Is Unlimited Bandwidth Really Unlimited?

While shopping for the best shared hosting, you have probably seen every web hosting company boasting about “unlimited bandwidth” including with their web hosting plans.  Everyone hosting company advertises this, but what exactly does this mean? As it turns out, it means relatively little.

Unlimited Bandwidth

What is Unlimited Bandwidth?

Bandwidth, also known as throughput or channel capacity, describes how much data can be transferred through a cable connected to an internet provider.  Whether limited by the network card, the data cable or the internet connection, bandwidth is limited. Virtualized servers, which is used in VPS hosting, further divides the available bandwidth.

Most sites don’t suffer from this subdivision because they don’t need much bandwidth.  HTML files are often fairly small, and images don’t tax modern data connections much.  Any database operations are handled on the server-side, meaning that only the result of a query needs to be transmitted.

Web hosts capitalize on how little bandwidth each site usually needs to offer these “unlimited” data plans.  Much like how banks lend more money than they keep on hand, web hosts know that, of the sites on a given data connection, only a few will need lots of bandwidth at any given time.

The Problems with Unlimited Bandwidth

These web hosts are gambling, however.  If demand increases for many sites on the same data connection, you can still tap out your cable.  So even if the plan is “unlimited,” you can still max it out and get timed out connections.

Sometimes even a single site can tap out a data connection for the others.  For example, sites that become popular on social bookmarking services like Del.icio.us, Reddit or Digg often face an unprecedented increase in popularity known to cripple even the largest sites.  In these cases the web host will usually invoke hidden language in the terms of service to force an upgrade to another plan.

While the possibility of this instability may seem like a fairly small risk, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be your site that taps out the pipe.  Any site on the server can swallow the remaining bandwidth, meaning your site can’t take on new connections.  You can’t count on the bandwidth being there when you need it, whether you are the one swallowing the connection or not.  Bandwidth caps ensure that there will always be enough bandwidth for every site, even if it does make the rare explosion in popularity more difficult.

Unlimited bandwidth doesn’t ensure an unlimited number of connections, either.

Every server is capable of handling a certain number of connections.  The number of connections a machine can handle is determined by how powerful it is, so servers are usually beefier than your desktop computer.  Once you reach the maximum number of connections, your server will reject any new ones.  So it is possible that, even if you haven’t maxed out your bandwidth, you will run out of connections.

As you’ll see when you shop around, all the best shared hosting companies offer unlimited bandwidth in their advertising. Everyone has to say this, to stay competitive with everyone else. Since everyone does this, the best thing you can do is limit your risk and go with reputable web hosts like Hostgator that are known for not overselling their servers.

So always keep in mind that unlimited bandwidth is not really unlimited bandwidth.

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