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Unlimited Bandwidth and Overselling

One of the most controversial topics surrounding web hosting is the practice of overselling bandwidth, and rightfully so. The practice of overselling has enormous potential for disaster ? ask any webmaster who has ever woken up to a cold, unforgiving "Bandwidth Exceeded" message where his or her site should be. The risk of such outages is all too real, and the cleanup effort for network bandwidth outages is a long and arduous process.

Unfortunately, it is a risk that every webmaster must take. The nature of the web hosting business does not allow you to eliminate the risk, only to mitigate it to the best of your ability. In this article, we'll explore the relationship between overstated bandwidth claims and website downtime. As a professional webmaster, you have a responsibility to balance cost and risk when choosing a web hosting plan. This article aims to clarify the pros and cons of one of the most common risky practices so that you can make a more informed decision when choosing your web host.

Unlimited Bandwidth

As the web hosting market has grown more and more competitive over the years, hosting companies have increasingly begun to tout "unlimited bandwidth" or "unmetered bandwidth" as a major selling point of their hosting plans. These claims are generally seen as nothing more than a marketing ploy. After all, no web hosting company could truly offer you unlimited bandwidth, since the bandwidth of the hosting company, network, and even the Internet itself is physically limited.

Ok, let's be fair here. The limitations I'm talking about are almost incomprehensible and would never be reached by a single site. A hosting company could offer virtually unlimited bandwidth (or "unmetered bandwidth" or whatever phrase they choose to keep the lawyers at bay). This is the gray area between truth and falsehood upon which marketing claims feed.

The simple truth is that bandwidth costs money. It costs your web hosting company money, which in turn costs you money. The more megabytes of bandwidth your hosting company gives you for your dollar, the less profit they make. The only reason that a web host is able to make unlimited bandwidth incentives possible is because most websites use only a fraction of the bandwidth available to them. The more websites a hosting company hosts, the easier it is for them to make very accurate predictions about how much will actually be used. If those predictions tell them that over the course of any given month the large traffic spikes will be averaged out and still remain profitable, then they can safely offer unlimited bandwidth and remain profitable.

The practical upshot of this is twofold: Firstly, marketing claims are not necessarily outright falsehoods, but they're not to be implicitly trusted either. Secondly, if you are signed up under a "unmetered bandwidth" hosting plan and you consistently use enough bandwith to blow the curve, you can expect a phone call from your hosting company. These calls usually involve friendly sales people trained in the art of the upsell, and are almost invariably concluded with an invitation to read the fine print of your hosting contract.


Unlimited bandwidth claims get a lot of press, but the real danger lurks in the practice of overselling bandwidth. Like the man behind the curtain, overselling is the cause of real problems but is frequently overlooked because of the attention devoted to the front man.

What is overselling? Quite simply, overselling is the practice of selling your customers more bandwidth than you actually have. It's the same practice airlines use when booking seats, though if you were to extend the analogy it would result in airplanes that crashed because they were to full. Please accept my apologies for the use of an overly dramatic comparison, but I want to make it very clear that it is the practice of irresponsible overselling that leads to costly site outages.

To be fair, most web hosting companies are responsible. Just as the airlines monitor the number of people that actually board the plane, the hosting companies continuously monitor their bandwidth usage to make sure they do not exceed their limits and everyone's site stays up and running. If they don't, then one website can use up everyone else's bandwidth and inadvertently shut down all the sites using that pipe. That's not the fault of the site owner ? it's the fault of an irresponsible web hosting company.

Almost every web hosting company oversells their bandwidth. A hosting company that offers unlimited bandwidth plans is, by definition, overselling their bandwidth. The point I really want to drive home is that the risk of overselling exists even if the web hosting company DOES NOT OFFER unlimited bandwidth. Clear enough? You are not safe simply because you have selected a hosting plan with a fixed bandwidth allotment. If you select a web host that offers unlimited bandwidth on any plan, you are DEFINITELY at risk of overselling problems. If you select a webhost that offers only fixed bandwidth plans, you are PROBABLY at risk.

Choosing a Web Host

In my opinion, unlimited bandwidth claims are only superficially related to real problems with your web hosting company. Yes, I have had a web site unceremoniously shut down without notification by a web hosting provider because of excessive bandwidth usage. And yes, it was an unlimited bandwidth plan. It was a costly experience. The tech simply shut down the site and went to lunch. The hosting company was unresponsive. Money was lost.

But looking back on the experience, it wasn't a limited vs. unlimited issue. It was a Bad Hosting Company issue. I am utterly convinced that we would have received the same treatment had we exceeded a stated bandwidth limit ? I've seen that happen as well with a different site and a different web host.

The commonality is the integrity and responsibility of the web host, not the claims made by their marketing department. When you deal with super cheap, fly-by-night resellers, you will have problems. Guaranteed. When you deal with reputable, well established hosting companies you will get phone calls. Sure, you will have to pay a little more, but it is well worth it to anyone who has experienced firsthand the same mind-boggling incompetence I have.

I don't get hung up on hype, be it from a marketing department or from fellow webmasters. Choosing a web host should be a rational decision, based primarily on the inherent competence of the hosting company, and secondarily on plan value. If I see an unlimited bandwidth plan from a highly reputable web host, I'm going to jump on it ? it's a great value until you get that call.

That's my opinion on unlimited bandwidth web hosting. The fact is that correlation is not causation. Be a responsible webmaster ? make your own decisions. Research your hosting options by using a web hosting comparison service. If you do your research carefully and base your decisions on facts, you're far less likely to get burned.

Nate Landerman is the founder and CEO of iNetpublication, a site dedicated to providing webmasters with the tools they need to create and maintain successful websites. Unlimited Bandwidth and Overselling

© 2005 iNetpublication Web Services.

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