My first website ever was hosted on a university's in-house servers. It was fairly simple, and I managed all of the dynamic components from within Microsoft Frontpage.[ref]I pulled an archive of this site off an old USB I had sitting around this weekend. The markup was awful, but it was enlightening to see how far things have come since 2004 when I first built the site.[/ref]

Unfortunately, a static site was all I could ever use on that server. It was essentially a file server, configured explicitly so researchers and staff could share static documents quickly and without needing to set up a separate system. I merely abused the server's presence (and that anyone with a university email had an active subdomain) to host my static blog.

Fast forward to graduate school and I upgraded from this limited shared hosting account to a paid shared hosting account with Network Solutions. Gone were the days of static HTML sites, replaced instead with dynamic PHP and database-powered sites. Unfortunately, I still had little real access to the server. I used a web-based admin tool to configure databases, and even uploaded file content through a web admin.[ref]I later replaced this with a client-side FTP client, but it didn't really do anything differently.[/ref]

I've been playing the web hosting game for a few more years now, and I've grown accustomed to working with servers that provide much fuller access to the infrastructure. I typically spin up a new virtual machine, install the software I need, harden the access points so I can sleep at night knowing it's secure, and wire in the appropriate 3rd party support systems where I can. Being able to log in to the machine remotely has become invaluable to debugging issues that come up.

This past week, though, I helped a friend make some changes on their server. It was an inexpensive shared host, so I anticipated a few hiccups in what we had to do. Sadly, the "few" hiccups quickly became legion.

The system was configured in such a way that I couldn't install WordPress merely by uploading files and running the install.[ref]Actually, I could, but system security policies locked everyone out of remote access to the WordPress login screen. Once the system was installed, I couldn't actually use it.[/ref] Instead, I had to move an existing site to a backup location and run the host's automated installer to drop WordPress in a fresh [cci]public_html/[/cci] directory.

Then I had to use the same console within the host's control panel to log in to the site. As a result, though WordPress is aware of three discrete users for the site, we can only log in with the 1 set of credentials the control panel recognizes.

When you cut costs and go with a cheap host, you lose out on the capabilities extended by quality hosting environments. What you save in a lower annual hosting feel you quickly lose in the hours it takes someone to fix a poorly-engineered system.

For example, say it takes a competent WordPress engineer 1 hour to fully configure a VPS, harden its access points, install WordPress, and configure your collection of plugins and theme.[ref]This is a fictitious number I'm using for comparison purposes only. Rarely do sites launch this quickly, and those that do involve many hours of lead-in time beyond just click-and-deploy.[/ref] Such a VPS costs as little as $5 per month. The engineer's time will run for (I hope) $150/hr.

In all you're looking at a fixed cost of $150 for setup and $60 recurring annually for hosting. Add in a few hours here and there for server maintenance and ongoing updates, and you might spend $500 a year on the system.

On the other hand, look at the cut-rate shared hosting. Many plans start at the same price as the cheap VPS above ($5/month). However, they're shared infrastructure, so any security hardening you'd do on a VPS is impossible on the shared host. In addition, many of the configuration and monitoring tools engineers will use to get things running are either unavailable or only accessible through sluggish web-based consoles. The 1-hour setup referenced above might take 3 or more hours, at the same rate.

You're looking now at a fixed cost of $450 just to set things up. Recurring hosting is still just $60 each year, but there's no guarantee if or when the shared host updates infrastructure. Unpatched software leads to security holes or hacks that are expensive (and time-consuming) to repair. Untested patches deployed blindly across a black-box architecture are just as costly.

Launching with a cheap shared host doesn't actually save you money when a complete VPS is available for the same price. Instead, the additional overhead applied by the host to create a shared environment will almost assuredly cost you money.

So ... where is your site hosted?