just knowing they are needed to produce a working WordPress website is enough.
But using these systems to generate a WordPress site is just the first step. I can generate a WordPress site on my personal computer, but it’s not much good if I’m the only one who can see it.
Then next step is to make sure the public can see the generated WordPress site, and that means the computer doing the processing also needs to be connected to the internet around the clock, and setup in a way the public can find it.
This is where a “host” comes into play.
A “Host” is a Specially Configured, Always Online Computer
The simplest way to describe a host is that it’s a computer. A computer setup to be a host is also referred to as a “server”, or “hosting server”.
You could actually turn your own computer into a hosting server if you really wanted to, (though that’s certainly not the easiest route). In essence, a server is not that different to a personal computer. It has an operating system installed on it, though that OS will usually be Linux and not MacOS / Windows. And it has a collection of programs installed on it, though they will be programs dedicated to the task of supporting website hosting. They also tend to have a stripped down look, and there are usually lots of them stacked one on top of the other or side by side:
The qualifying features that turn a regular computer into a host / server are:
- It has the systems running on it that a website needs in order to operate
- It’s always connected to the internet
- It’s discoverable by people browsing the internet
That list might seem simple, and in essence it is, but keeping all three of those conditions met at all times is in fact an incredibly advanced technical task. It takes many years of experience and expertise, and typically many engineers and specialists applied to the job 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
A host has to:
- Keep the computers acting as hosts, i.e. the servers, powered on at all times
- Keep servers in a good state of repair
- Keep them equipped with modern parts that ensure they run efficiently
- Keep website supporting systems up to date and running around the clock
- Patch potential faults in said systems
- Install and manage systems that allow people to access public areas of servers, such as your public facing webpages
- Simultaneously install and manage security features to keep malicious intruders out of private areas of servers, such as your private admin areas
- Run data backup services so there is a contingency in place should something go wrong
- Do all the above near perfectly, with typical perfection level of 99.9% expected
It’s a big job, and it’s hard to do!
That’s why rather than trying to convert our own computers into hosts, we typically turn to professional outfits that handle all these tasks for us. We pay them a fee to rent space on one of the servers they have already setup, and for all the time and expertise they put into keeping that long list of items above humming along smoothly.
That’s what a host is.
What is WordPress Hosting?
You now know WordPress is a group of files, and you know it needs a host in order to turn those files into a website that can be reached on the internet. But what is WordPress hosting specifically? Why is WordPress focused hosting different to generic hosting?
There are countless numbers of website hosting services around the world. Most of them do not focus on WordPress in particular. Why should you bother choosing a WordPress host over another option?
The answer is that for just about all the factors that go into hosting, there are idiosyncrasies to WordPress sites that make them different to other types of sites. A generic host can handle a WordPress site, but generally speaking they will not be able to do the job quite as well as a service provider who specializes.
WordPress requires specific supporting systems - a WordPress host can focus on maintaining those systems and not worry about others.
- WordPress has unique security requirements - a WordPress host will keep tabs on the ever changing WordPress security landscape and make adaptations to keep sites protected.
- WordPress has unique optimization requirements - a WordPress host will configure their servers specifically to make WordPress sites run as quickly as possible.
- WordPress requires unique technical insight - the understanding necessary to troubleshoot issues related to WordPress sites is different to other types of sites.
WordPress has specific tools - WordPress hosts will often make WordPress specific tools available to their customers that would not be present on a generic hosting service
So yes, you can run a WordPress site on any host that has the required supporting systems, but you will miss out on all the WordPress specific service perks that a specialty host can provide.
That’s what WordPress hosting is.
Different Types of Hosting
So far you’ve learned what WordPress is in a hosting context, what a host is, and what a WordPress host is. But when you go to choose WordPress hosting you will almost certainly find that there are several different types of hosting available.
You’ll see terms like shared hosting, managed hosting, dedicated hosting, cloud hosting and several others.
What do all these terms mean? How are these services different from one another? And how do you choose which one is the right type for your site?
The differences typically come down to three factors:
1. The Server (Hardware)
Q. What are the technical specs of the hosting computer hardware, i.e. server, you rent access to, and what is the nature of that access?
2. The Systems (Software)
Q. What type of software systems are installed, and optimized for, on said server?
3. The Services (People)
Q. What type of tasks does the hosting provider handle for you, vs. what tasks must you handle yourself?
Let’s go over the most common types of hosting, how they differ on the above three factors, and how they relate to making the right selection for WordPress hosting.
Shared hosting is when several customers share one server, each with a portion of it allocated to them.
Typically there are limits to what you can do with your share of the server, such as caps on the number of sites you can have, the amount of data you can store, and the number of visitors you can have to your site.
