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Free Forum Hosting vs. Custom Hosting

This article was first posted on our blog on 14/01/2011. For this reason, the information may be outdated and no longer reliable/correct.
We've all heard of free forum hosts, the most notable being perhaps ForuMotion or Zetaboards. How do they live up to the standards of custom forum hosting, though? In my opinion, free forum hosts don't live up to the standards of custom forum hosting. This article will list some pros and cons of both free forum hosts and custom hosts so that you can make your own decision. This post should help you make a judgment on how you want to host your forums in future. Let the battle commence! First up is free forum hosting. Here are the pros:
  • It's absolutely free, of course. It's in the name, right? However this isn't really a unique quality to free forum hosting because there are free hosts out there that will provide you with MySQL functionality.
  • No technical knowledge is required at all. You can simply sign up, and they'll sort everything out for you. This really is a big thing when you consider that custom hosting can be daunting if you're new to forums.
  • There's no 'accidentally' deleting the database or the ability to change anything else crucial to your sites well-being. As forum owners, we've all done it; all it takes is one click, and your entire forum magically disappears. This won't happen on free forum hosts. They will have backups and you won't have the ability to delete your database, config.php or whatever else.
Now that you've seen some of the pros, here are the cons of free forum hosting:
  • There is less customisation than custom hosted forums. While you will be able to change colours around a bit and perhaps tweak a few images, you won't really be able to change any layout options, delve deep into CSS/PHP files or be able to make your style exactly how you want it. There is some customisation, but not much.
  • Your forum is prone to being deleted at any time. Countless times, I've seen freely hosted forums completely die when they've been deleted by their hosts. It's usually due to the user breaking the host's TOS or perhaps due to the host itself shutting down. I remember when had an outage; every forum on their servers just suddenly vanished with no explanation.
  • It just looks unprofessional when you see a freely hosted forum standing right next to its competitors, which are hosted on a VPS using vBulletin or whatever. It may just be a quick assumption to make, but people will think that you're not dedicated if you're using a free host.
  • They keep the databases. The last thing free forum hosts want is for you to go off and get custom hosting, so in their defence, they won't allow you to leave their host--at least, not with your posts/members. That means that if you ever want to upgrade to custom hosting, you won't even have the option to do so unless you want to start all over again.
  • It's unprofitable. While you may not want money from your site now, you'll never have the option; usually they'll put their ads up and delete your forum if you try to put yours on. Once again, it depends on the host; in my experience, though, ads are not allowed.
Now that we've looked over free forum hosting, you might be expecting what is to come. As I did before, I'll weigh the pros and cons. Here are the pros of custom hosting:
  • There is loads of customisation. You are the boss. Which forum software do you want? What skin do you want? What kind of layout do you want? Do you want ads? Which MODs will you install? It's all your choice! Isn't that good news?! This is probably the best thing about custom forum hosting; it's customised for your site!
  • Your site looks professional when you're hosted properly. People will see your site and instantly know that you're serious; these first impressions are very important to your website, and it's likely that a lot more people will sign up because your website is hosted professionally rather than freely. It's up to the person, of course, and your forum's niche has a big impact on this.
  • You can back up your forum and convert to different forum software. When you use custom hosting, you have the ability to convert your forum software. You also have the option of keeping and using backups in case your host shuts down. These powers mean more security and customisation for your forum.
  • You could profit from your site, which also ties into the customisation part. All the same, though, it's a massive thing, and most people won't reject having a few extra dollars in their bank accounts.
Finally, here are the disadvantages of custom hosting:
  • They're easy to break if you're not sure of what you're doing. It's not hard to break some PHP code or delete your database by accident, so you really have to be careful with the power you have over your forum. This is why the less technically capable should perhaps avoid custom hosting for their first forums. That being said, though, you should be okay as long as you have reasonable knowledge of hosting (not coding).
  • It might cost you. Good hosts don't come cheap. If you want your site to run well and want your host to be stable, reliable and have good customer support; you may have to pay a bit. While free MySQL hosts are an option, they usually will have poor customer support and will be unreliable. Post2Host websites tend to be a similar story. Like any hosting, you just have to find the right one. Your site, when on a custom host, is as reliable as your host is! For cheap, reliable VPS hosting I'd recommend They didn't pay me to say that; I just think that their customer support is awesome.
Now that you've seen the pros and cons, you should be able to make your own decision after reading all that. The hosting you use depends on what's more important to you, be it professionalism or price. Do you care more about having full control, or do you care more about having your site safe from being broken? Each webmaster must make his own choices. People often ask, "Would/should you join a freely hosted website?" In my view, you absolutely should. Content is much more important than how the site is hosted. You want good quality members and a sense of community in a site. If you can get that on a site that is hosted for free, then why not join?

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