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If you’re here, then you’re thinking what I was thinking a few years ago: “What’s a VPS, and why would I need one? Or should I have one? I’ve heard good things, but it seems kind of expensive – oh, and what’s for dinner?”
Well, I can help you with most of those questions. I’ve been a web designer off and on for over a decade, and I’ve been running my own personal site and file sharing server on a VPS for a couple of years. I started doing that because I wanted more control over my own data and apps. Since then, I’ve also been reviewing VPS hosting services for Website Planet, which has expanded my horizons considerably.
And in short, the answers to those questions are: It’s one computer pretending to be a bunch of computers, it depends, it depends (again), and tacos. Tacos are for dinner. And yes, VPS hosting ain’t cheap, but it can very well be worth it.
Is it right for you? I wrote this guide to help you decide on that very thing, so grab a coffee and enjoy. This’ll take a minute.
What Is VPS Hosting?
VPS stands for “virtual private server,” and is not to be confused with a VPN (here’s a handy link to explain what a VPN is and does). If you’re new to the hosting world in general, I’d like to go over something real quick:
What is a server? Hoo boy. In theory, a server is a computer dedicated to storing information or an application and making that info/app available over a network. This can be a local network or the internet itself. In practice, the term gets used for a lot of things, including (but not limited to):
The actual physical computer that is used to store and send the information (as mentioned). In this article, I will refer to this as a “hardware server.”
The software that tells the network where to find that information and/or runs your app. This is technically called “server software,” and that’s the term I’ll be using in this article.
Software that essentially pretends to be a full hardware computer, upon which server software is also run. That’s basically what a VPS is, so we’re calling it… VPS.
How Do Virtual Private Servers Work?
For context, here’s how a regular server works: You have your actual, physical computer – that’s the hardware server. On top of that is the operating system (or OS). For your regular computers, that’s Windows or MacOS, but for servers, it might be Windows or Linux (and we have a whole article about Linux).
On top of the operating system, you run the server software, which tells the internet, “Hey look, there’s a website here that you can access!” This is the structure generally used by shared hosting, which is more common and cheaper than VPS hosting.
Here’s a handy diagram:
Now here’s the thing: Servers used for hosting websites are usually pretty powerful, and running a basic website actually uses very little processing power. Well, unless there’s a ton of traffic. But in general, you can run a lot of websites on one machine.
However, running a whole bunch of websites on one machine can cause problems (which I’ll get into later). These problems are solved through a process called virtualization, which allows one computer to run a bunch of “virtual machines” on it. These VMs each contain an operating system of their own, and you can run software and apps on top of it.
For example, you can run Windows on a Mac in its own little window to run certain Windows apps, and vice versa. Well, hardware servers can do this too, and a powerful hardware server can run dozens of virtual machines – or VPSs in this case – all at once, allowing each website or web app to run in its own separate environment.
Here, another diagram:
Each VPS is assigned a set amount of processing power (e.g., 1 CPU core),storage space (e.g., 10GB), and RAM (e.g., 2GB) that it’s allowed to use. If any of those limits are exceeded, your VPS will experience problems, and you may need to pay for more resources on the server.
Lastly, you can (usually) decide what sort of operating system you want to run and what software you want to run on it. Your choices are limited only by your VPS hosting provider. You can configure every aspect of how your virtual server runs, if you want to.
What Is VPS Hosting Good For?
Well, in short, VPS hosting provides a separation of concerns. If one VPS on a hardware server gets attacked by hackers, the rest are likely to be unaffected. So if you run multiple sites or apps and put each one on a different virtual machine, it makes it harder for someone to take down your entire online presence at once.
That principle also applies when a VPS gets hit with a ton of traffic at once. If someone else’s site on the same hardware server gets hit with the Reddit effect, your site will never feel it.
This makes a VPS ideal for hosting medium-to-large websites that get lots of traffic, and it means that you (or your development team) can decide exactly what sort of system your site or app will run on. VPS hosting is great for complex web apps like project management software for your team, small social media networks, gaming servers, and the like.
Managed vs. Unmanaged VPS Hosting
Lastly, you should learn about “managed” versus “unmanaged” VPSs. Simply put, an unmanaged VPS is one that you run entirely on your own. You have to manage your own installations, keep the software up to date, configure the security – basically, you have to do everything yourself.
Not all hosts offer both types of VPS hosting. For example, Hostinger runs VPS servers that are unmanaged (even though its marketing says its VPS servers are “semi-managed”).