These caps are to ensure that there aren’t any customers who use more than their share of the server’s resources and cause other people’s sites to run poorly.
Shared hosting usually has a generic set of systems installed that allow you to use your hosting for just about any type of site you want to create. That is to say it’s not specifically optimized for WordPress or Ecommerce, as are some of the hosting types we’ll discuss shortly.
There will usually also be control panel tools that help you to administer your hosting, allowing you to do things like setup domain names, email hosting, databases and site installs.
The host will quietly provide a service in the background that you’ll probably never notice, taking care of all the underlying systems your sites need in order to run. You won’t have to think about operating systems, firewalls, server level security, or any of the prerequisite systems WordPress needs.
There are also possible extras that some companies include and others do not, such as
CDN - content delivery networks, a network of servers around the world to which your site is automatically duplicated so people can load your sites faster from their nearest server
SSL certificates - adds extra security to your site, makes the URL start with
http, stops Google from penalizing you for having an insecure site
Green - renewable energy supply to the servers
Some services charge extra for the above, or don’t have them available at all. Check the inclusions on a case-by-case basis.
Who it Suits
Shared hosting can be thought of as entry-level to mid-level type hosting.
It typically provides a rounded out set of features for general site management, but usually none for specialized site management. Advanced technical tasks are handled in the background for you. It’s the most common type of hosting, and is usually the most inexpensive.
Shared hosting suits:
- Sites with low to moderate traffic
- Low to medium budget projects
- Blog and business sites with no specialist functionality
- Site administrators with low to mid level experience
- People happy to handle most site admin tasks themselves
Crucial Tip: No Such Thing as “Unlimited” Shared Hosting
Be very cautious of shared hosting services that claim there are absolutely no limits on what you can do with your share of the server.
In actual fact it is impossible for everyone sharing a server to do anything they want, because it only takes one person running a site they don’t realize is too busy to cause everyone else’s sites on that server to run terribly.
The truth is that every shared host does have limits on what you can do with your share, they just might not be up front in telling you so.
Back a number of years ago I had a site with a well-known shared host that claimed to allow unlimited visits. That was all well and good right up until I got a surge of traffic: I was incredibly happy about my new found success, until the host suddenly took my entire site offline. They informed me that my site had become too busy, and that if I wanted to get it back online I would need to upgrade to a higher plan.
I would have been happy to do this because of course I did not want to negatively effect other people’s sites. However: A) The upgrade plan was approximately five times the price and B) I was not warned about limits up front and ended up losing valuable business while my site was held at ransom.
I learned the very important lesson then that there are always limits on shared hosting and you need to know at the outset what they are so you can prepare for change as your site grows.
Know Your Limits So You Can Plan Your Growth
Here we come to our first reference to hosting provided by our sponsor for this article, SiteGround, who I am very pleased to point out are open and honest with what the limits of their share hosting plans are. This is a crucial bit of communication that is still commonly withheld by shared hosting providers to this day.
Their StartUp hosting package allows ~10,000 visits per month, their GrowBig package allows ~25,000 visits per month, and their GoGeek package allows ~100,000 visits per month.
If you are setting up a brand new site you can just begin with the StartUp package, then monitor your traffic and as you grow simply upgrade to the GrowBig package, and then the GoGeek package when the time is right.
Additionally, this shared hosting does include the extras I mentioned above of a CDN, SSL certificate, and renewable energy.
See more details about what SiteGround offer (such as their shared hosting) and get up to 70% off their managed WordPress hosting through Themeforest:
Dedicated and VPS Hosting
Dedicated hosting is on the other end of the spectrum to shared hosting. Where in shared hosting you share a server with other customers, in dedicated hosting you have a server all to yourself, dedicated just to you.
Typically dedicated hosting is more of a DIY option, where you handle just about everything yourself, and what you’re paying for is access to advanced hardware located in a managed data center. It tends to be the most expensive type of hosting.
The Server - Dedicated Hosting
Dedicated servers are usually very powerful machines, with high end components. They typically exist to provide access to equipment that would be otherwise difficult to obtain.
That said sometimes the focus of dedicated hosting is purely on ensuring that a high traffic website, like a large enterprise store for example, has a whole server all to itself to handle the demands placed on it.
The Server - VPS Hosting
VPS stands for “virtual private server” and from the customer point of view behaves exactly like a dedicated server. However it is not as expensive because instead of having a whole server to yourself you still share it, but with far fewer people than on a shared host.
A VPS is not entirely private, but it behaves just as though it is, hence the term “virtual private server”.
