The Hidden Limits of “Unlimited” Web Hosting

Do you want to create a website? Hundreds of web hosting providers are ready to fight for your business, and most are happy to promise you “unlimited” resources. You may get unlimited storage space. You can host unlimited websites. And thanks to unlimited bandwidth, each of your unlimited websites should be able to handle an unlimited number of visitors. Hooray!

If you’re looking for a shared hosting package, you probably don’t need anything “unlimited”. For example, a gigabyte of web space is enough to create a huge website, and many personal or small business websites will only have a few thousand visitors per month at most.

Since almost nobody knows how many resources their website requires, the word “unlimited” can seem very, very tempting. For example, why go for a 5GB plan when you can get “unlimited” hosting for a similar price? You’re less likely to hit annoying limits, and you have room for your site to grow, right?

Unfortunately, the reality is almost never that simple. Web hosting services use words like “unlimited” based on their marketing needs, not dictionary definitions. You often have major limitations in other areas that you may not realize until it is too late. And that’s before we get to all the limitations hidden in the fine print.

If you find a web hosting provider that promises “unlimited everything”, then don’t steer straight to the “buy” button; dig a little deeper first. Read on and we’ll tell you what you need to know.


(Image credit: HostGator)

“Unlimited” or “unlimited”?

Understanding a hosting package starts with paying close attention to the language used. Many hosts use words that you might assume mean “unlimited,” when they’re really very different.

“Unmetered” is a common example. When a host claims to offer “unmetered” bandwidth, that means it’s unmetered and you can use more or less as much as you like, right? Uh, no (sorry).

Not metered just means you won’t be charged based on the amount of bandwidth used (you’ll no longer be charged for using 2GB per month as opposed to 1GB). That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bandwidth cap, and in fact almost every host that offers “unmetered bandwidth” has a fine print clause stating that if you use too much, there will be problems. They just don’t tell you what “too much” is.

“Scalable” is another term used by some hosts. For example, iPage offers “scalable” bandwidth. Techopedia defines scalability as “the ability of a process, network, software, or organization to grow and handle increased demand,” which sounds great and is exactly what you would expect from a web host.

Read the fine print, however, and you might get a different impression. iPage explains that its shared hosting is sufficient to support more than 99.5% of its customers without issue, but if a customer’s traffic exceeds the service, it will “work with the customer to provide scalable solutions like our Virtual Private Servers.” identify .’

So in this case, “scalable” actually means “using more traffic than you should – a secret limit we won’t reveal – and we’ll tell you to upgrade to a more expensive package”. Doesn’t seem quite as appealing now, does it?

The message is clear. No matter how many web host sites you’ve skimmed or how many comparison charts you’ve browsed, it’s important to pay close attention to the language used and to think about what it means. If you’re not quite sure you know, then scroll down the page, look for definitions or qualifiers, maybe look at the terms and conditions page – there you’ll often find useful hints.

Fair Use Policy

Regardless of what variant of “unlimited” or “unmetered” a host uses to describe their service, it almost certainly means “subject to our fair and/or acceptable use policy,” and that can make a big difference.

For example, HostGator says, “Shared hosting space may only be used for web files, active email, and user website content. Shared hosting space may not be used for storage (whether media, email or other data), including offsite storage of electronic files, email or FTP hosts.”

In other words, HTML and CSS files, scripts, images, and similar content are fine, but videos, archives, backups, and related files really aren’t.

Favorable name

(Image credit: Namecheap)

Other hosts might be a bit more generous. For example, Namecheap allows up to 10 GB of video or other media files, another 10 GB of archives or disk images, and another 10 GB of executable files.

How big the problem might be depends on your website, but it’s mostly a problem for hosting that offers “unmetered” disk space. Providers who give you a fixed amount of disk space and bandwidth generally don’t care what you do with it as long as you don’t break the law (e.g. by sharing copyrighted material).

Bandwidth and other resources have their own problems. For example, even iPage’s most basic account supports hosting unlimited domains, but the company also warns, “In most cases, user websites can support as much traffic as the user can legitimately acquire.” However, iPage reserves the right to limit processor time, bandwidth, processes or memory in cases where this is necessary to prevent negative effects on other users.”

That’s important because it makes it clear that there are more ways to limit bandwidth than setting a fixed number for an overall transfer. If a host thinks you’re using twice the network bandwidth you should, they could throttle your available resources to halve site speeds. This is another problem that doesn’t apply to hosts that offer fixed bandwidths; They usually provide your content as quickly as possible.

Hosting multiple websites also has a big impact. Yes, you might be able to host 100 websites on a single shared account, but it’s entirely possible that they get 1% of the resources they actually need. So the more websites you host, the slower they become.

Web hosts’ fine print has a lot of interesting clauses along these lines, so check the details before you buy. The juicy bits are usually found in a “Fair Use” or “Acceptable Usage Policy” (sometimes abbreviated as an AUP), but also browse the general terms of use page – which often has helpful details.

technical limits

Although hosts are generally very vague about what “unlimited” or “unlimited” hosting really gets you, you can look at some key technical boundaries to learn more.

The inode is a good place to start. An inode is an entry in a file system index that stores the details of a file or directory. A web host might say they offer unlimited storage, but they will almost certainly limit the total number of inodes you can use, effectively setting a maximum number of files.

The default number is around 250,000, so this doesn’t seem like a big problem. However, it can vary greatly from provider to provider. For example, GreenGeeks’ starter plan supports 150,000, while Bluehost has a “soft limit” of 50,000 for cPanel accounts (in practice it allows more, but that’s not recommended). Emails also require an inode each, so 50 IMAP inboxes with 1,000 emails each would use 50,000 inodes alone.

Even if you haven’t reached your inode limit yet, having “too many” can have consequences. For example, although many services support up to 250,000 inodes, they may not always include accounts with more than 100,000 in their backups. If this is happening to your site, it’s probably best if you find out now. See the fine print for details.


(Image credit: HostPapa)

Email often has other hidden boundaries. For example, HostPapa’s top plan Business Pro offers “unlimited email accounts,” but individual accounts get a maximum of 1GB of storage, and there’s a total limit of 10GB to cover all accounts. If you’re hoping to create 100 emails, that’s only 100MB each – which seems pretty limited to us.

Drag-and-drop website builders are a particular problem. They often come bundled with shared hosting plans, but many place strict limits on the number of pages or site size they support. And unfortunately, many providers “forget” to tell you this in advance. You won’t realize it until you hit the limit, and the host explains that you can get unlimited pages, but only if you pay for the upgrade.

Don’t believe the “unlimited” hype

Next time you’re looking for web hosting, be skeptical, especially with claims that you’re getting “unlimited” everything.

If a host says one of their resources is unlimited or something similar, look for definitions on the site, in the fine print, and maybe on the support pages. Searching the web knowledge base for phrases like “email limits” can often yield useful content.

Take the time to figure out what boundaries are really important to you. Do you need a lot of email accounts or is the inbox size important to you? There are big differences between providers. So if a host isn’t clear, open a live chat session and find out before you buy.


(Image credit: HostGator)

It’s not all bad news, and some providers are taking proper care of themselves in this area. HostGator describes its shared hosting plans as offering “unmetered” rather than “unlimited” bandwidth and storage, with links to explain what this means. And it doesn’t have major snags elsewhere, so its “unlimited email addresses,” for example, aren’t paralyzed by a tiny hard inbox limit.

However, if you’re tired of searching for hidden catches, consider skipping “unlimited” plans entirely and opting for something that gives you a fixed share of resources. You know exactly what you’re getting and since it’s easy for the host to manage, your website could be faster and more reliable too.

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