Unlimited Hosting Accounts – One Big Gotcha

When you are looking for a new hosting account, it can be extremely tempting to look at some of the very inexpensive packages that claim to be “unlimited.” For the most part, they are telling the truth. While some hosts still arbitrarily restrict the amount of bandwidth or server space you utilize, others have moved on to limiting other resources that are not even mentioned when viewing the “details” of their hosting plans. In those cases, as long as you are not taxing the server resources (memory, CPU, etc.) terribly, you can use up as much space and bandwidth as you want.

However, the one big gotcha you have to watch out for is the “inode” limit. Of the four popular hosts I examined (three of which are offering “unlimited” plans), none of them mentioned any limits (other than the bandwidth and space limits mentioned on Penguin Hosting’s page) on their “details” pages. From the “details” pages, all of them appear to be offering something too good to be true. In fact, they are; but you have to examine their terms of service in order to find out what the limits really are.

Penguin Hosting

Reading the terms of service for Penguin Web Hosting still does not offer a lot more information. From what I can tell, the limits they impose are completely arbitrary and very difficult to predict. Following is the pertinent excerpt from their terms of service (typos and all):

Excessive Resource User Policy: Resources are defined as processor and ram utilization. A website is considered to be using “Excessive amounts of resources” when it monopolizes the resources available. There are numerous activities that could cause such problems; these include: CGI scripts, PHP, FTP, HTTP, abnormal amounts of incoming or our going emails, etc. This policy is only implemented in extreme circumstances and is intended to prevent the misuse and overloading of our servers. We reserve the rights to suspend or terminate any hosting account that we feel is jeopardizing our network. PenguinWebHosting will be the sole and final arbiter as to what constitutes a violation of this policy. Databases cannont exceed 30% of your total disk space.

Basically, it appears that, other than the database restriction mentioned in the last sentence, there are no hard limits. If the company decides you are utilizing too many CPUs or too much RAM, they can shut you down. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I would hope that they are telling the truth when they say “This policy is only implemented in extreme circumstances…” Still, though, it’s something you should watch out for if you decide to run with them. At least, however, they do offer some hard limits on the amount of space and bandwidth you can use.

I have never been a customer of Penguin Hosting, but I have interacted a good bit with their sales support staff. They are very personable and very responsive. I cannot speak to the quality of the service, but if their tech support is even half as responsive as their sales staff, they are most likely a good host to work with.

iPower

iPower also fails to set any hard limits within their terms of service. They do offer “unlimited” plans, but still keep language in their terms of service that says they can suspend your account if they decide you’re using more than you should. Who decides whether or not you’re using more than you should? iPower, of course. You get no say in the matter. Here is a pertinent excerpt from their terms of service (TOS); though all of section 13 of the TOS is worth a read.

In some cases, IPOWER may not establish a specific amount of Bandwidth and/or Disk Usage, and refer to that as “Unlimited” disk space or bandwidth. In all cases, the Services are intended for normal use only, and any activity that results in excessive usage that is inconsistent with normal usage patterns is strictly prohibited. IPOWER reserves the right to suspend, discontinue or delete the accounts of Users whose disk space or bandwidth utilization results in or presents the risk of degradation of service to other customers, regardless of the amount of disk space or bandwidth included in the User’s plan.

This is the scariest kind of “limit” that a host can impose. It is 100% arbitrary and rests completely on the shoulders of the company. This is also the “old” way of offering “unlimited” plans. Be extremely wary of using any host that says you can have “unlimited” server space and bandwidth usage, but then tells you in their TOS that they can set any limit they want.

Having been a former client of iPower, I can tell you that the resource usage, however, is the least of your concerns. In my case, at least, the server had a great deal of downtime, was very slow and the support staff was extremely unresponsive.

Side Tangent

I’m honestly surprised that that sort of blatantly false advertising is not illegal. It sounds to me similar to going into an “all-you-can-eat” restaurant, and having to sign a piece of paper that says they can kick you out of the restaurant at any point in time if they decide you’ve eaten too much. What’s worse, any place that would do that type of thing would most likely also tell you to leave after eating only two or three plates of food.