Managed hosting means you can (usually) still do whatever you like to your server, but you can ask the hosting company’s techs to do it all for you. The techs will handle everything, including keeping software up to date. Some will even make changes to your website if you ask nicely.
Here’s a quick comparison of managed vs. unmanaged hosting from A2 Hosting:
Liquid Web is an example of great managed VPS hosting, and Kinsta is too, although the latter specializes in WordPress.
VPS Hosting vs. Other Types of Hosting
VPS hosting is not for everyone, but it’s totally my thing. To give you a better idea of whether or not VPS hosting is your thing, I’ve drawn up a few quick and simple comparisons to other kinds of hosting.
VPS vs. Shared Hosting
As mentioned before, shared hosting is the most common kind of hosting. As you might expect, sites on shared hosting are all lumped together on one big server, with no separation of concerns.
On the whole, shared hosting is a lot cheaper and easier to use. It’s generally considered the most beginner-friendly option.
However, if an attacker gains access to the server, every site on it is compromised. If another site on the server gets hit with a lot of traffic, your site will slow down too. Oh, and you can’t customize the OS and server software.
VPS vs. Cloud Hosting
Cloud hosting is the new kid on the hosting block, and it has quickly become a favorite among web developers.
Cloud hosting can work a bit like shared hosting, or a bit like VPS, but the principle is the same: instead of your site being on a single server, whether physical or virtual, cloud networks use lots of computers – all working together – to host websites and run apps.
This means cloud computing can be very fast, and can be quite cheap as well (and sometimes very expensive – it varies). On the downside, you need to know exactly what you’re doing to use it, in most cases. As in, you need to be a developer.
VPS vs. Dedicated Servers
Dedicated servers are hardware servers that you can rent all to yourself. You get a whole physical machine just for you and your sites/apps. Heck, technically you could rent one of these and run a VPS setup on it.
That’s the whole deal: dedicated servers are extremely flexible and customizable, and you can do almost anything you want. And you’ll have a support team available to help.
They’re also the most expensive option here, in most cases costing a bare minimum of $100 USD per month. And then you also need system administrator expertise to use them.
Hosted on a single physical server
Dedicated hardware resources (CPU/RAM/storage)
Exceptionally high security
Choose your OS/server software
Guaranteed high-traffic management
Remote access to server
Advantages (and Disadvantages) of VPS Web Hosting
Comparisons are all well and good, but there comes a time when you need to examine a thing on its own. Like when you stare at a rock while meditating and try desperately to forget about your severe ADHD. Or is that just me?
Anyway, let’s take a closer look at the things VPS hosting does well and the things it doesn’t do so well.
Stability through separation of concerns. Again, I will reiterate how having your site on a VPS makes it less likely to be taken down by hackers and huge traffic spikes. This is, frankly, the main selling point of VPS hosting, and it’s not to be taken lightly.
Scalability. Whenever you need more bandwidth, more storage space, or more processing power, you can get it. In fact, many web hosts will allow you to customize these things individually, so you’re never paying for more than you need. When you buy VPS hosting, just make sure that those resources are “guaranteed.” Some VPS hosts will oversell their servers like airlines do with flights, and it’s not cool.
Performance. Having dedicated server resources set aside for your site means that your site will, in general, run faster than sites on shared hosting. More importantly, that performance is going to be more consistent. That is, it will be less likely for your site to suddenly slow down.
Flexibility. If you know how to build and manage your own server, or even if you’ve always wanted to learn, a VPS is a great place to start. On an unmanaged VPS, you can choose your OS (within the limits of your host), choose what server software to run, choose your web hosting control panel – everything. Need a new version of PHP, or some other programmer’s tool? Just install it.
Cost. VPS hosting is not the most expensive option out there, but it ain’t cheap either. If all you need is a simple landing page and a company blog, shared hosting is the better deal by far – you often have to pay extra for your hosting control panel on a VPS, while shared hosting will typically throw in cPanel for free. That said, the cost of a VPS doesn’t have to be prohibitive. I have one just because I find that sort of thing fun and useful for work.
Complexity. If you don’t get a managed VPS plan, then you need to configure everything for yourself. That takes time and effort. And even with a managed plan, running a VPS is a little more complex and involved than just running your average WordPress site on shared hosting. There’s just… more to worry about.
