Web Hosting 101: Why Bandwidth MattersLast Updated:
If you’ve been checking out web hosts for your site, you’ve probably encountered the term “bandwidth.” It’s one of the main resources that web hosts mention, and it matters enough for plan prices to rise with every bit of added bandwidth.
So what does bandwidth do for your website? Should you really shell out more money to get higher allocations from your web host? Thanks to this handy overview from Comparakeet, you’ll have answers to all those questions and more.
What Is Bandwidth?
Simply put, bandwidth measures how much data a network can carry between two points over a given time frame. Humor us for a moment and think of Super Mario. Remember those green Warp Pipes that Mario jumps through? In that world, bandwidth tells you how many red-suited Italian plumbers a Warp Pipe can transport in, say, a second.
It’s a similar thing for website hosting: bandwidth tells you how much data you can transfer to and from your website over a given period. As we’ve covered in previous articles, websites comprise a collection of files (data) stored on a server. Whenever anyone visits your website, they’re accessing those files. As they interact with your site’s components, visitors also send data of their own.
As you’ve probably guessed, bandwidth allocations help determine how many visitors your website can comfortably handle. Most web hosts indicate how much bandwidth you can use per month on your chosen plan, often with additional charges or consequences if you exceed that cap.
Calculating Bandwidth Needs
So how do you know how much bandwidth to get? The best you can do is get a reasonable estimate. However, your calculations get trickier if you’re a new site owner setting up your very first domain, since you won’t have much real-use data to go by.
To estimate your bandwidth usage, just multiply the following factors:
- The average number of visitors your website gets per months
- The average size, in kilobytes, of your website’s pages
- The average number of page views registered by each visitor
This will tell you how much data gets transferred to and from your website each month. If you’re working with a new domain, it’s best to keep tabs on your site activity for a while in order to collect reliable data to work with. Meanwhile, if you’ve got multiple domains on your hosting account, you shouldn’t forget to add those up–after all, most hosting plans carry bandwidth allocations per account, not per domain.
Most web hosts give you a definite number: 50 GB of data transfers per month, for example, or even up to 1 TB per month and beyond, with extra fees charged if you exceed these caps. Unless you’re hosting large files (e.g. high-definition video) or regularly receive millions of visits, you’re not likely to need more than 10-20 GB per month on average.
Contingency Plans: Accounting for Real Traffic
Of course, estimating your bandwidth usage like that paints a picture of data transfer as a mostly static quantity. Don’t be fooled. It’s in the name: data transfer is a constant process, and that means it can change at any moment.
If you feel you’ve got a good estimate, it can be tempting to save a bit of money and get a plan with bandwidth allocations that are almost exactly near your estimated needs. Don’t do it. Averages are well and good for anticipating usage over a long period of time, but bear in mind that bandwidth is a number that also matters in practice. Not all site activity will conform to averages. Your monthly estimate can come in well within your plan’s limits, but if one of your posts goes viral mid-month and brings in hundreds of thousands of users at once? Your estimates will be shot, and so will your bandwidth usage meter.
You might have also noticed that the factors we multiply to arrive at a bandwidth usage estimate aren’t static either. Any of those can change: If you add more pages to your website, for example, or if your site’s audience grows steadily over time, you’ll find yourself needing more bandwidth than you did initially.
Unlimited Bandwidth: Exactly What It Says on the Tin?
Some web hosts promise unlimited or unmetered bandwidth, which both sound very promising indeed. Should you bite?
Let’s dive into the subtle difference between “unlimited” and “unmetered.” When a web host says unlimited bandwidth, it sounds as though you can transfer as much data as you want. What the fine print will always tell you, though, is that you can only do so within reason. Most web hosts expect your usage habits to fall within normal levels, and they will often charge you extra, throttle your data transfers, or shut down your account completely if you go well beyond normal usage.
It’s a similar situation for “unmetered” plans. Essentially, the web host promises not to mind how much data you’re moving throughout the month — but you’re limited by the capabilities of your hosting server, for example. Instead of a monthly cap, unmetered plans give you a network port speed. This specifies the maximum speed with which you can ferry data to and fro; what’s “unmetered,” in this case, is the volume of data you’re transferring. “Unmetered” is slightly better phrasing, since it doesn’t lure you in with the suggestion of unlimited everything. So long as you know you’re getting a speed cap, you’ll be fine.
Either way, the main advantage of these plans is that you don’t need to fret about overage fees. As long as you’re within reasonable usage levels, you don’t need to keep a constant eye on your data transfer meter to make sure you haven’t blown past a specific cap or number.
When choosing a hosting plan, go for one that promises enough bandwidth to give your website a roomy allowance for future growth (or traffic spikes). As a rule of thumb, get at least double your estimated average. In the long run, giving yourself built-in extra bandwidth with your hosting plan will be cheaper and easier than frantically paying overage fees whenever your site exceeds usage expectations.
Should you get unlimited or unmetered hosting for your website? That’s up to you. Most of these “unlimited” plans use shared hosting, which comes with its own resource limitations. If you’re going for “unlimited” bandwidth because you expect massive growth for your website, it’s wiser to choose a more powerful hosting option (i.e., VPS or dedicated) that lets you add resources as needed. However, if you’re anticipating modest usage, and you just don’t want to worry about specific bandwidth caps each month, then an unlimited or unmetered hosting plan might work for you. Just be sure to read the fine print!