I ate at an “all-you-can-eat” restaurant on Saturday evening. When I walked in the door, I noticed signs all over the place. One sign said something along the lines of “Although this is an all-you-can-eat restaurant, please do not waste.” Because they also offer crab legs and steamed shrimp on weekends, there were also signs that said something like “If you eat crab legs, please limit yourself to three plates of crab legs.”

That sort of thing doesn’t bother me. The rules were made very clear before I ordered, and they made sense to me. Obviously it’s a bad idea to waste food (which wasn’t an issue in this particular restaurant, because all of the food was very good) and you should try to avoid it. It’s common sense: if you waste lots of food, they’re going to end up having to charge more for it in the long run.

Anyway, that’s enough talk about food. Let’s get back to hosting.

Site5

Site5 hosting also offers “unlimited” hosting. In their case, as far as I can tell, there really are no limits whatsoever on the amount of server space or bandwidth you consume. If you want to upload a 1 TB file and let 1,000 people download it each day, you’re more than welcome to do so.

However, where you have to be careful is the “inode” limit I mentioned earlier. An inode is basically defined as any file stored on the server. Those files include individual e-mail messages, images, text/html/php/cgi files, directories, etc. Following is the pertinent information from Site5’s “Resource Usage Policy” (RUP).

The total number of inodes in an account may not exceed 75,000. Every file (a webpage, image, email, php file, directory, etc.) on your account uses up one (1) inode. This is not something we actively enforce and it will only become an issue if a client is causing problems for other people on the server. We will of course notify you if this is the case with a full explanation.

A directory can not contain more than 2,500 immediate child files. This includes subdirectories themselves, but does not include files contained within those directories.

It should be noted that the inode limit mentioned within the RUP of Site5 has tripled since earlier this week, apparently in an effort to appease some of the concerns that have been voiced by users.

Also, looking at the support forums for Site5 (in which the company representatives appear to be very active), it appears as though they are being sincere when they say they will only impose these limits in extreme circumstances (when the number of CPUs or amount of RAM usage begins to bog down the server).

I was a client of Site5 for more than a year, and had no real complaints about anything related to the service. They never bothered me about the amount of resources I was using; they never hassled me about the fact that I had nearly 10 times their limit (at the time) on the number of inodes allowed on the account nor did they ever complain about the amount of bandwidth or server space I was using. The few times our Web site was unavailable (most of which, it seemed that it was only unavailable to specific users – AFAIK, it was never down for everyone), the support staff was extremely responsive and very helpful.

I am impressed with the way the RUP is written with regards to Site5. They mention a lot of hard, objective limits within the policy, so that there are no real questions about it. Additionally, from what I’ve been able to tell by checking the support forums, it seems that they rarely ever impose those limits.

Hostgator

Hostgator is another host that imposes no limits on the amount of server space or the amount of bandwidth you use. Instead, they impose a limit on the number of “inodes” you can store on the server (just like Site5). Following is the pertinent information from Hostgator’s TOS.

The use of more than 50,000 inodes on any shared account may potentially result in suspension. Accounts found to be exceeding the 50,000 inode limit will automatically be removed from our backup system to avoid over-usage. Every file (a webpage, image file, email, etc) on your account uses up 1 inode.

Within the TOS of Hostgator, the company also mentions some objective, understandable limitations on the use of your account. They offer specific information about the amount of server resources you are allowed to use, restrictions on the type of scripts you are and are not allowed to run and more. Provided you are savvy enough to locate and read the TOS, you should have no surprises.

What Should You Do?

First and foremost, no matter which host(s) you are considering and no matter what type of site you plan to run, you absolutely should locate and read the terms of service; specifically any information on resource usage.

Secondly, consider using an external resource for e-mail usage (Gmail, for example). If you are going to use the e-mail services offered by the host, make sure to set your “catch-all” e-mail account (*nix hosting only) to deliver to a black hole (generally referred to as “:fail”), so that those messages do not count against you. You also need to make sure you keep your e-mail boxes cleaned out. Absolutely keep a watchful eye on your “junk” and “trash” folders and ensure that they’re always empty.

