Last week one of our clients was asking me about how they should think about the myriad of options for website hosting, and it inspired me to share a few thoughts.
The different kinds of hosting
I think about hosting for WordPress and Drupal websites as falling into one of three groups. We’re going to compare the options using an example of a fairly common size of website — one with traffic (as reported by Google Analytics) in the range of 50,000–100,000 visitors per month. Adjust accordingly for your situation.
- “Low cost/low frills” hosting — Inexpensive website hosting would cost in the range of $50–$1,000/yr for a site with our example amount of traffic. Examples of lower cost hosts include GoDaddy, Bluehost, etc. Though inexpensive, these kinds of hosts have none of the infrastructure that’s needed to do ongoing web development in a safe/controlled way such as the ability to spin up a copy of the website at the click of a button, make a change, get approval from stakeholders, then deploy to the live site. Also, if you get a traffic spike, you will likely see much slower page loads.
- “Unmanaged”, “Bare metal”, or “DIY” hosting — Our example website will likely cost in the range of $500–$2,500/yr. Examples of this type of hosting include: AWS, Rackspace, Linode, etc. or just a computer in your closet. Here you get a server, but that’s it. You have to set up all the software, put security measures in place, and set up the workflow so that you can get stuff done. Then it’s your responsibility to keep that all maintained year over year, perhaps even to install and maintain firewalls for security purposes.
- “Serverless” hosting¹ — It’s not that there aren’t servers, they’re just transparent to you. Our example website would likely cost in the range of $2500–5000/yr. Examples of this kind of hosting: Pantheon, WP Engine, Acquia, Platform.sh. These hosts are very specialized for WordPress and/or Drupal websites. You just plug in your code and database, and you’re off. Because they’re highly specialized, they have all the security/performance/workflow/operations in place that 90% of Drupal/WordPress websites need.
How to decide?
I recommend two guiding principles when it comes to these kinds of decisions:
- The cost of services (like hosting) are much cheaper than the cost of people. Whether that’s the time that your staff is spending maintaining a server, or if you’re working with an agency like Four Kitchens, then your monthly subscription with us. Maybe even 10x. So saving $1,000/yr on hosting is only worth it if it costs less than a handful of hours per year of someone’s time.
- Prioritize putting as much of your budget towards advancing your organization’s mission as possible. If two options have a similar cost, we should go with the option that will burn fewer brain cells doing “maintenance” and other manual tasks, and instead choose the option where we can spend more of our time thinking strategically and advancing the mission.
This means that you should probably disregard the “unmanaged/bare/DIY” group. Whoever manages the site will spend too much time running security updates, and doing other maintenance and monitoring tasks.
We also encourage you to disregard the “low cost” group. Your team will waste too much time tripping over the limitations, and cleaning up mistakes that could be prevented on a more robust platform.
So that leaves the “serverless” group. With these, you’ll get the tools that will help streamline every change made to your website. Many of the rote tasks are also taken care of as part of the package.
Doing vs. Thinking
It’s easy to get caught up in doing stuff. And it’s easy to make little decisions over time that mean you spend all your days just trying to keep up with the doing. The decision you make about hosting is one way that you can get things back on track to be more focused on the strategy of how to make your website better.
¹ The more technical members of the audience will know that “serverless” is technically a bit different. You’d instead call this “platform-as-a-service” or “infrastructure-as-a-service”. But we said we’d avoid buzzwords.
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