The unlimited bandwidth in a world with limited resources
What's this bandwidth thing again?
First of all, we have to establish one thing here. I'm not necessarily talking about bandwidth in the sense of speed of transmission or data transmission rate (bits/second), which is the correct definition for the term "bandwidth". I'm mainly talking about the so called bandwidth which measures the total amount of transmitted data (bits).
This whole misuse of the term bandwidth probably has its causes in the fact that most packages come with a specified amount of Gigabytes/month. Some might have considered it to be the same thing as bandwidth because the it is measured in bits/second. But who really knows?
Still, in order to be clear and rigorous I must make a clear distinction between terms. Bandwidth means data transfer rate, which is a speed - the speed of transferring data. Hence unlimited bandwidth would mean, in other words, an infinite speed when transferring data. This does not exist. Speeds are limited in our world. For example we (or at least most of us) believe that the speed of light is the ultimate speed of anything in this universe. However, the speed of light is limited, not unlimited.
Back to definitions, when most hosting companies refer to bandwidth in their shared/reseller hosting packages they actually mean "data transfer", not "data transfer rate". They state for example 5GB of bandwidth, meaning that you'll be allowed to transfer 5GB of data, usually within a period of time of one month. This is the data transfer that you are allowed to use (or consume), the amount of data that is transmitted, not the speed at which it is or can be transmitted.
With that taken out of our way, I will say that the unlimited bandwidth issue is one of the most sensitive and controversial issues in the web hosting industry. Many web hosting companies actually offer unlimited bandwidth (in the sense of data transfer) in their hosting packages. The thing that really boggles the mind is perhaps that they offer it at a fixed price. Can you put a fixed price on something unlimited? In fact, the very idea of unlimited in a limited world seems... well... rather impossible.
How things work - the hosts' side of story
Companies defend themselves saying that they don't do anything to stop a user from doing his best to consume unlimited amounts of data transfer. There is some truth to that, mostly in the case of larger companies. The fact of the matter is that most websites don't use much, and the host has huge amounts of it "left over". If one customer uses more than his theoretical fare share, it will not really cost the company a more.
Smaller hosts on the other hand, renting one server at a time, will not be able to apply such a policy in a very liberal way. Overusage can more easily translate into additional fees from their upstream provider, killing their chance to make a decent profit. This is one reason why smaller hosts tend not to offer unlimited bandwidth. It is also a reason why they don't understand that for some hosts this restriction doesn't really apply, and explains they will often try to put down all unlimited hosts, arguing that either the servers of unlimited hosts must be overloaded, or that it unlimited is nothing but a lie.
But, is the unlimited offer true? Can you use infinite amounts of bandwidth? To put it shortly, no. Your usage of bandwidth should be seen as unrestricted not infinite, because there still are 2 main indirect limits in place. One, that doesn't often get mentioned, is the fact that the network, as good as it might be, and the server's connection, still have limited capacities. The other, and most often to be encountered, has to do with other server resources usage levels such as CPU and memory, but also input/output load (basically the hard drive being able to serve the files as fast as it is requested to).
From any host's point of view, things are simple. At any given price for a web hosting package, in order to have a desired or necessary profit level, there is a minimum number of accounts that must "reside" per server. This is simple math and business. Anything that endangers the host's ability to reach the afore mentioned level, has to be addressed (i.e. it must dissapear).
Thus, if a customer's site becomes a danger to the server's stability by using too much of anything, that customer has to upgrade or find a way to reduce usage. This often results in the dreaded action called account suspention, because the host cannot afford to have the server's performance affected while a customer mulls over a decision. It may surprise you, but customers do have a tendency to turn argumentative, and this can drag on for quite a while. The other hundreds of customers who's sites share that same server will not silently wait for this power play to be over. They will want and ask for action so that their sites are back online or have the performance they're used to.
Some argue that this whole process is unfair, or that unlimited hosts abuse it, and some probably do. But I don't think they're quite that many, because any forced upgrade is a risk to lose a customer. In the cases when there is indeed excessive usage, the customer is using more than he's paying for, and it is only fair for a business to try and remain profitable.
How did it all came down to this unlimited this and that?
The process may have been more complicated, but I'll try to express how I have perceived it. At some point, hosts started to offer more and more for the same amount of money. This process was rather gradual for a while. Hosts were generally smaller (and we've seen how this affects their perceptions), and the industry was newer. Apparently there had been, back in the 1990s, a trend of offering unlimited hosting plans, that ended up badly (the inexperience of hosts coupled with the wild times perhaps), so, by the early 2000s unlimited hosting packages were seen as a very bad thing. They becasme almost a synonym for bad hosting.
So, hosts stayed away from offering unlimited, but, due to technology improvements (a small part) and cut throat competition, they continued to increase the size of the accounts they offered. After a while though, the numbers they offered had lost any rationality. Everybody in the business knew that the CPU limits would be reached way before the customer would be able to take full advantage of the bandwidth offer. But this was an arms race, and hosts continued to "upgrade and parade" their offers regularly. The ones that didn't, lost market share. Not immediately, but it happened quite fast. So, all hosts in the budget/mainstream hosting market made sure they didn't fall too much behind the times.
