The Hidden Pitfalls of “Unlimited” Hosting Bandwidth and Storage
The majority of shared hosting providers offer unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage. Considering it costs hosts piles of money to run their servers, pay electricity bills and IT personnel salaries, can we expect them to offer unlimited server resources?
1. The True meaning of “Unlimited” resources
Consider an all-you-can-eat buffet – you pay $30 at a restaurant and get access to “unlimited” food.
However, the restaurant managers realize that you’re not really going to eat all their food. There’s a limit to how much the average human can fit into their stomach. In a sense, there’s a caveat: yes, you have access to unlimited food – but only until you are full.
The same goes for unlimited bandwidth and storage: you have access to unlimited resources – but only as long as you meet certain conditions.
Unfortunately, many users are unaware of these conditions, as shared hosting providers tend to bury them deep inside their Terms of Service or Fair Use policy.
Let’s take a quick look at the most common restrictions you will run into with these types of hosts.
2 Common restrictions on unlimited storage
2.1 Limiting the number of files you can host
Hosting companies that advertise unlimited storage capacity often limit the number of files you can host – this is called an Inode limit.
Usually, the more expensive your hosting plan, the higher the Inode limit.
Most hosting plans allow you to host somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 files.
If you are just starting out, check out my guide on how many Inodes a new website may need.
2.2 Limiting the type of files you can host
Hosts with “unlimited” storage typically don’t allow you to store large files. This includes videos and backups of your own personal files.
2.3 Not allowing you to store website backups
Many shared hosts do not allow users to store backups of their website on their server.
In such cases, the only way to manage backups is to either store them on an external server or to use the hosting company’s backup service, which is often paid.
2.4 Limiting the size of MySQL databases
While the host may advertise “unlimited” file storage, there is often a limit to how large your website’s database can get – usually between 500MB and 2GB.
3. Common restrictions on unlimited bandwidth
3.1 Imposing a soft limit on the number of visitors your website can serve
The more users visit your website, the more your server’s resources are strained and the more likely your website is to malfunction or load very slowly as a result of this strain.
With most shared hosts that advertise “unlimited” bandwidth, I find that 500 to 2,000 daily visitors is the maximum that their servers can handle before website performance begins to deteriorate significantly – assuming you are running a typical blog. (This limit will vary significantly by website type.)
So if you decide to take them up on their “unlimited bandwidth” offer, you’ll have to deal with significant website performance degradation.
3.2 Limiting the type of website you can host
Certain types of websites consume significantly more bandwidth than other types. These include:
- Image sharing websites
- Video sharing websites
- Script-heavy websites
Running these types of websites is almost always explicitly prohibited in the Terms of Service of hosting providers with unlimited data transfer.
3.3 Limiting server-to-server file transfers
For example, if you use a WordPress plugin to take a backup of your website and then automatically upload that backup to a different server for safekeeping – that’s a server-to-server transfer.
A lot of bandwidth is consumed in these cases. As a result, “unlimited” bandwidth hosts usually prohibit this activity.
3.4 Limiting the number of concurrent database connections
When a user visits your website, their browser connects to your database to retrieve information about your site. While they are retrieving the information (usually a fraction of a second), they are using up a single database connection.
The more users simultaneously browse and refresh your website, the more likely you are to encounter a database connection limit.
4. Why do hosting companies use the word “Unlimited,” then?
Because it sells.
Most people looking to buy shared hosting are beginner webmasters with little website management experience.
If you tell someone inexperienced that they will get 100 GB of monthly bandwidth with their hosting plan, how can they tell if this will be enough for their needs? They can’t – they have no point of reference.
However, if you tell them that they will get unlimited bandwidth, it’s much easier for them to make a buying decision.
5. What happens if you approach or exceed any of the limits above?
Usually, you’ll receive a warning email from your host well before you exceed your limit.
For example, if your hosting package comes with a 100,000 Inode limit, you can expect an email when your website’s total file count reaches 80,000. The email will inform you that you are approaching the 100k limit.
If you end up exceeding your limit, traffic to your website will likely be throttled – until you resolve the issue or upgrade your hosting plan to one with more resources.
6. ًWho should avoid hosting plans with unlimited resources?
Broadly speaking, if you plan on running any of the following types of websites, you are likely to consistently run into trouble if you choose to host with a company that offers “unlimited” resources:
- Websites that are heavy on images – this includes image sharing websites or even blogs with lots of high-definition photos (photography and culinary blogs come to mind)
- Websites with self-hosted videos – if you need to host your own videos and show them to visitors directly from your server, “unlimited” resources are not for you. This does not include embedding videos from YouTube or Vimeo – these are mostly fine.
- Websites that execute large scripts – scientific tools, modeling, advanced calculations – all are out of the question
- Websites with downloadable products – if you expect your visitors to frequently download large files from your server (a large PDF e-book, downloadable software), you may run into bandwidth throttling issues.
- High-traffic websites – any website that regularly receives more than 1,000 – 2,000 visitors a day should probably not be hosted on a server with “unlimited” bandwidth – unless you don’t mind that many of your visitors will have trouble navigating your website due to server resource overload.
7. So… should I buy hosting with “unlimited” bandwidth and storage?
Despite all of the above, the answer to this question is, for many webmasters, a resounding yes.
The thing is, beginner webmasters run low-traffic websites. Low-traffic sites are very unlikely to use up enough server resources to put you at risk of running into one of the multiple “hidden” restrictions that hosts impose on unlimited bandwidth and storage.
In fact, if you are launching your first website, you’ll probably be OK with unlimited resources for at least one or two years – and that’s assuming you actively work on growing your site’s traffic.
So if you are just starting out, “unlimited” hosting is the quickest and cheapest way of getting your feet wet.
Still, this doesn’t mean that all hosts that advertise unlimited resources are created equal – some of them come with far more stringent restrictions and limitations than others. Take a look at my best budget hosting rankings for my top recommendations.