Preinstalled systems on dedicated and VPS hosts are usually minimal. Many will come with nothing but an operating system and one or two control panels installed, and on some absolutely nothing is installed and you start from scratch yourself. The idea of most dedicated or VPS hosting is you have as much control over it as you do your own computer. Of course, with that comes the fact that you are responsible for all its upkeep as well.
As with the systems, the services that come with dedicated or VPS hosting are also usually minimal, because they are often intended to be self managed.
Who it Suits
If you’re new to WordPress hosting, dedicated or VPS hosting is not what you’re looking for. The reasons I’m talking about it here is:
- To help paint a picture of the different types of hosting
- So you don’t one day “upgrade” to it without knowing what you’re getting yourself into (ahem, I may have done this at one point)
Dedicated or VPS hosting typically suits:
- Technically advanced admins who know how to manage servers and need little to no assistance
- High budget projects, if using dedicated hosting, though VPS hosting can be very inexpensive
- Projects with atypical requirements that need more direct control
- High traffic websites
Cloud hosting is not quite like shared hosting, and not quote like VPS or dedicated hosting. You don’t have a machine all to yourself like with dedicated hosting, but you also have more resources available to you than through shared hosting.
The reason is that through some fancy virtualization technology your site’s resources are actually spread across multiple servers at once. This “cluster” of servers is referred to as “the cloud”.
The best way I can think of to describe how cloud hosting works is with an “eggs in baskets” analogy, where an egg represents your portion of hosting space and a basket represents a server.
Shared hosting is like having one egg in one basket, while nine other people also each have an egg in that same basket:
This approach is economical, but has the downside that there’s no room for you to add more
eggs, because the space in the basket is already being used by the
other eggs. If you need more space, you’ll have to move your egg to another basket.
Dedicated hosting is like having ten eggs in a basket you have all to yourself:
This approach gives you lots of room, but also has the downside that if something happens to the basket, all ten of your eggs can get in trouble at once.
Cloud hosting is like having one egg in each of a cluster of ten baskets.
This approach has the advantage that if something happens to one of your baskets, the other nine just pick up the slack. You also have room to add more eggs to the baskets if needed.
Other people can have eggs in these baskets too, (like with shared hosting), but if the baskets become full another one can be seamlessly added to the “cluster” so more eggs can continue to be added.
Cloud hosting is very flexible, because you can start out with just a small portion of space and system resources, and as you grow you can add more eggs or more baskets. You can get yourself more system resources, or more space, on an as-needed basis.
Because of the scalable, flexible nature of cloud hosting, services can range from offering minimal resources comparable to shared hosting for small budget projects, through to highly powerful resources comparable to dedicated hosting for bigger budget projects.
Again due to the flexibility of cloud hosting, there can be a lot of variance in the types of systems you might find preinstalled. You might get a setup with a lot of utilities preinstalled, comparable to shared hosting, or a setup with nothing installed, comparable to dedicated hosting.
Once more, the services that come along with cloud hosting can be as varied as the server resources and systems. Some packages will be designed to be entirely self-managed by you, and others will offer a complete suite of management services, administrating the server and several tasks related to the sites installed on it.
Who it Suits
Cloud hosting can suit almost any use case, given it can vary so much in what it offers, but the number one stand out reason that can make cloud hosting suitable to you is if:
- You know you are going to need to cater for significantly increasing traffic as your sites grow, and you want to be able to do so at will
SiteGround’s cloud hosting packages come with considerable server resources out of the box, as well as a number of preinstalled systems and management services. It’s designed to be the option you switch to if you outgrow the shared hosting services, as opposed to being a DIY solution for advanced admins.
This means you can use it as hands-free as you would shared hosting, thanks to the tasks handled in the background for you, but get access to far more powerful system resources for blazing fast performance at any scale.
And if you’ve been wondering how all this is relevant to WordPress hosting, SiteGround’s cloud hosting also includes managed WordPress hosting services should you like to use them.
What is managed WordPress hosting? Let’s find out now.
Managed WordPress Hosting
Managed WordPress hosting is a type of hosting that includes extras systems and services specific to WordPress. As I described earlier, WordPress is it’s own unique beast and, especially as a site grows, there can be a lot of specialized knowledge required to keep it running smoothly and securely.
To give you an idea what I’m talking about, I used to run a WordPress site with a members’ area customers could sign into. This publicly accessible area attracted malicious actors who wanted to use it to gain entry to secured areas, and as the site was under constant brute force attack from bots trying to break in. This was around the clock, every minute, of every day. I had to handle the responsibility of making sure I protected the site and kept my customer’s data safe at all times.
