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The Hidden Pitfalls of “Unlimited” Hosting Bandwidth and Storage

Many shared hosting providers offer unlimited bandwidth or unlimited storage.

Considering it costs web 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 and can eat “unlimited” food.

However, the restaurant managers realize that you’re not going to eat all their food. There’s only so much you can fit into your stomach.

So in a sense, there’s an unspoken caveat: yes, you have access to unlimited food – but only until you are full (condition).

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 webmasters 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.

Common restrictions on unlimited storage

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.

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.

The exact file size limit varies by host.

Not allowing you to store website backups

Many shared web hosts don’t allow users to store backups of their website on their server.

In these 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 often costs extra.

Limiting the size of MySQL databases

While the host may advertise “unlimited” file storage, they often limit the size of MySQL databases – usually to between 500MB and 2GB.

Common restrictions on unlimited bandwidth

There are many system resources that limit the number of visitors your website can serve, and bandwidth is only one of them.

As such, “unlimited bandwidth” doesn’t translate to “unlimited traffic.”

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.

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.

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.

Number of PHP workers

PHP workers are responsible for serving non-static content.

Non-static content is any content that requires processing on your server before your user can view it. This includes charts, retrieving data from databases, the output of many WordPress plugins, and much more.

The more non-static content your website has, the more PHP workers are required to properly load the website to your users.

Hosting plans with unlimited bandwidth usually come with very low PHP worker limits.

If all your PHP workers are busy, any incoming requests to load your website are put “on hold” in a queue. This significantly increases the time it takes your website to load, which causes users to abandon your website.

This is especially noticeable if you run a website that is often browsed by multiple users simultaneously.

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 data transfer with their hosting plan, how can they tell if this will be enough for their needs? They can’t.

However, if you tell them that they will get unlimited bandwidth, it’s much easier for them to make a buying decision.

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 should receive a warning email when your website’s total file count reaches 80,000 – 90,000.

If you end up going over your limit, traffic to your website will likely be throttled until you resolve the issue or upgrade your hosting plan.

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:

  • Image-sharing websites and 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 videos on your server, “unlimited” resources are not for you. This doesn’t 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
  • 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.

7. So… should I buy hosting with “unlimited” bandwidth and storage?

Despite all of the above, the answer to this question is, in most cases, 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.

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