What’s the difference between cloud hosting and shared hosting?

We’re used to seeing the word ‘cloud’ stuck in front of basically every technological term out there. And while tech-savvy individuals have a decent grasp of what ‘the cloud’ is, the same can’t be said for all its potential applications.

Cloud hosting, for example, is not simply shared hosting with a cloud badge stuck on the front of it. Cloud hosting is in a league of its own when compared to more traditional forms of shared hosting, and offers many unique advantages that qualify its existence. This article will explore these differences.

So, what is cloud hosting?

At its most basic level, the critical differentiator of cloud hosting is the cloud. No prizes for that part. Just like cloud computing, cloud hosting gets its name because it draws computing power from “the cloud,” i.e. a pool of dynamically allocated resources across a large network of physical components, instead of a fixed set of hardware.

Cloud hosting is, in theory, infinitely scalable because it allows an unlimited number of machines to effectively act as one system. By leveraging virtualisation, multiple physical servers are pooled together and presented to the website or application as one machine. 

The benefits of cloud hosting mirror many of the benefits of other cloud computing services, such as improved reliability and redundancy, higher performance, and on-demand scalability. All of these are particularly well suited to websites, where a major new product launch or the unexpected success of a viral video can send flocks of new customers to a website in a matter of minutes. Where regular hosting might break under the jump in workload (dependent on how much resource is permanently allocated to the site of course), with cloud hosting, the website’s resources can automatically scale up to meet the demand. This means that your website is always ready for the unexpected.

The pooling of resources also lends itself well to the website’s redundancy. With your website hosted over multiple servers instead of just one, the failure of one server will not mean the failure of your site. Any slack left by a downed server is automatically picked up by the other servers in the cloud. If those servers are struggling then additional servers are automatically brought online to accommodate. Ultimately, cloud hosting is designed to deliver the guaranteed service level that your website needs.

And shared hosting?

Shared hosting on the other hand is a web hosting solution where each customer receives a portion of the same physical server hardware to run their website or application. Shared hosting is often the most economical way to get a project online, because the service provider houses multiple customers on a single web server, resulting in lower costs overall.

While shared hosting can be perfect as a cost-effective platform for less demanding projects, it certainly has its limits. With several customers sharing one set of physical hardware, individual users can’t rely on a guaranteed level of server performance.

This might not be an issue for sites and applications with minimal requirements or low visitor numbers, but when it comes to running intensive, business-critical processes, many users find that shared hosting isn’t up to snuff.

A contentious issue

The reason shared hosting isn’t suitable for intensive applications? In a word: contention. The full power of the hardware will always be pulled in several directions at once, with different websites and applications in constant competition for processing power.

Imagine one customer on a shared platform gets a sudden spike in traffic. Luckily, other websites on the same server are quiet, so some resources can be allocated to cope with the extra visitors. But what happens when several websites are popular at once?

The server only has a finite amount of resources to parcel out, so intensive applications will regularly struggle to get what they need. The end result is inconsistent performance, slow loading times and a shoddy experience for the end-user. If your website is a major source of leads or sales, this presents a serious shortcoming.

Even with high contention, shared hosting can still use sophisticated technology to provide decent performance, at least for sites with low or medium requirements. But the fact remains: demanding sites will never get predictable, consistently high performance on anything other than a dedicated platform.

Cloud hosting = dedicated (virtual) servers

One major misconception about cloud hosting is that it doesn’t offer any significant performance boost when compared to a normal shared hosting solution. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

With cloud hosting, every single resource you configure is dedicated to you alone. Processors, RAM and SSD storage provide guaranteed performance on cloud hosting, exactly the same way they do on complete servers. In practice this means your WordPress blog or Drupal site can run with the same high level of performance you’d get from a dedicated server. Expecting higher visitor numbers? It’s a simple case of configuring increased server resources.

Like a shared platform, everything can also be managed from one central control panel, but with the flexibility to manage files via SFTP, install and update applications (e.g. WordPress), manage databases and DNS, and manipulate source code. Cloud hosting can be administered in just the same way as a physical, shared platform because the website and applications view it as such. Virtualisation tricks the website into thinking it is still hosted on one piece of hardware – with the processors, RAM etc. that have been allocated to it. The fact that these resources are actually split among four different servers in two different datacentres doesn’t matter.

But of course, as mentioned before, the biggest difference is that unlike shared hosting, cloud hosting offers fully dedicated resources that can be scaled on demand for guaranteed performance. A kind of ‘dedicated hosting’ option for users who want the increased power of their own server, but don’t want to deal with server management.

Make your mind up time

For those organisations where the reliability and scalability of their websites are critical, cloud hosting has become the de facto standard. If your primary sales channel is your website, then cloud hosting is a no brainer. On the other hand, for those organisations where website traffic is relatively low and predictable, and selling online is not so important, then the greater affordability of shared hosting may be all that is required. Now all you have to do is decide where you sit…

Neal Thoms is a content editor at Fasthosts
Image Credit: TZIDO SUN / Shutterstock