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I asked this on StackOverflow, but I think it's more appropriate here (plus I got no answer there).

I host my websites with FatCow, and generally this isn't a problem since they're small-business websites and the like (i.e. not too much traffic).

I have a few ideas that I'd like to make that would involve user accounts and, ideally, a good deal of user-generated content being uploaded and downloaded constantly. However, I have a fear that I can't really justify; namely that if the site gets large, it would either run very slowly for people, or not run at all. FatCow promises "Unlimited Bandwidth", which I fear just means they slow the site down as it approaches an arbitrary 'cap'.

The question is, are there any risks to running a high-traffic website hosted with FatCow or similar inexpensive hosting services (e.g. GoDaddy, HostGator, etc.)? For the sake of example, would a site like StackOverflow be functional if hosted on such a server? If not, then what are alternatives to look into as far as either optimization or hosting go?

Thank you for your help.

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With low cost hosting, you're going to get what you pay for. Their support will be limited (typically), and for most of the low cost hosts, you are on a shared server, where many other sites are running besides yours, all sharing resources. Also, you will be limited in the amount of permission you are granted (you may or may not be able to add users, run certain jobs, install certain software)

To guarantee yourself a certain amount of resource, you could either move to a dedicated server, or to a VPS (Virtual Private Server). With a dedicated server, you get a whole physical server for yourself. With a VPS, you get a virtual server for yourself. Your VPS will share physical resources with other VPSs on the same piece of physical hardware, but your VPS is allotted a minimum set of resource (X cpu cycles and X MB/GB of RAM). With a dedicated machine or VPS, you are given root access to the server, allowing you to create user and install whatever software you would like.

In addition to moving to a VPS or dedicated server, if you have a large amount of images or files that people will be downloading from your site, you may want to look into Amazon S3 or a content delivery network (CDN) for serving the files/assets to your visitors. These services will take the bandwidth off of your server, and allow you to worry about optimizing the other parts of your sites. Of course, these services have their own costs as well

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Just looked at Fatcow's User Agreement. "In some cases, FatCow may not establish a specific amount of bandwidth, disk space and other resources, and refer to that as "Unlimited". In all cases, the Services are intended for normal use only, and any activity that results in excessive usage that is inconsistent with normal usage patterns is strictly prohibited." That's just low on their part. –  Mirov Sep 27 '11 at 14:13
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What did you expect, though? If unlimited hosting were possible, Google wouldn't need a datacenter, they'd just pay $5/month to one of the many "unlimited" web hosts out there. –  ceejayoz Sep 27 '11 at 14:58
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It's my experience that all these cheap hosts have "fair usage" policies, so your high usage site won't stay online for long! It'll either be killed, or they'll force you to upgrade to a more expensive package.

On shared hosting ALL site on a server suffer when ANY site on the server is being a hog, so for the sake of everyone else, hogs get killed.

Sites like this could never run on a cheap hosting package, you needed a dedicated sever, or a cluster of dedicated servers, to do big websites. If you could just throw it all on GoDaddy, why would dedicated hosting exist!?

There are also security implications of shared hosting, but I don't think that that's what you were asking about.

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