Why “Unlimited” ≠ Unlimited

infinite-speedAnyone who has shopped for web hosting or similar services will know that some services are described as “unlimited.” Sounds great, decision made! We all like unlimited services, because we never have to worry about how much we use… we don’t even have to think about it. Back in the days when we sold dialup internet, we used to say we could offer people 750 hours per month and they’d ask if we didn’t have an unlimited plan — never mind that a month doesn’t have 750 hours in it. “Unlimited” removes all the guesswork, and saves us from doing any analysis. But is it that simple?

The truth is, there are precious few services available at a fixed price without limit. Usually it’s intuitive: we just understand there are limits, and that an “all-you-can-eat” buffet doesn’t even mean “within a 24-hour period”. In the world of web hosting, you can buy “unlimited” storage space and “unlimited” bandwidth, but the fact of the matter is that these too have a limit — at least, a limit to what will be provided at the posted price. The all-you-can-eat buffet will sell you a week’s worth of food — you just have to keep paying more each day.

The question came up again last week when a customer of another web hosting company emailed, saying (in part), “as I type this [our site] appears to be down!?!? We have received this email…”

Dear Client,
Your account has been transferred to a small business server but the account is still using a lot of CPU resources, it is the database [********] that is causing the problem. Can you please verify with your WordPress plugins if it’s all up to date. I do see a lot of errors from the plugin [*********] PHP Warning: mysql_connect() [function.mysql-connect]: Too many connections in /home/********* on line 91…1

The customer told me they had been paying $60 per year, but they received some messages with a threat of disconnection and paid another $100 to upgrade their plan. A few days later, another warning came with an option to upgrade the hosting plan for another $300. To the customer, this understandably looks like the hosting company isn’t living up to their promise of cheap hosting.

Asked for some advice, I had to tell this customer that the other hosting company wasn’t really doing anything different from all the rest of the hosting companies out there. “Unlimited” does not mean unlimited. Most of us don’t think of web hosting in the same terms as the all-you-can-eat buffet, but the same basic principals hold true. If too many customers use up far more than what has been budgeted for them, it impacts everyone. Other people don’t get enough to eat, and the restaurant can’t make any money to pay their staff. In the end, it’s bad for everyone.

The way that the web hosting industry typically deals with this (and this is true of your ISP as well) is by charging more to the users who use more resources. This is essentially a user-pay system2 which ensures that even the customers who don’t need a lot always have what they do need available on demand.

The truth is that unless your website really has a lot of traffic, you don’t know how much resources you need, and you probably don’t have to know. You just need to buy “enough” resources, because unlimited resources don’t exist. If you’re within the average range, any of the basic plans are going to suit your needs… and when you outgrow those services, you will either notice a service degradation or you’ll be told it’s time to upgrade. And as long as you’re not being pushed to upgrade by a bit of rogue software, there’s nothing wrong with that.

So why do hosting companies offer “unlimited” packages? Because it’s what the customer wants to hear. And it’s much easier to say that than to provide a proper explanation. But you’re a smarter customer than that.

Footnotes

  1. The issue here was a rogue WordPress plugin, so I told the customer how to fix it. It’s not the main point of this article, but this is another reason to have managed WordPress hosting.
  2. Technically, it’s a modified user-pay system because the users are typically purchasing shared resources with aggregated pricing.

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