It’s less flexible than it could be. Remember how I said you could customize just about anything you want on your server? Well, there are always limits. For example, operating systems: some hosts have a few to choose from, some limit you to just one or two. If you want full control over your server (virtual or otherwise), cloud hosting has a lot more options available to you.
Do You Need a Virtual Private Server?
Yes, unless you like cloud hosting better. Okay, that’s my biased “I love being a total nerd” answer. To be more realistic, let’s look at some situations where VPS hosting makes sense.
Your blog is getting loads of traffic. Congrats! You’ve gone viral! Now your hosting company is sending you emails that say, in so many words, “Your site is making our servers look bad. Wanna upgrade?” Yep, there are times when even a classic small WordPress site needs to upgrade. This is one of them.
You’re hosting a lot of heavy media. If you’re uploading a lot of large images, or a lot of short videos, you may need the storage that a VPS can provide. For example, if you’re selling courses for people to download. (Mind you, if you’re uploading video every day, you’ll want a dedicated video host or YouTube channel.)
You’re starting a large online store. In most cases, it’s fine for people to start with shared hosting and upgrade when they need to. Not here. If you’re running a site where people are supposed to spend their money, you want it working properly from the get-go, with no chance that the risks of shared hosting could undermine your business.
You’re building an app but don’t want to be beholden to Google or Amazon. OK, this is a somewhat specific use case, but a VPS can help you develop your app and get it off the ground, while still retaining some sense of privacy and control over your data. You know, if you get a VPS in Switzerland or something. (That’s what I did for my personal VPS.)
Side notes: You might want to go for something like Kinsta’s managed WordPress hosting if you’re planning to build a magazine-style site, for example. And when you’re building an app, cloud hosting is generally much cheaper to start off with.
What to Look For in a VPS
More specifically, this is what we look for in a VPS host when we write our reviews. We don’t just trust their marketing, either. No, that would make my life easy, and our reviews completely useless.
We test each and every host that we review for all of the following:
Darned good servers. Remember, servers are just someone else’s computer, and that makes them easy to test. We look for hosts with reasonably up-to-date, fast, and stable servers in well-maintained data centers. And we run performance tests on them.
Super-sized VPSs. Sure, you can get a small VPS (1 vCPU core, 10GB of storage, 1GB of RAM, for example) almost anywhere, and for cheap. But over time, a successful site is going to need a lot more than that. We look for hosts that can provide the resources you need, when you need them.
Resizability. One of the big advantages of a VPS is that you can (usually) upgrade your server with a few clicks and a bit of extra cash, or downgrade them if you like. However, not every host actually makes this easy to do, which is silly. We like hosts that aren’t silly.
Managed hosting and good support. We look for hosts that offer at least some sort of option for a managed VPS, because that takes a lot of the stress out of running your own server. And whether you’re on a managed VPS plan or not, you want good – even great – customer service. We make sure to test all customer service options for every review.
Fair pricing. Notice that I did not say “cheap pricing.” While some good VPS hosts are cheap, not all cheap VPS hosts are good. We consider the features, the quality of customer service, and the stability of the servers when determining what is “fair.”
So all that’s what you should be looking for as well. Though you could always check out our reviews and save yourself some time, or just keep scrolling.
6 Best VPS Hosting Services – We’ve Tested Them All
These are the best VPS hosts we’ve tested so far, and we’ve tested quite a few. Have at them!
Kamatera provides the best of both worlds in many ways, as it runs VPS technology on top of a cloud infrastructure. The result? It’s very, very fast and reasonably easy to use, in my experience. What’s more, it has 13 data centers all over the world, from the US to the Middle East, meaning that with Kamatera, you can host a website for almost any demographic.
Free 30-day trial. This is absolutely, completely free. You’re limited to a small VPS plan, but it’s enough to get a feel for the service.
Hourly cost calculation. If you’re anticipating a temporary spike in traffic, you can upgrade your server temporarily and downgrade it again when traffic calms down. Hourly cost calculation means you only pay for what you use.
Fully managed VPS. This will cost you a bit extra, but having someone else take care of all the security, configuration, and upgrades does wonders for your stress levels.
FastComet prides itself on speed and global availability. To that end, it has 11 data centers in North America, Europe, Singapore, Mumbai, Tokyo, and Sydney, Australia. And those servers really are as fast as the company’s name would suggest. If you want an international presence, FastComet is a good way to go.
All 4 plans are managed. FastComet limits itself to a smaller number of plans and configurations so that it can dedicate people to maintaining and managing each and every VPS it hosts.
