What is managed hosting? Do you need it?

If you've heard terms like VPS, Dedicated, Shared, Managed, and more, you might have wondered what they all mean and which one is right for you.

Let's see if I can explain it in a way that doesn't immediately drop us into low-level technical details.

Remember in your youth when you maybe shared an apartment with friends? You were your own person, but your life was impacted by your roommates. And even if you lived alone, your life was impacted by the people who also rented in your building.

That's shared hosting.

Shared hosting boast lots of unlimited features but it's not always very accurate. If every single customer maxed out their promised features, shared hosting wouldn't work. So it's like that apartment building with 20 units and 25 parking spots. If you and your roommates park three cars, it is likely going to mean someone else will be parking in the street.

Now if you never lived in an apartment, but instead bought a condo, then you've experienced an environment where you share some resources, but mostly you're living on your own.

That's VPS hosting.

The VPS stands for Virtual Private Server and it is just like it sounds. For many folks, it's a better alternative to shared hosting because there's less chance that someone else's success (high traffic, or high resource utilization) will have an impact on your server.

I currently live in a house. I have almost nothing to worry about when it comes to my neighbors or issues related to parking our cars – because I have my own driveway and garage. What I do in my house, and the guests we have, have little impact on our neighbors as well. But as you can imagine, buying a house is often more expensive than buying a condo, which is more expensive than renting an apartment.

That's what a Dedicated Server is.

Now imagine I purchased a house in the mountains or on the beach. And I was going to rent it out to others, but I didn't want to be as responsible for taking care of the property like I do with our own home. I'm going to need a property manager. So that house with someone else to take care of all the little issues…

That's managed hosting.

Here's the good news.

Managed Hosting doesn't only apply to dedicated servers. You can also have managed hosting with VPS. And you can also get managed hosting with shared. It's a little like having a handyman that can help you whether you live in an apartment, condo, or home.

What does the “managed” part of this mean?

Depending on what kind of managed hosting you have, the term “managed” can mean different things.

On shared hosting, it often applies to the application that's running on top of the servers. So Managed WordPress or Managed Drupal hosting is talking about the IT services related to WordPress or Drupal and making sure those are kept up to date and that your site is taken care of you. When you're using shared hosting that doesn't offer a “managed” solution, you still have the low-level servers being taken care, but you may be responsible for things like which version of the software you're running.

If you're talking about VPS or Dedicated, the “managed” part is often the IT services that help you from the lowest level of the operating system up to the rest of the layers of software sitting on top. For example, if you were running a WordPress site on a dedicated server, you'd likely have the low-level operating system, and then you'd have web server software (like Apache or Nginx), and then a version of PHP to think about. A managed offering would help you patch, update, backup, and monitor all those levels of software on your server.

Can't you do this yourself?

Many people go the do-it-yourself way because it is dramatically cheaper. After all, the hosting provider doesn't have to do more than get servers installed in a rack and then they get to focus on the data center itself while you worry about the server.

If you've checked out all that Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers, you know exactly how inexpensive it can be. And how broad their offerings are.

So why doesn't everyone just use AWS? Why would you want managed hosting?

I think the core of the issue only appears after you've tried some inexpensive do-it-yourself offerings (Google, AWS, Microsoft Azure). They're fantastic, don't get me wrong. But you quickly realize the amount of engagement they require from you. In fact, I can tell you tons of stories where I (or a friend) turned on some services, only to forget they were on (because it turned out we didn't need all of them), and then later be reminded of them because we got a bill.

More often than not, the issue is opportunity cost. That's an economic concept (or at least that's where I learned about it). It means that I need to think not only about the direct cost to me of doing that work, but I need to think about the cost of the opportunities I missed while I was configuring 12 different control panels and connecting the services together.

If you don't have any other pressing work, the trade-off can be totally worth it. Or if you only do the provisioning once, and then you can set it and forget it, it may make sense.

But if you don't want to spend your time on that, or you have more critical things to do, managed hosting is the equivalent of outsourcing that work to a hosting provider.

Are all managing hosts alike?

Of course, you know the answer is no. Some specialize in a specific space. Over the last 7 or 8 years, we've seen a lot of players step into the Managed WordPress hosting game. These companies provide managed offerings that pay attention to the details of WordPress, unlike other managed hosts like Rackspace that are happy to help you add more RAM but don't know a lot about the applications you're running.

So when you look for a managed host, you want to make sure they're offering you the right management features you care about. Of course, I can't give you a checklist because it's different for every person, and really for every site they manage. But asking the questions upfront (not just about features, but about support) will help you figure out the right one for you.

The one question I do recommend asking, if it applies to your situation, is the same one I've asked hosting companies (long before I joined Liquid Web six months ago):

What if I need more than just one kind of managed service? What if I need more than just one kind of offering? What if I need different technologies to work together?

Yup, those are three questions, but they get at the heart of a single inquiry—are you so specialized that you put me into a box that I can't step out of?

I've worked with medium and large clients that not only need a host for their WordPress site, but they also need a dedicated server for image manipulation. Or they need a video processing server. Or they need mostly PHP / WordPress, but they need a .NET server for something.

Knowing in advance if the managed host you're talking to can accommodate all your needs will help you prepare for your own future.

And if you didn't know by now, Liquid Web offers managed hosting for Dedicated, VPS, and Managed WordPress.