Websites come in many sizes and forms, but every website needs to be hosted on a web server.
A web server is a computer that stores and delivers website files, and web hosting is the service of providing server space to store these website files. When users access your website, their browser submits a request to your web server for these files, and the server sends them back what they requested. Simple.
Except, not quite that simple. New website owners in search of hosting will quickly discover that not only are there thousands of hosting providers to pick from, but each provider offers several plans with prices and features across the board.
One option you’ll see often on pricing pages is VPS hosting. This type of hosting is an excellent choice for many online businesses — if you’re just starting out, it might be the best way to get your site up and running.
In this guide, you’ll learn the basics of VPS hosting: What it is, how it compares to alternative hosting options, and the different types of managed hosting you can purchase for your website.
What is VPS hosting?
VPS stands for “Virtual Private Server.” In VPS hosting, a hosting provider divides one physical server into multiple “virtual” servers, each of which can be used by an organization to house its website or websites.
To achieve this, a web hosting provider uses special software called a hypervisor to layer several virtual machines (VMs) over a physical server’s operating system (OS). You might have heard of VMs being used to run software meant for one OS, like Windows, on another OS, like macOS. The VM creates a virtual environment that simulates a different OS, allowing the software to work in this environment.
With a VPS, the concept is similar — a hypervisor installs VMs on the server hardware, segmenting the server into isolated, virtual server environments. The result is that each virtual private server functions and acts like an independent machine, even though multiple of these “servers” exist on one piece of hardware.
With their own virtual server, a website administrator can customize their operating system and server configuration in a way that best suits their website’s needs. No one without credentials can access your virtual server or use its resources, hence the “private” in “virtual private server.”
Why choose VPS hosting?
To determine whether VPS might be your ideal web hosting option, you also need to understand its sibling hosting services, shared hosting and dedicated hosting — VPS hosting can be seen as a compromise between these two alternatives in terms of quality, flexibility, and cost. Let’s start with shared hosting.
VPS Hosting vs. Shared Hosting
With shared web hosting, multiple websites share the same web server and all of its resources, including storage space and processing power. It’s also the cheapest web hosting option, with many providers charging just a few dollars a month for a shared plan.
Shared hosting is like VPS hosting in that it involves storing multiple websites on the same physical server. However, unlike shared hosting, VPS hosting virtually isolates each website on its own simulated server with its own IP address, which provides several benefits over shared plans:
Speed and Resources
Perhaps the most pronounced difference between VPS hosting and shared hosting is resource allocation. In a shared plan, all websites on a server share the processing power of that server. This means that if any single website on the server experiences high traffic, this affects the performance of every other site on the server. Since shared servers may house dozens or even hundreds of websites, this puts your website at risk for poor performance which damages your site’s reputation.
On the other hand, VPS hosting ensures a certain level of computing power for every website at almost all times. This means that VPS websites aren’t affected by traffic levels on other sites, and they tend to load faster as a result. Plus, if you ever need more storage space or bandwidth, many providers allow you to easily increase your limits.
Flexibility and Customization
Another benefit of VPS over shared hosting is greater flexibility and customization. Since VPS gives you your own private server space, you can change your OS, install (almost) any software you need, and access server files that you or your IT team can configure. For example, if you want to switch your database management software or server-side language, a virtual private server lets you do this.
Finally, but importantly, VPS-hosted websites see security improvements over websites on shared servers. If a breach occurs on your shared server, your website files are at risk of being stolen, read, or modified. On an isolated VPS, your files are protected from attacks on your same physical server. This is also true for DDoS attacks, which attempt to crash a server by flooding it with traffic. A DDoS attack on another VPS is much less likely to affect the performance of your VPS. Finally, since admins have more leniency with their server software, they have the freedom to install tools that further protect their websites.
The only major benefit to shared hosting over VPS hosting is cost, which is why many websites start on shared hosting plans and graduate to VPS hosting as they scale — the increased traffic and need for additional security justifies the price increase.
In addition, websites that transact and store private data usually don’t go lower than VPS for the security benefits. If you’re launching an ecommerce site, for example, strongly consider starting with VPS over shared hosting to achieve PCI compliance for your online payments.
Dedicated hosting sits on the other side of VPS hosting. On a dedicated hosting plan, you’re given an entire physical server to yourself, which allows for an even greater degree of customization, performance, and security.
Dedicated hosting is typically better than VPS hosting for websites that bring in many visitors and have highly-specific needs. System admins can implement hardware customizations to suit their specific needs and take advantage of higher resource limits. High-trafficked web applications and online stores usually run on dedicated servers.
As you can probably guess, however, dedicated hosting is the most expensive option of the three we’ve discussed. This means that smaller websites that still want the benefits of an isolated server are more likely to compromise with a VPS.
To sum up, VPS hosting is best for small to medium-sized websites that want flexibility, security, and performance comparable to a dedicated server, but for a fraction of the cost. Most websites start on shared hosting and upgrade to VPS hosting, or start with VPS hosting if they need higher-quality hosting out of the gate. At some point, an organization using VPS can move up to a dedicated plan for the most control over its hosting.
Managed VPS Hosting vs. Unmanaged VPS Hosting
If you’ve decided to go with VPS hosting, you’re not finished just yet. Generally speaking, there are two subcategories of VPS you’ll need to choose between: unmanaged VPS hosting and managed VPS hosting.
Unmanaged VPS Hosting
Unmanaged VPS hosting grants you the most flexibility from your hosting provider. With this option, you’re in charge of managing many administrative aspects of your virtual server. These include setting up your server environment and installing necessary software (like a control panel, database software, and security software), updating your server software on a regular basis, securing your server from threats, and fixing issues specific to your virtual private server.
Unmanaged VPS hosting should only be used by those with sufficient technical background to conduct regular maintenance, or those with an IT team to manage the server for them. In exchange, you’ll have more control over what you can install on your server and pay much less per month than the managed alternative.
Managed VPS Hosting
Website owners without the technical knowledge or IT team to run a virtual server by themselves should opt for managed VPS hosting. Managed VPS plans take care of core server management for you. Your provider will set up your site with the tools you need, handle security issues and software updates, and monitor your site traffic for suspicious activity. You’ll also get technical support from your hosting provider, which can be invaluable if you encounter a performance problem that needs to be addressed quickly.
Managed plans will cost significantly more than unmanaged plans, but the extra expense goes into server maintenance that must be done to keep your site functional and high-performing. If you lack the experience to do it yourself, you’ll have to either hire someone who does or go the managed route.
A Virtual Server That Serves You
It get it — the costs of building and running a website add up quickly, and it can be a challenge to work within a budget. But if you’re going to cut corners, web hosting is not the place to do it. Your host is the backbone of your entire website, affecting everything from how quickly your pages load to how well you stand up to security threats.
For many website owners, VPS hosting is a comfortable medium between quality and cost that they need. You get everything you expect from a quality hosting provider without paying for a dedicated piece of hardware. And, if you ever need to upgrade, most providers give you the option to step up to dedicated hosting without much friction.
Originally published Feb 23, 2021 7:00:00 AM, updated June 22 2022