Executive Corner

An Unlimited Credibility Gap

by Christian Dawson  • 

Years ago, the usual stomping grounds for those of us in the hosting industry took an interesting turn as shady fly-by-night hosting providers started using the term ‘unlimited’ to describe their product plans.

These companies offered ‘unlimited’ bandwidth or ‘unlimited’ disk space as an enticement for customers to buy their products. There was a strong negative reaction within the hosting community and a sincere attempt among responsible hosts to make it known that ‘unlimited’ plans lacked credibility.

Last week it was announced that 1and1, an industry peer who I like and respect, has joined Verio, another one of the good guys, in touting ‘unlimited’ hosting plans.

I thought we had learned better.

I want to make it crystal clear that I like and respect these two hosts, both of whom offer exceptional products and services. However, I can’t help but feel that their decision to go ‘unlimited’ brings an uncomfortable level of “used-car salesmanship” to the market and hurts the credibility of our industry. I am frustrated to see good hosts go down this path.

In my tenure at ServInt I’ve learned that everything has limits. Period.

Knowing them is key to good business and preparedness.

If you take anything at all and you grow it exponentially it will reach a point where the stress imposed on the system causes it to fail. Generally you reach a point where you hit a ‘bottleneck’ and everything slows or breaks down. The clearest example I can think of this is the traditional assembly line where the entire production can only go as quickly as the slowest worker allows.

An ‘unlimited’ plan has a limit – it has to – it cannot expand indefinitely. To not acknowledge those limits is to not provide customers with vital information regarding their actual capabilities. A customer needs that information in order to make an informed decision.

Would you buy a car with a speedometer that read ‘from 0 to infinity’ or would you want to know how fast the car could actually go? Would you buy a banner ad from a site if it didn’t have any typical usage statistics and instead told you ‘potentially all the pageviews in the world’?

No! You’d want real statistics – real data – so you could set real expectations. You MAY go to an ‘all you can eat’ restaurant not knowing how much food they have available, or whether they are going to kick you out before you get full, or whether your stomach will threaten to explode. However, at the end of the day, that’s just dinner.

This is YOUR BUSINESS we’re talking about here and personally, I think customers should expect more.

Every system has a limit, defined by its bottleneck, and you should learn what yours is. In an all-you-can-eat buffet, the bottleneck is typically the size of your stomach. Even Joey Chestnut has his limits!

Responsible hosts should never offer a service unless they can actually provide it. If I put up a 100 Mbps unmetered server I can promise you that you will have the capability to push 100 Mbps with no bottlenecks. I’ll make sure you have the hardware to push it, the network infrastructure to push it, the bandwidth to push it and the uptime to push it. I will ensure I can deliver what I sold you.

How can you deliver on ‘unlimited’? You cannot!

If ServInt were to call something unlimited we would need to mean it – we would need to build a system that could host all of Google and Amazon and Craigslist and get Dugg on every page and still have lots of room to grow with no slowdowns. If this product couldn’t do all that, we’d be insincere. And yet I’m sure that most ‘unlimited’ plans couldn’t even host Google’s log files.

Some claim that ‘unlimited’ hosts outright lie about their services and kick off heavy users. I don’t know if that’s true and to my knowledge I’ve never met a good host who’s done that.

In my opinion, the real problem is a host who is unwilling to be honest about their resources. An ‘unlimited’ package is limited by the physical constraints of the provider’s infrastructure. If a provider is telling you differently they are either lying to you or they don’t want to admit to the physical limitations of their infrastructure.

It is that possibility that concerns me the most. Hosts who take the time to build a great infrastructure should scream off the rooftops exactly what that infrastructure is capable of. They should revel in the real performance of their creations.

Hosts who don’t are spinning a fairy tale – one that they can only get away with because 99% of the people who use them never get popular enough to test the undefined limits they have in place.

If you ever plan on getting popular – on having a good day that pushes the boundaries of what you are used to – please consider the ramifications of ‘unlimited’.

After all, there are no upsides to being down.

Photo by Hubble Heritage

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Comments
  1. Hello! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to take a look. I'm definitely enjoying the information. I'm book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Terrific blog and excellent style and design.
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  2. God bless you christian, The only reason i got to know of servint is because i got kicked out by Hostmonster. Apparently, i have occupied just 4GB when they said i was causing performance problem on their servers. I havent made any modification to my website script for 3 weeks, so there is no way they could convince me that the problem is from my script. If you check you will see that my site www.kilonsele.com runs on OSDATE, so i just modified the graphix and thats all. the highest number of simultaneous users i ever had was 50. when i complained, the dude told me via live chat that i have outgrown shared hosting.... how sad how this company proved there is actually a limit.
    Ajayi Oluwaseun Emmanuel /
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  4. While I agree with your point of view, I have recently taken a different take on this: In looking for a web host, the moment I see the word "unlimited" with respect to data space or bandwith, then I know it's time to hit the Back button and search for another host. Because anyone advertising "unlimited" is being dishonest (with respect to storage or bandwith). Soooooo..... I really LIKE it when host companies use the word unlimited because it makes it easier to eliminate the would-be candidates from my short list. So when 1 and 1 advertises "unlimited" bandwith, then I can immediately cross them off my candidate list, and not waste anymore time in researching that company.
  5. Thanks for the feedback! There are some areas where honestly 'unlimited' is tolerable. Our cPanel and Plesk licenses are 'unlimited' licenses because people can create lots and lots of users without problem. Would those systems eventually break if you added on an absurd number of users? Probably - but still I'm generally OK with it mostly because it's a generally accepted marketing term for licensing and people understand it. Generally I'm not for 'unlimited' and only tolerate it in areas like that, because most things are proven to be not unlimitable. If you can ask yourself 'what if' and come up with a reasonable case scenario where your unlimited service will let a customer down, I would avoid the word in that situation.
  6. I had to smile at the photo and some of the analogies you used - speedometer reading zero to infinity, for example. Spot on. What's your opinion about reselling a VPS saying a package had unlimited services? I did this for a couple of years, but it was always within set disk space and bandwidth limits. I guess that isn't deceptive? I was always careful to tell my customers that, within the disk quota and bandwidth limits, they have unlimited everything - email accounts, dbs etc. I have now moved to limiting even those services. It wasn't funny to see someone with a 100 Mb shared hosting account create 50 email accounts and then ask for support for those accounts!
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Christian Dawson

Christian Dawson

Chief Operating Officer, ServInt

Christian Dawson has been with ServInt since 1998 and has helped it grow into one of the most innovative Cloud providers in the world. As ServInt’s COO, he has spearheaded its green initiative, and drives ServInt’s efforts in fighting for consumer privacy and consumer protections. He does so in part as founder and Chairman of an industry trade association called the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition).

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