Next, if you install pre-made packages (Joomla/Mambo, Gallery2, phpBB/vBulletin/IPB/YaBB, WordPress/Drupal, etc.) delete all of the unnecessary files (language files, extra TinyMCE plugins that you’ll never use, etc.) and prune everything that’s not current and valid. Remember that, in addition to imposing inode limits, many hosts will impose limits on the size of your database(s), as well, so using a DB-dependent script might not gain you any more standing than a script that uses a flat-file storage system. In fact, because scripts that use flat-file storage systems rarely access any more than they need to, you might have a better chance of flying under the radar with something like that than with a DB-dependent script.

Do not assume that hosts offering “metered” or “limited” accounts do not also impose these types of limits of inodes or resource usage. Many of them have the same limits across the board, whether you sign up for an “unlimited” account or not.

Finally, if you are going to use an extreme amount of resources, be fully aware that your account might be suspended at some point. If you simply cannot afford to have your site unavailable or suspended, then your only option is to purchase a dedicated package (though you need to read the fine print for that, too, as many hosts will still impose inode or resource limits on those, as well – especially those hosts that offer really inexpensive – less than $200/month – dedicated plans).

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2 Responses

  • Ben

    Wow, I am really impressed with this article! Great job and nice to see some real meat in a post about web hosting!

    I just wanted to share my thoughts on the entire unlimited argument. For at least the last 7 years the entire business model of shared hosting has been based on the fact that the vast majority of users come no where close to using the resources allotted to them. This is similar to an old school ISP that had 50 phone lines available to support a client base of 1,000 customers. At any one time only 50 people could be online but they know it was very unlikely based on their usage data that they would every approach that many concurrent users. I hope that is a good analogy as my point is that shared hosting is the same way. The vast majority of shared web hosting users do not use the disk space or bandwidth we allotted them five years ago let alone today when we say unlimited. And this leads to the real crux of the “problem”.

    A normal web users looking to setup a blog, or create a simple online business site has very little understanding of what the real limits of shared hosting are. That is why we like most hosts put the real limits in the RUP because the vast majority of customers do not understand those limits or even how a shared server environment works. The funny thing is we have many users going over those “limits” in our RUP but who are not causing a problem and they get to slide because the only true limit on shared hosting is to not rock the boat for your server community. If you cause a problem for the other people on the server it is very unlikely you will be able to stay there. Usually this is because of CPU or Memory usage that causes slow down for the server as a whole, or because your great article got dugg and when thousands and thousands of people try to hit the site you crash the server for everyone on it. Or very often you are running a PHP/MySQL site that is not very well optimized and as your site grows you don’t realize its time to move to a VPS, Cloud, or full dedicated server.

    It is very hard to explain this to normal users because they don’t have a good understanding of what 500 concurrent apache connections to a un-cached WordPress machine can do to a server. For a webmaster it is sometimes easier for them to understand but we still get a lot of very understandable complaints when someone has crafted great content, got it dugg, and then the subsequent traffic means we have to suspend their site because they are sharing that server with others whose sites are now done. It is frustrating to us.

    The first solution is obviously better communication which we are working very hard on. We want to explain these concepts to our customers if we are forced to take action. The second which we are playing with is a simple visualization based on a number of key factors to show customers when it might be time to think about upgrading to hosting where you do not have to share resources with others. Obviously this would not work with a sudden digg or traffic spike, but it would help the long term education of our clients so they understand the process.

    We are also working hard on a few other solutions we hope to have ready in late 2009. A lot of this would be cloud based virtualization that could handle spikes for clients (aka Digg insurance) but it is something we are still testing and playing with.

    Hope some find this helpful for an inside view out,
    Thanks, Ben
    Site5.com

  • Thank you very much for your comments and for adding a little more perspective on the matter. It is refreshing to see a representative from a major Web hosting company respond to some of the comments made within my article. I am glad to see that you are aware of some of the problems and that you are actively working on trying to improve the situation.

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