A shared server may be a lot better than a VPS

web serversA lot of people seem to believe that what host companies call a “VPS”, or Virtual Private Server, is simply an upgrade from a shared server and automatically better for the sites hosted on it. For example, in this article, the author states flatly: “Shared hosting sucks. End of discussion.” She goes on to suggest that anyone with shared hosting upgrade to “better hosting”, and recommends a VPS (or a dedicated server).

Well, luckily it isn’t “end of discussion” at all, because that advice is simplistic at best, and at worst potentially misleading and harmful.

I have just finished migrating 22 websites, mostly WordPress or otherwise database-driven, from a VPS (Virtual Private Server) to a Shared Server. This was a lot of work – I’d estimate about 50 hours.

So why did I do it? Do I just love staring at a computer screen for 50 hours without earning a cent? I guarantee you that’s not the case. The reason I moved all of my client sites from a VPS back to a shared server was that the VPS had crashed several times, bringing down all of my clients’ sites, something which has never happened to me on a shared server, not in 14 years.

When I contacted my host company, HostGator, they explained in detail that the only advantage to a typical VPS over shared hosting was that a VPS allows root access. Virtual Private Servers are not by any stretch of the imagination inherently more secure. They are not literally separate physical servers, and a VPS customer’s websites can be affected by malicious scripts from other customers’ installations, just as can occur with shared servers. They are not inherently more stable; in fact, unless they are carefully managed by the customer, they are mostly likely less stable. And a VPS may very well have less resources available than a shared server. If the customer is like me, and under the impression that “shared servers suck” and VPSs are just better, she may be in for a rude awakening.

This, despite the fact that a VPS normally costs many times more per month than a shared server.

This seems to make no sense, but as the HostGator manager explained, a VPS is basically a server which the host company does not consider its responsibility in terms of management. In contrast, though a shared server may have hundreds of customers’ websites hosted on it, the host company is responsible for keeping it up and running, and spends lots of human resources making sure that those concerns are covered.

The “private” part of “Virtual Private Server” is that the customer is responsible for – has the privilege of, if you like – managing the server’s resources himself. If he doesn’t realize this, he’ll have frequent server crashes, as I did.

I had no idea that by making what I naively assumed was a big upgrade to “better hosting”, I was actually losing the crucial server management that I had always enjoyed when using good-quality shared hosting.

Again, according to the manager I spoke with at length at HostGator, the real difference between shared hosting and a VPS is that the host company keeps its hands off of the VPS, and that the customer has root access.

This has been a hard lesson for me. Not only did I spend more than four times more every month on the VPS than I would have on a shared server, but the results were much poorer in terms of stability. I had 3 major server crashes in as many months, in which every one of my client websites was completely down until I became aware of it and rebooted the server myself.

The support person who helped me the first time this happened with my VPS seemed to have an attitude that puzzled me at the time. Though he was polite and helpful, it almost seemed like this somehow wasn’t his problem. How could that be, I wondered? I had a fancy VPS – shouldn’t I be getting even better support, if anything? I realized later that I was supposed to know about rebooting the server, and he was just a little impatient with the fact that I needed help.

When I responded to the “end of discussion” article with some of this information, another commenter responded:

Patty, I totally agree with you. Looking at the system logs, one may be surprised by the large number of attackers who try to break into your VPS server. If you use a VPS, you need to plan for a good system admin to tighten up the security for you. Otherwise, paying for some high end shared hosting may be a better choice.

Another colleague on a web developers forum shared:

I discovered there’s a big catch in VPS server plans. Unless you get a
really high-end plan, the available resources are actually less than with a shared plan and you really have to work at managing them.

Dedicated servers are a very different situation, of course, and we can save that for another conversation.

And I’m definitely not saying that all shared hosting is better than all VPSs, by any means, or even that all shared hosting is decent or adequate. The point is that on most hosts, “upgrading” to a VPS is not what many web developers seem to think it is, and that good quality shared hosting may very well be a much better option for you and your clients.

Probably still not “end of discussion”, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

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