VPS Webhosting review: HostGator vs Amazon Lightsail
This article is a review/comparison of HostGator and Amazon Lightsail webhosting; it is not sponsored or paid for by either. I recently moved from HostGator’s VPS service to Amazon Lightsail, and thought it would be helpful to write a review of both.
For those not aware, VPS stands for Virtual Private Server; it’s a move upwards from shared webhosting. It gives you your own environment that you are free to modify as you wish, but is not as expensive as a fully dedicated web server where the whole physical server is reserved for you, and comes with less computing power.
HostGator Snappy 2000 VPS
HostGator’s “Snappy 2000” is a 2 core CPU VPS server that comes in at $89.95 a month (if you include cPanel, which most people will), though it has an introductory offering that can be as low as $33.95 a month for the first twelve months. It has 2GB of RAM and a 120GB SSD, and there are bigger options for people with more requirements.
Performance wise, it’s very good. I didn’t have any problems with it failing to perform, I never saw any service outages, and the memory, CPU and storage limitations are well balanced. For less tech-savvy people, having cPanel is a major bonus, as being able to administer lots of website changes and monitoring stuff with a nice GUI can be much easier than through an SSH terminal session.
Unlike their cheaper shared hosting plans, the VPS service at HostGator also gives you unlimited use of the CPUs that your plan offers. You can run both of your vCPUs at full speed all the time without being hit by any kind of throttling or limitations, so it definitely gets very good marks on that front; you know what you are paying for.
In addition, for non-tech-savvy people, HostGator provides solid tech support. I found that pretty much any time of day or not the wait was less than five minutes if I had questions about specifics of my server or I needed to investigate a technical problem, and most of the time their tech support were very helpful with that.
Note that it’s not just tech support about things going wrong, but also requests: if you need a new version of PHP installed on your server, or some other requirement, HostGator will do that for you if you ask them. That’s very useful if you are not experienced in Linux or server management.
It’s also worth noting that things which can be difficult for non-developers, like generating SSL certificates and installing them on the server, are already done for you.
Amazon Lightsail VPS
Amazon Lightsail is the Amazon Web Services “simple website configuration” offering. It has a lot of flexibility in terms of what power you can choose, but it does come with some important caveats that are not entirely obvious at first glance — and it is much more complicated than HostGator to understand properly.
As you can see, the $20 offering seems significantly better value than HostGator at first glance. There are, however, many extra factors to consider — and depending on your requirements, it may or may not be suited to you.
First of all, unlike HostGator, Lightsail does impose some transfer limits. To be fair though, for any small to medium website, this transfer limit is huge: it’s unlikely any website only needing one or two vCPUs is going to be using more than 3 or 4 TB of data transfer, so this isn’t really a problem.
The much bigger caveat is the CPUs. Unlike HostGator, where you are free to use your 2 CPUs at 100% utilisation all day long if you want to, the same cannot be said here. Lightsail uses “burstable instances”, where you *can* run the CPUs available to you at 100% utilisation — but not for long. To understand this, you need to understand their “CPU credits” system.
Basically, your instance always uses credits, but below a certain percentage of CPU utilisation it will be earning more credits than it uses —and vice versa. This means Amazon Lightsail is intended for use cases where you expect you might need the full power of your 2 CPUs, but not all the time.
Within the documentation, these are the “baseline percentages” for the Lightsail instances:
For example, if you’re on the $3.50 a month plan, it has a 5% CPU utilisation baseline. This means it could run forever at 5% CPU utilisation, or it could run at less than that with occasional spikes in CPU usage (though be aware that for instance, running at 100% CPU usage would consume credits extremely fast).
This means that if you have a heavy, consistent workload that must run all the time, Lightsail is definitely not the right choice, as this CPU baseline prevents such workloads from being feasible on Lightsail. Amazon EC2 is more suitable for this in the AWS offering, but that is more difficult to set up and administer than Lightsail is, and isn’t as cheap either.
This is the utilisation graph for an example instance:
The main other area in which Lightsail might not be suitable for a lot of people is in the knowledge required to use it. If you’re intending to use e.g. Wordpress or similar, Lightsail does make this quite easy, as it has a lot of pre-configured images you can make use of:
For things like Wordpress, Magento and the like where everything is already pre-set, these images can be fine. However, be aware that unlike Hostgator, you will be on your own if any form of tech issue crops up; Lightsail does not give tech support (I believe there is a paid option, but I haven’t looked much into that — and it rather defeats the purpose of going with Lightsail at all in many ways).
It’s also worth noting that Lightsail is not a full “website solution”: for example, it doesn’t give you a domain name, or DNS servers — you have to do this yourself using Amazon’s Route 53 service. Not a massive hassle, but another obstacle for anyone who isn’t technically minded, or who just wants a simple all-included solution.
All this being said, let’s look at the pros and cons of each. Both provide root access and full customisation in their VPS plans.
Pros & Cons: HostGator
- Good tech and non-tech support
- Full, constant CPU utilisation is allowed without problems
- cPanel included at a lower extra price than is possible for an individual ($10 per month on HostGator vs $16 per month via cPanel), making it very user friendly
- Almost everything is pre-configured for you, very little knowledge required — but you can customise it if you want to
- Significantly more expensive, though this is much less of a downside if you have a need for constantly high CPU usage
- It takes time to provision new resources, as there is no automatic process for doing this
Pros & Cons: Amazon Lightsail
- Significantly cheaper than HostGator if you only need 10–20% of CPU utilisation on average, but need the ability to go higher than that sometimes
- Provisioning resources is fully automated, easy to remake an instance
- Integration with other AWS services such as RDS (for a dedicated database server) and ability to use load balancers without much hassle
- Zero support — Lightsail is not suited to non-tech people, especially if your website has specific requirements as you’ll need to implement everything other than the base image yourself
- CPU usage is limited, which isn’t suitable for all use cases, and the amount by which it is limited is not immediately obvious
- No “all inclusive” solutions — unlike e.g. shared hosting plans on HostGator, something like a very simple portfolio website is still complicated to set up on Lightsail, even if you don’t need root access or other features
Ultimately, both are very good, but it basically comes down to your requirements and your tech knowledge. HostGator is excellent if you need very high, consistent CPU utilisation, your tech knowledge is limited, or your use case is very simple; Lightsail is likely to be better for anything else.
Note that for many “ordinary” websites that just display things and use a database, CPU utilisation is often very low; for super-small hardware requirements like this, you could easily go with a shared hosting plan from HostGator or another provider instead of using Lightsail. It works out around the same price or cheaper, and whether you have tech knowledge or not, HostGator setting up the domain/SSL/everything else for you is a major benefit and time saver.
As such, HostGator is perfectly fine for many use cases or for heavy loads if you’re not comfortable with configuring Amazon EC2 (and that is not easy), and it’s likely to be better for smaller use cases where everything is set up for you. More complicated use cases are better suited to Lightsail.