• A pig at the buffet: how unlimited hosting plans really work

    Wondering what you can really expect when you sign on to get one of those unlimited hosting plans? I am a mass consumer of hosting accounts and have been dealing for years with companies that claim to have unlimited hosting plans. The idea of unlimited hosting is seductive. Like professional wrestling, lotteries, and Las Vegas, it attracts customers who secretly know these companies won’t get deliver what’s advertised, yet who convince themselves on another level that they will be the exceptions to an ironclad rule.

    Unlimited means unmetered

    If you are shopping around for a client, it is essential that you both have realistic expectations of your hosting provider. Because if your client decides to host an adult or other high traffic site using an “unlimited” plan he will be sorely disappointed when that unlimited bandwidth suddenly gets limited as the latest Paris Hilton sex tape goes viral. (Maybe that’s an unfortunate choice of words…) The best way to put it to your client and to yourself is that the “unlimited” in “unlimited hosting plan” should be replaced by the word “unmetered”. Unmetered has come to mean that the hosting company doesn’t limit you to a particular number. Believe me, though, they can come up with one at any time.

    And it only makes sense. I used to be offended by the use of the word “unlimited” when logic dictated that there is of course a limit. We know every rack server at the hosting company has some limited number of hard disks. We know that in the best case scenario, if for example I actually started gobbling up disk space wholesale because I decided to set up an online backup service, that my website’s rack would run out of hard disk at some point. We know that if the Paris Hilton video happened to contain a scene with Paris snogging Beyonce while whistling “Dixie” and proving the four-color map theorem, that throughput would quickly get to the point where it would choke the host’s OC-48 pipes, again making a mockery of the whole “unlimited” thing. So where’s the happy medium? What should we expect realistically?

    Ejecting the pig

    The best webmaster I know nailed it one day when I got my knickers in a twist over the dread “unlimited” claim and began to slander a web hosting service offering unlimited everything. He asked this rhetorical question: what do you do with a pig at the buffet? If a determined customer waddles into an all–you–can–eat salad bar and decides to stay from lunch until closing time after long after dinner, should the salad bar be expected to put up with him?

    Or apply the Golden Rule: if I started a hosting company and offered unlimited (really, unmetered) hosting plans, how would I feel if Geraldo found where Jimmy Hoffa’s body was buried and decided to reveal its location in a web exclusive using my $15/month “unlimited” plan? Likewise, since all these “unlimited” plans are on some form of shared hosting plan (in which multiple customers use the same physical machine), what if you were just trying to get by hosting the local chamber of commerce site and Geraldo moved in next door with his Hoffa exclusive? More realistically, if you write a bunch of inefficient SQL queries in a database app, understand that the hosting provider may start viewing your site as a bottleneck and act accordingly. If you set up a high traffic site that’s mostly static HTML pages, you’ll probably be fine. If you end up hosting multiple Joomla sites for the anime world, understand that running a dozen copies of Joomla in RAM can kill a server dead. On the other hand you could probably run 100 small sites using WordPress to create online brochures for local firms and not run afoul of the admins.

    Manage your expectations. More important, manage your clients’ expectations. If you plan to be a pig at the buffet, expect the manager to escort you out at some point.

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