7-day money-back guarantee. It’s no 30-day guarantee, so you’ll have to make up your mind quickly. Even so, that’s a full 100% of your money back, if you so choose.
Hostinger has been number 1 on our list of the best shared hosts for a long time, and its VPS plans are pretty good, too. There’s considerable flexibility in terms of the software you can install, and all for quite low prices. I’m sure you’ll find something you like.
Just keep in mind that Hostinger does not have managed VPS plans. The company’s support is pretty great, though. It’s almost as good as having a managed plan.
Lots of control panel options. You can pay extra for cPanel if you want. Or you could get a VPS with Plesk, Webmin, Vesta Control Panel, Webuzo, or CyberPanel for free. The point is, there’s always an easy way to control your server.
Backups and server snapshots. There are multiple server backup options. They all cost a bit extra, but they’re handy to have around in case of emergency.
Liquid Web’s pricing plans cost a fair bit more than most, but you’ll find yourself loaded down with great features, very well-performing servers, and generous resource allocation. Every VPS is fully managed, with dedicated support staff ready to cater to almost every whim.
It’s like having a bunch of very techy genies on your side.
Amazing technical support. I’m not kidding about those genies. The tech support we encountered at Liquid Web was some of the best. Ever.
Strong add-on features. The remote backups and VPN firewalls might cost a little extra, but they’re completely worth it.
A very confident uptime SLA. Liquid Web promises 100% network uptime (save for scheduled maintenance or a pesky DDoS attack), and if it cannot maintain this promise, you’ll be eligible for hosting credits.
InterServer is a fantastic option for the North American markets, with generous VPS plans, data centers on both coasts, and solid features. Our tests revealed pretty decent customer service, combined with solid server performance. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Easy WordPress installation. Get your VPS configured (and your WordPress site up and running) quickly with Webuzo.
Speed up your server by default. InterServer leverages caching tools and modern server tech by default to make sure your VPS is never slower than it should be.
Remote backup. Backing up your server is good. Backing up your server to a third-party location is better.
A2 Hosting has some very low prices, four data servers ranging from Arizona to Singapore, and a solid reputation within the hosting industry. We saw good performance even on the cheapest servers.
Choose between highly flexible unmanaged VPS plans and slightly less flexible managed plans to get the VPS that’s right for you.
Anytime money-back guarantee. Basically, you can sign up for as long as you want, cancel any time, and get reimbursed for the time you didn’t use. It’s not a 100% refund, but it’s a pretty good deal.
Optional “turbo boost.” Pay a little extra to have your VPS hosted on A2 Hosting’s faster, less-populated hardware servers. Depending on the complexity of your site, this may or may not be worth it.
Managed VPS plans. They’re here, they’re good. Not much more I can say without repeating myself. Again.
Oh, that’s a tricky one, and the question is better phrased as, “Which is the best VPS hosting provider for you?” That said, I do have my personal favorite on this list, and that is Liquid Web, for its wonderful tech support. InterServer is also a pretty strong contender. If you need more help deciding on a single host, check out our list of the best web hosts in 2023.
Which is better, VPS hosting or cloud hosting?
Cloud hosting is a popular option right now because it has some things that VPS hosting does not, including more options in terms of software, hardware redundancy, unlimited resources, and high scalability.
However, cloud hosting is generally harder to use if you’re not a programmer. For newbie server administrators (and people who don’t want to be server administrators), VPS is the simpler option, especially with a managed VPS plan. Thankfully we have a guide on VPS hosting vs. cloud hosting that might help with your decision.
Are there any free VPS hosting services?
Technically? Yes. Sort of. But I won’t be listing them here, and we don’t recommend any of them. The short version is that some of these services advertise free VPS hosting but don’t actually provide it. And then the ones that do tend to be riddled with holes, security-wise and with what you get resource-wise.
Plenty of hosts do offer free trials or time-limited money-back guarantees, though, so you can try the service out before you commit. For example, Kamatera has a straight-up 30-day free trial with no commitment at all.
Ezequiel Bruni is biologically Canadian, legally Mexican, and self identifies as a total nerd. He’s been a web and experience designer off and on since he was a teenager, and loves sharing the kind of beginner’s advice he really wishes he’d had when he first started. He also loves video games, tacos, open source software, video games, sci-fi and fantasy in all their forms, and video games. He does not love writing in the third person.