Cloud hosting offers the resource flexibility and power that you won't find with standard, single-server hosting. Here's everything you need to know to pick the right cloud server for your website, along with our top, tested picks.
There are many traditional web hosting types for building your website, including shared, dedicated, WordPress hosting, and virtual private servers (VPS). However, there’s another hosting option that distributes your site across multiple servers and provides a flexible way to power your website: cloud hosting.
Traditional hosting sees your website leverage the power of one particular server’s CPU, RAM, storage, and data transfers. For example, shared web hosting has your website literally share resources with other sites that are also hosted exclusively on one server. The result is many annoying limitations in terms of power, and the inability to handle sharp traffic surges. For better service, you can pay for a virtual private server, or even a dedicated server of varying power. In all these cases, you’re basically relying on one server, and that’s it. However, cloud hosting kicks that single-server hosting model to the curb. With cloud hosting, your website draws resources from multiple servers.
Cloud hosting’s use of multiple servers gives it certain advantages over traditional hosting. For example, if your website experiences a sudden traffic spike, it can pull resources from another server to prevent slow page loads or, worse, the site going down. In addition, cloud hosting makes it incredibly simple for your website to scale resources up or down, as needed. With traditional hosting, you may need to move to a different hosting type (say, from shared to VPS) in order to obtain the power that your website needs.
Note that there are different types of cloud hosting. Traditional web hosts, such as DreamHost and HostGator, offer cloud hosting packages that are priced similarly as their other web hosting packages (typically in the shared or VPS categories). These small business-friendly cloud hosting solutions are what we’re primarily focused on in this roundup.
Enterprise-level, infrastructure-as-a-service cloud hosting from the likes of Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Rackspace are also available. Though these are technically cloud hosting services, they are not what’s highlighted here. For more on that flavor of expansive (and potentially more expensive!) cloud hosting, please visit our story about the best infrastructure-as-a-service solutions.
The chart above focuses on the web hosts that feature the best cloud hosting plans of all the services we’ve reviewed. Note that we are still in the process of examining cloud hosting offerings as this is a new category—we’re definitely going to be testing more services in the coming months. Still, with the reviews we’ve done so far and lots of research, we’ve discovered what you should look for in a cloud hosting service.
Many cloud web hosts offer unlimited monthly data transfers, so other factors may help you decide which service is best for your business. That said, if you’re interested in “unlimited” anything, no matter if it’s data or storage, be sure to read the tiny print to make sure that there aren’t any surprises. In other words, make sure your definition of unlimited matches the hosting service’s definition. They can be two very different things.
Speaking of storage, we’ve discovered that cloud hosts typically offer hard drives or solid-state drives that range between 100GB and 200GB in size. That said, you’ll occasionally discover a web host that boasts unlimited storage. (Again, the usual caveats apply with regards to “unlimited” anything.) Solid-state drives are typically faster than their hard-drive-based counterparts, but are typically smaller in terms of storage capacity. If you’re looking for sheer volume, a traditional hard drive is the way to go.
When it comes to server operating systems, Linux is typically the default option. Still, some services offer Windows hosting, too. If you have specific server-side applications that require Windows, such as SQL Server or a custom application written in .NET, then you need to make sure your web host has Windows hosting. Our Linux vs. Windows Server explainer has everything you need to know about these operating systems.
You’ll also want a web host with responsive 24/7 customer support. Forums, knowledge bases, and tutorials are useful tools, but there’s nothing like getting another human being on the horn (or at least in a web chat) when problems arise.
Security is of utmost importance, too. If your goal is to get into the e-commerce game by selling products or services, you need to look into Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS). Those technologies encrypt the data that travels between a customer’s computer and your company’s servers to safeguard the information from people with ill intentions.
In each of our reviews, we devote an entire section to uptime, it’s so important. Simply put, if your site is down, clients or customers will be unable to find your business or access your products or services. They may find what they’re looking for elsewhere, and never return. At the very least, customers will be annoyed, and it won’t help their image of your business. Neither is a good outcome.
Three years ago, we added formal uptime monitoring to our review process, and the results show that most web hosts do an excellent job of keeping their sites up and running. If they don’t, they suffer for it in our rankings. Even if they get everything else right, sites with uptime problems aren’t eligible for top scores. All services suffer ups and downs, sometimes for reasons beyond their control. Those sites that fail to address the problem are penalized accordingly.
If you’re ready to find a great web hosting service, click the links below to read our in-depth reviews of the biggest and best names in the space. If you’re just getting started with web hosting, make sure to check out our primer, How to Create a Website, and How to Register a Domain Name.
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Since 2004, Jeffrey L. Wilson has penned gadget- and video game-related nerd-copy for a variety of publications, including the late, great 1UP; Laptop; Parenting; Sync; Wise Bread; and WWE. He now showcases his knowledge and skillset as the Managing Editor of PCMag’s Apps & Gaming team.
When he isn’t crunching copy or facedown in a spreadsheet, Jeff spins vinyl, plays the odd PC game, enjoys a craft brew or a shot of Mr. Black, fires up his Kindle, works the heavy bag, hops on his exercise bike, or dusts off an extremely dusty electric bass guitar.
In the past, Jeff’s appeared on a New York Comic Con panel (Geeks of Color Assemble!: Minorities in Fandom), created his own indie comic (Spin Cycle, Inc.), and put together a PAX East panel (Fragging Gamer Stereotypes). These days, Jeff’s working on a sci-fi novel.
For more than a decade, Mike Williams has covered video games, both on the industry and consumer sides. He got his start covering the business dealing of the video game industry at Gamesindustry.biz, before moving to USgamer, where he covered a host of games and game consoles as Reviews Editor. Now he comes to PCMag as an Analyst, bringing those game reviewing skills to bear. When he’s not reviewing games, Mike dives into all forms of entertainment, including comics, movies, television, anime, and the absolute wildness that is Japanese tokusatsu.
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