Managed vs. Unmanaged Hosting: What Is Your Best Option?

Discover the differences between managed and unmanaged web hosting so you can decide which option is better for you.

Dianna Gunn Web Hosting Expert
Dianna Gunn built her first WordPress website in 2008. Since then, she's poured thousands of hours into understanding how websites and online businesses work. She's shared what she's learned on blogs like ThemeIsle, BloggingPro and DomainWheel. She now works for CNET as a Web Hosting Expert, creating in-depth guides on web hosting and reviewing the top web hosting companies to help folks preparing to build a website for the first time.
Expertise Web Hosting, Online Business Management
Dianna Gunn
8 min read
colorized laptop surrounded by glowing wi-fi symbols on a purple gradient background.
Getty Images/Viva Tung/CNET

In managed web hosting, your hosting company does the technical work of maintaining a web server for you. In unmanaged web hosting, you’ll be responsible for doing a lot of this technical work yourself (or hiring someone to do it).

Let’s take a closer look at what managed hosting and unmanaged hosting provide and how to choose the best option for your site.

What is managed hosting?

Web hosting places websites on specialized computers called web servers, which are configured to run 24/7. Software is installed to make your website available online and protect it from malware, hackers and other threats.

In managed hosting, your host does most or all of the work to configure and maintain your server, such as:

  • Maintaining, monitoring and updating hardware as necessary
  • Installing and configuring the operating system
  • Installing and maintaining security software
  • Installing and maintaining additional software like a content management system or CMS like WordPress, content delivery networks -- CDNs -- and caching tools
  • Automatic website backups

What web hosts handle on managed web hosting plans varies a bit. For instance, some forms of managed hosting include updates to your content management system or CMS, the tool you’ll use to create and organize content like blog posts and automatic site backups. This leaves you free to focus on the more creative aspects of website building, like designing individual pages.

Managed hosting is ideal for casual hobby sites, blogs, small business websites and sites for medium-to-large-sized businesses that don’t want to invest in their own IT department.

Types of managed hosting

Most popular types of web hosting come with a managed hosting option, including:

Shared hosting

Shared hosting involves hundreds or even thousands of websites sharing one server. The server’s resources, such as bandwidth and processing power, are split between these sites, limiting the data and traffic each site can handle. The cost of maintaining the server is also divvied up, making shared hosting highly affordable. Many plans start at $2-5 a month.

Most shared hosting plans are fully or at least partially managed, with the company installing and maintaining the operating system, cPanel and security software. Depending on the hosting provider, you may or may not get the full benefits of many fully provider-managed plans, like a CDN, automatic CMS updates and website backups.

Managed WordPress hosting

WordPress is a CMS that powers 43.3% of websites. Many companies have responded to this popularity by creating managed WordPress hosting. When you choose a managed WordPress hosting plan, your hosting provider will go beyond managing the server, often providing:

  • Pre-installed WordPress
  • Automated updates to the core WordPress software, themes and plugins
  • Specialized caching solutions for WordPress
  • Custom firewalls and other security features optimized for WordPress

Managed WordPress hosting is typically a type of shared hosting, with a similar price range to shared hosting. Some companies provide virtual private server -- VPS -- and dedicated hosting options with managed WordPress for higher prices.

Some web hosts may also offer managed hosting for other CMS options, like Joomla and Drupal, but these plans are less common than managed WordPress hosting.

Website builder hosting

Website builder hosting comes pre-installed with a website builder, a visual tool for creating and editing websites quickly without needing code. These website builders are most often owned by the hosting company, so the provider maintains both the server and the website builder.

Managed VPS hosting

VPS hosting involves dividing one physical server into numerous virtual private servers. These virtual servers get dedicated resources, such as processing power and bandwidth, so that sites hosted this way can accommodate more data and traffic than shared hosting sites. You can also access some server customization options.

In managed VPS hosting, your web host will handle the full configuration of your virtual server. This includes setting up your operating system and installing software for security and load speed optimization.

Most managed VPS hosting plans cost $30 or more per month.

Managed dedicated hosting

Dedicated hosting gives each customer an entire physical server. Most of these plans include 1TB or more of data for storing images and other files, plus enough bandwidth to accommodate millions of visitors.

Managed dedicated hosting means your host handles all of the software configuration and updates for your server. You may be able to customize your server’s configuration and do some updates yourself, but you won’t be expected to.

Managed dedicated hosting plans typically cost $100 or more per month.

Pros of managed hosting:

  • The hosting company manages server configuration and updates for you
  • The hosting provider does 24/7 monitoring to make sure the software remains functional
  • Security software is provided and maintained by the hosting company
  • The CMS will be pre-installed and updated for you on managed WordPress and similar plans for other content management systems
  • Managed hosting plans often come with additional benefits like automated backups

Cons of managed hosting:

  • Outside of shared hosting, managed hosting plans cost more per month than unmanaged hosting plans
  • Managed VPS and dedicated hosting plans may limit your ability to customize your server to simplify the hosting company’s server maintenance processes

What is unmanaged hosting?

Unmanaged hosting, also referred to as self-managed hosting, involves you managing most or all of the digital configuration of your website yourself, or hiring a system administrator to do it. The host may install an operating system for you and perform basic maintenance on it, but everything else is typically your responsibility, including: 

  • Installing security software
  • Adding caching and other software to optimize performance
  • Configuring all website software
  • Updating and maintaining server software
  • Monitoring server software, including security monitoring to catch malware that makes it past your firewall
  • Backing up your website

In some cases, you’ll also be required to choose and install the operating system yourself.

