With WordPress now powering over 31,3% of the web, its days of being regarded as a niche blogging solution are well and truly over.
But while the platform itself has made quantum leaps in reliability, usability and power on both the back and front end over the years, the question of hosting has remained a potentially confusing one for site owners not blessed with a background in system administration. The last five years have a seen an emergent wave of hosting providers offering managed solutions targeted specifically at WordPress, each one promising to lift the hosting burden from already over-taxed site owners.
In this post we’ll explore why managed hosting could be a good fit for your business and run the rule over five of the leading providers.
Please note: We do recommend BlueHost and WPEngine and receive a small commission from both of them if you signup from our page. However our recommendation is purely based off their high level of service and included features.
Before we get going though, let’s briefly recap the standard set of hosting options site owners are usually presented with.
A Brief Overview of Standard Hosting Options
WordPress site owners have traditionally been faced with three basic options in terms of managing their own hosting. We’ll look at them in ascending order of complexity.
1. Shared Hosting
Shared hosting is often the first port of call for those new to the hosting game. With offers as low as $2.99 per month, it’s a tempting option if you’re on a strict budget.
As with anything else in life however, you get what you pay for. By its nature, shared hosting means that your site will be sharing server resources with hundreds – if not thousands – of other sites. Furthermore, you will be severely limited in terms of the level of server optimization possible.
VPS stands for Virtual Private Server, a virtualized slice of a larger machine that you can treat as your own server. This option is typically the next step up, once your site has outgrown the limitations of shared hosting.
On a VPS setup you will generally be free to install your own operating system and software on the virtual machine and tweak its settings to your specific requirements.
The potential gains in terms of power and configurability are offset by the degree of technical expertise you’ll have to bring to the table in terms of general IT and system administration knowledge.
3. Dedicated Server
If your site is heading into truly high-traffic territory, you may be tempted to rent or buy your own dedicated machine or network of machines. This will give you access to bare-metal servers that are entirely under your own control.
If you have dedicated system administration resources available, this gives you the maximum amount of power and flexibility at potentially the lowest cost.
Why You Don’t Want to Manage Your Own Hosting
Just as there are many excellent reasons for using WordPress as a base for your site rather than building your own CMS, there are a number of solid reasons for having somebody besides yourself managing your site hosting. Let’s take a quick trip through the more obvious ones.
A constant question facing business owners – particularly in the startup phase – is where their time is most valuably spent. Is it really worth your while taking two days to configure an email server, for example, when you or your colleagues could be out closing leads?
Depending on your skill set, experience and available resources, even the simplest of hosting setups can chew up a considerable amount of time in terms of management.
The minute you move beyond shared hosting, you will need to start spending potentially significant money on hosting. This could be in the form of the hosting itself, the type of paid expertise you’ll need to manage it, or both.
The majority of the services we mention below start at around the $25 per month mark for basic packages. This is slightly over the median hourly rate of a full-time system administrator (though low compared to freelance rates).
If you think setting up and administering your WordPress server will take more than one hour a month, managed hosting is probably well worth your while exploring as an option.
Following on from the previous point, if you’re responsible for managing your own hosting, you are going to have to hire someone somewhere down the line.
This could be a freelancer or somebody in-house but, in both scenarios, you are looking at sourcing a skilled professional in a business-critical field in which you are likely not an expert yourself. This, to put it mildly, can be a fraught experience.
Unless you are already an expert system administrator, managing your own hosting is going to require substantially increasing your current level of general IT knowledge and skill.
This applies regardless of whether you are looking to take the task on yourself, or whether you are looking to hire it out. You may simply not have this time to spare.
Distraction / Opportunity Cost
The final point is really a combination of all the previous ones. When hosting goes wrong – and at some stage it inevitably will, no matter how short the outage is – it can quickly devolve into a fractal mess that dominates much of your productive time and energy.
Put simply, if you’re managing your own hosting, every problem is your problem – and potentially a critical one. By using managed hosting you take advantage of the fact that many of the issues that arise as a site develops – particularly relating to scaling – are essentially solved problems that the companies below have already invested considerable time and resources in being set up to seamlessly manage.
In summary, if you’re in a position to adequately address general system administration, backups, scaling and security in-house then, by all means, go for it. Otherwise – and particularly if you are planning a relatively conventional site that you don’t expect to crack the Alexa Top 500 anytime soon – seriously consider giving managed hosting a try.
Let’s move on now to a quick trip through five of the leading contenders in the market.
Founded in 2010 by Jason Cohen specifically to address the needs of the nascent WordPress-only hosting market, WP Engine has quickly grown to be one of the leading providers in the space with 220+ employees and over 20,000 customers.
They’ve attracted significant venture capital backing and host services for a number of high-traffic, high-profile sites such as ThemeFusion, Motley Fool, SoundCloud and WPMU DEV.
WP Engine’s plans are tiered in such a way as to graduate you through a series of scenarios, from a small personal site up to a top of the range clustered solution suitable for large Enterprise clients.
Basic pricing is based more or less on traffic across the three initial tiers, while the higher-end options differentiate themselves primarily on the number of WordPress installs supported.
With a product offering at consistently higher price points than some of the options below, WP Engine stake their claims very much on the reliability and security of their server setup and their commitment to in-house innovation.
WP Engine also provide a number of educational resources such as a complementary eBook that outlines the benefits of their managed services to help guide your decision.
Their CEO’s recent speech about the WordPress hosting landscape and its attendant myths is also an interesting overview.
If your WordPress site is already up and running and profitable, but you are experiencing constant problems with your current hosting provider and looking to migrate, WP Engine is worth serious investigation.
BlueHost will be familiar to many WordPress users as one of the only three hosting companies officially endorsed by WordPress.
Their managed WordPress hosting package is a recent attempt to offer their users a more finely-tuned approach to the platform than that of their standard shared hosting packages.
Packages are differentiated primarily on the number of active sites that can be managed via the built-in ManageWP plugin.
All packages boast automatic backups, an optimized Nginx/PHP-FPM architecture and integrated ManageWP and W3 Total Cache plugins. The familiar cPanel backend will also be simple to use for those coming from a shared hosting background.
Users looking to upgrade from a shared hosting environment will be well served by both the familiarity of the back-end and Bluehost’s experience with hosting over one million WordPress installs to date.
Pantheon has its roots in the Drupal world but, since early 2014, has expanded its support to include WordPress.
Pantheon’s packages are split out along four tiers, differentiated by monthly pageviews.
Pantheon has performed strongly in comparative speed tests and won praise from prominent members of the WordPress core team for the developer-friendly nature of its setup.
Pantheon is a strong contender for those with a development background looking to offload some of the heavy lifting of server administration.
It would be remiss of us not to give the company that started it all a mention.
WordPress.com from Automattic has been offering managed hosting since 2005 and currently serves more than 15.5 billion pages each month.
Entry levels come in three basic flavors with the next step up being the significantly more expensive WordPress VIP options.
Though severely stripped down in terms of the amount of customization options on offer, you’ll benefit from a rock-solid set of core features, blazing fast load times and automatic upgrades.
If you’re looking purely to blog and want minimal involvement with the back end and plugin or theme customization, it is hard to beat the affordability, power and simplicity of this option.
We hope we have helped steer you in the direction of the right managed hosting provider for your needs.
Every site is different, so some of the options above will be substantially better for certain use cases than others. Also, expect this space to get pretty crowded over the next few years as WordPress continues to gain market share as a platform.
If there’s a particular provider you’ve had experience with that you’d like to share, or if there’s a particular part of the hosting conundrum you’re looking for help with, feel free to get in touch in the comments below.
We’d love to hear from you!