Additionally I had to deal with the occasional DDoS attack, (distributed denial of service), where an attacker spammed my site with so many fake requests that real visitors could not gain access. I had to monitor for these attacks, and then take action to stop them by manually coordinating with my hosting provider.
To be honest with you, I would never take on responsibilities like that with a WordPress site again, ever. It was too much of a headache, drain of time, and source of stress. Why deal with all that personally when there are experts who have extensive experience on the best way to handle these types of issues, and dedicate their careers to doing so?
Instead, were I to have a site with a members’ area again I would 100% entrust the tasks to a reputable managed WordPress hosting service.
Managed WordPress hosting can be delivered on shared hosting, cloud hosting, or any other type of hosting - the most important part is that key elements of what goes into managing a WordPress site are handled for you.
For example, SiteGround has managed WordPress hosting that runs on their shared hosting infrastructure, as well as managed WordPress hosting that runs on their cloud infrastructure.
In addition to the systems a host would have installed on their shared or cloud hosting anyway, a managed WordPress host will also have some WordPress specific systems present. What those systems are varies from host to host, so to give you an idea I will list those you can get on managed WordPress hosting with SiteGround:
- An automated WordPress installation tool
- A WordPress site migration tool
- Automated WordPress updates - sites need to be kept constantly up to date in order to be secure
- WP CLI - a tool that can help developers work on your site
- WordPress Super Cacher - a multi layered caching system that can greatly enhance speed and performance
SG Optimizer plugin - handles multiple WordPress optimization tasks and interfaces with SiteGround specific features
- On demand WordPress backups
- 1 click WordPress staging tool - this allows you to work on a copy of your site nobody can see, pushing your changes to your live site only when you’re ready
Additional WordPress related services are a big part of typical managed WordPress hosting too. Once again, the exact services included can vary, so we’ll look at the services you can get with SiteGround managed WordPress hosting:
- A free WordPress site transfer handled by experienced staff
- WordPress specific support services
- Custom firewall rules to patch WordPress specific security issues
- Keeping track of the latest information on WordPress vulnerabilities - SiteGround report they are often able to protect sites even before the official developers of WordPress have had time to release security updates
Being able to access systems and services like the above is why I would never again self manage a WordPress site in the way I did in the past, and that’s despite 12 years of experience. I would always recommend that a beginner to WordPress hosting should use a managed service if possible.
And you’ll notice that the price of SiteGround’s managed WordPress hosting is exactly the same, penny-for-penny, as their shared hosting. So if you are going to be hosting WordPress sites there’s no additional cost, but a massive stack of additional benefits.
Circling back to the cloud hosting we discussed earlier, you can also access all the managed WordPress hosting I just listed through SiteGround’s cloud infrastructure as well. It’s the same set of systems and services, just running on cloud hosting instead of shared hosting.
So if you have a busy site, or if you know you are going to have a busy site, look at choosing cloud hosting instead.
Ecommerce / WooCommerce Hosting
Ecommerce, often handled in WordPress through the WooCommerce plugin, adds yet another layer of security and management responsibility.
When you are processing credit cards and sensitive customer information you have certain obligations to meet, and if you don’t understand all the requirements you can run into trouble.
Once again, this is another area where I feel the best approach is to entrust the tasks to people who have extensive experience and are entirely dedicated to securely hosting ecommerce / WooCommerce websites.
WordPress specific e-commerce hosting is usually managed WordPress hosting with additional features, typically related to a specific store plugin like WooCommerce.
In the case of SiteGround, their WooCommerce hosting includes everything we already discussed about their managed WordPress hosting, such as advanced security and performance measures.
However it also includes extra features like:
- Automated WooCommerce based store setup, with included store theme
- Smart caching designed specifically for WooCommerce based stores
Again, the pricing is identical to that of shared hosting and managed WordPress hosting, so if you know you are going to be setting up a WordPress based store website, it’s the obvious choice.
That’s What WordPress Hosting Is
Now you know exactly what WordPress hosting is, what the different types are, what you need to watch out for to avoid choosing the wrong type, and the kinds of inclusions to look for to help you choose the right type.
WordPress is quite easily the most flexible site management platform that exists on the web today, and to really take advantage of it it’s critical that you have an excellent host who knows what they are doing, and has hosting packages on offer that fit both your needs today, and the needs you will have down the track as your site grows.
If you have any questions about how to choose the right type of hosting, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments below this article and I will do my best to get back to you.
Thanks to SiteGround for sponsoring this article, and giving me the opportunity to share all this knowledge I have picked up over the years. To learn more about SiteGround’s WordPress hosting visit the Themeforest hosting landing page.
Learn More About WordPress and Hosting
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