This, in theory, could have gone on forever, and there were jokes about offering petabytes of bandwidth, but in reality it was bound that someone would one day simply go unlimited, and so they did. Which company it was, I do not know, and it doesn't matter. It's not like there was ever a time without any company offering unlimited, it was just that a major host had to do it for it to become mainstream. Once it happened, the game was officially over. One by one, virtually all the players in this market turned unlimited. The bandwidth weapon was rendered useless and the price wars would start in earnest.
Not all hosts play the game fairly. Small hosts especially can be tempted to compete with their bigger enemies. Of course, they would get beat up really bad in a hand to hand fight, so they must make use of a trick. That trick is played on the customer. The host can know full well that it can't let anyone use more than say 500GB of data transfer, under any circumstances, but it will go for the "unlimited" marketing nevertheless. It then makes it its policy to force the accounts going over that amount to upgrade.
I remember reading about someone who signed-up for an account with unlimited bandwidth. Imagine his surprise when he received an email one day, asking him to "upgrade" the account because he was (basically) reaching the limit of the "unlimited". It might make you laugh too, but it's sad really. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen.
While participating in web hosting forums, I've often exchanged ideas with and question owners of hosting companies who were offering unlimited bandwidth. Obviously I was not alone there, other members were asking questions as well. Anyway, in one such occasion, after a few questions we've asked, it turned out that even though the host had no limit stated on their site (not even in the fine print), they were in fact using an "in house" monthly data transfer limit of 10GB. All this while bandwidth was advertised as "unlimited". The owner argued that the customers didn't complain and that they actually had a few customers who were paying for multiple "unlimited bandwidth" accounts.
The funny things you get to hear in a lifetime!...
Is there anything more to say?
Being "old school" myself, I used to stay away from unlimited bandwidth and look at it with disbelief and fear of poor server performance. I liked to know what I was getting exactly. When it comes to web space, bandwidth, price, and even other hosting features I expected numbers. There is a falacy in that. There is no such thing as "knowing" what the limit is in a shared hosting environment. Just because the host offers a "mere" 50GB, it doesn't mean you'll be able to use it all in any circumstances.
For one, you're given the 50GB on a monthly basis. Try to use 40GB in 2 hours, and get back to me on how it all went. The CPU and memory limits still apply.
So, as I was staying away from buying unlimited bandwidth hosting accounts, the host I was using and about which I couldn't complain, found itself in the middle of the bandwidth wars, and before long, here I was, upgraded to an unlimited space and bandwidth package. And you know what? Nothing changed! Not on their side, and not on mine. Just because I now had no limit in the bandwidth realm, didn't mean I had what it takes to increase my usage.
This is an important realization, because this is what makes unlimited hosting offers very much like an all you can eat buffet. The vast majority of websites are not very popular. The limit in usage for most webmasters is very much given by how many pairs of eyes they can get to view their site. The very few who get lucky, can and should find something better than an all you can eat buffet. For the rest of us, it'll do just fine as long as the food looks good and is tasty, and it can be a great value for the buck too.
Unlimited other things...
This article seems like a good place to bring into discussion the other unlimited features that come with hosting accounts. One such thing is the unlimited space. Just like bandwidth, web space is essentially and undisputedly - limited. Hard disks have limited capacities, and although those hosts who offer unlimited space might argue that hard disks can be added when necessary, fact is that even then, the space would be limited.
Unlimited space usually comes with other limits stipulated in the terms of service, such as a maximum of inodes (files and directories), limits or bans on the use of space to store multimedia files, personal backups etc. So, you should read the terms carefully. For the vast majority of website owners, the limits will be more than acceptable, and you run no risk of having to pay for extra space usage either.
Even back when having bandwidth and space limits were the norm, unlimited anything else was still acceptable and offered even by the hosts who "hated" unlimited bandwidth. This was simply because even for them it made sense not to apply random limits to their packages, just to avoid the remote risk of a customer attempting to start the next Hotmail or Gmail on a shared hosting account.
The official explanation typically given was that unlimited FTP accounts, email accounts, databases and so on are acceptable because their number really wasn't limited by the host (hence the unlimited claim), but mainly by the amount of space that the customer has bought. Each such account/database requires some space, so when you read "unlimited email accounts", you still had to translate it into "as many email accounts as you can create within your limited amount of space", a figure which you couldn't really quantify with precision. This also wasn't taking into account the fact that having 1000000 domains on your account would not actually be feasible for the host, affecting reboots, memory usage etc. There was always a double standard: some unlimited things were acceptable, others were not.
Still, it always made sense to let some things unrestricted, from a marketing, and even from a customer's point of view. Not all the things that can be limited should be limited. And not all limits make sense to be fixed (i.e. not flexible). But just because there's no stated limit, it doesn't mean you're allowed to go infinite. Unlimited in hosting means unrestricted usage -- until you break something.
As a closure to this article, I wish you an unlimited number of unique visitors! OK, that was just a silly joke. I wish you unlimited happiness! That at least, we may all hope to achieve, and we are granted the right to at least try to.