The hosting company will be responsible for the physical maintenance of the server. It may also perform some software maintenance. This can include:

  • Sourcing and setting up hardware
  • Installing a base operating system and doing basic OS updates
  • Monitoring hardware and replacing it when necessary
  • Providing continuous power to servers
  • Temperature control

Some plans may be partially managed, offering things like software monitoring and advanced tech support as well as the physical server maintenance outlined above.

Unmanaged hosting is best for companies with existing IT departments or those with the desire and budget to create their own IT department.

Types of unmanaged hosting

Unmanaged shared hosting

Some shared hosting plans only perform installation and maintenance for the base operating system. These plans require you to install and maintain your own CMS, perform site backups and handle other aspects of website configuration. Often, unmanaged shared hosting is still partially managed in that you typically can’t install your own operating system. You’re still performing the bulk of the server management, from installing a CMS to running site backups, on your own.

Unmanaged VPS hosting

Like managed VPS hosting, this hosting type involves splitting one physical server into virtual private servers and giving each customer a single virtual server. You’ll get the advanced data storage and bandwidth of a virtual server, plus the ability to customize many aspects of server configuration.

Managing VPS hosting yourself can reduce your monthly hosting cost, with some plans available for as little as $3 per month.

Unmanaged dedicated hosting

Like managed dedicated hosting, these plans give you access to a full physical server. You’ll get all of the server’s resources, typically including at least 1TB of storage and enough bandwidth to accommodate millions of monthly viewers. You’ll also get complete control over the server’s digital configuration.

Choosing a self-managed plan can reduce your monthly hosting cost to as little as $50 per month.

Pros of unmanaged hosting:

  • You get complete control over your server’s digital configuration
  • Monthly hosting fees are lower

Cons of unmanaged hosting:

  • You need to either have the technical expertise to do most server configuration yourself or hire a system administrator to do it for you
  • You might not have access to 24/7 monitoring, meaning you’ll need multiple system administrators so someone is always keeping an eye on your servers

Managed hosting vs. unmanaged hosting: How to choose

There are a few questions you need to ask yourself when picking between managed and unmanaged hosting:

What type of hosting do you want?

If you’re choosing shared hosting, partially or even fully managed hosting is the natural choice because the price is often similar to unmanaged managed plans. You can also choose managed WordPress hosting -- or managed hosting for another CMS -- if you want your host to manage all of your site’s software, often for just a few more dollars each month.

The one type of hosting that is almost always managed is website builder hosting, as it uses software created by the host company. You don’t necessarily need a specialized website builder hosting plan to use a website builder. Some open-source options can be uploaded to third-party host servers on shared, VPS or dedicated hosting plans.

If you’re choosing VPS or dedicated hosting, you’ll also want to consider the following questions:

How much control do you want over your servers?

A managed plan is great if you’re choosing a VPS or dedicated server plan primarily to store lots of data or accommodate hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. You’ll get the storage and bandwidth you want, but you can focus on building the site itself without worrying about server management.

If server configuration is important to you -- for example, if you want to use specific security programs -- you’ll want to choose unmanaged hosting. This gives you more control over your server, especially if you’re choosing a dedicated hosting plan.

Do you have the expertise, time and/or IT staff to manage a server?

Configuring and managing a server can be complicated. If you don’t have the technical skills to do it yourself, you’ll need to either commit to learning about server management -- and pouring your precious hours into performing server maintenance -- or hire someone to do it for you.

If you do have the technical expertise to do it yourself, you’ll probably still want to hire at least one person to help you with management. This ensures that you can continue spending most of your time on activities that create revenue and that someone’s around to fix your site if the server crashes in the middle of the night.

In short, if you don’t have the budget for at least one system administrator to help you get things running -- and keep them running -- you’ll probably want to spring for managed hosting. It is more expensive than unmanaged hosting, but hiring IT professionals costs a lot more.

Managed hosting vs. unmanaged hosting: The bottom line

Managed hosting is a great option for most people and businesses because the web hosting company handles most or all of the complicated server setup for you.

Unmanaged hosting is great for people or companies that want to have full control over their server configuration, meaning they’ve got the time and budget to manage most aspects of a web server.

If you’ve figured out what type of web hosting is best for you, head over to our list of the best web hosting services to choose the company you want to work with, and be sure to check out our guide on shopping for web hosting.

Managed hosting vs. unmanaged hosting FAQ

What is an unmanaged host?

An unmanaged host is a company that requires you to handle the bulk of the digital configuration of your web server.

What are the disadvantages of managed hosting?

Managed hosting typically limits how much control you have over the customization of your server, whether it’s a virtual private server or a dedicated server. This is done to ensure that the company’s IT professionals can maintain your server for you.

What is the difference between managed hosting and hosting?

Managed hosting refers to any type of web hosting where the web hosting company configures and maintains the software of the web server your site is on. Hosting is a broader term that includes managed hosting and unmanaged hosting.

What is the difference between managed and dedicated hosting?

Managed hosting is any type of web hosting where the hosting company manages the software of the web server your site is on. Dedicated hosting is a specific type of hosting where you’re granted an entire physical server. Dedicated hosting plans can be managed or unmanaged.