Scott Murray

Cheap or Free Static Website Hosting

Last updated 2015 September 10

All students in USF’s Design program get free web hosting on our XARTS server. For many students, it’s their first experience connecting to a remote server and publishing pages to the web. Yet once they graduate, their accounts are deleted.

So each May, one or two seniors on the verge of graduation will ask:

I want to keep my website. Where can I host my website cheaply?

In the past, I have listed my favorite options, but I realized there must be more. So I asked for suggestions on Twitter. My requirements are as follows:

I’ve listed the suggestions that best fit that criteria below. If you know of others, please send me a note!

Free

Neocities

This great service reimagines the late Geocities for a modern age. It’s completely free, although donations are encouraged. For that low, low price you get up to 20 MB of file space, hosting of static files, your own __.neocities.org subdomain, and support for custom domains. Neocities supports only limited file types, so you can’t post MP3s and video files that could quickly eat through their bandwidth. (Instead, try Soundcloud and Vimeo, respectively.)

For our purposes, the only downside of Neocities is that they don’t support SFTP; to transfer files to their server, you have to use a web-based interface. But it’s drag-and-drop, and free, so maybe that’s a nice trade-off.

If you want more storage (or are simply a good netizen), sign up for the Supporter Plan at only $12/year, and get 200 MB of space.

GitHub Pages

Yes, GitHub will host your static site of any size and using a custom domain for free! Yet, their system doesn’t support SFTP either, as it’s all organized around git, for obvious reasons. Having to learn git might be considered a downside. (It would probably be good for you in the long run, but undoubtedly there is a learning curve.) Fortunately, you can avoid the command-line completely by using the free GUI client.

To publish your website, you create a git repository, add files to it, and then push updates (“commits”) to GitHub’s copy of the repository, or repo. At the free level, all repos are publicly viewable, so your entire website would be open source by default — no secrets here. That’s probably okay, because anything published on the web is public, anyway, but it means there’s nowhere to hide secret files (or messy code). Of course you have the option to create a private repository, but doing so will require at least the Micro plan at $7/month.

Super Cheap

Amazon S3

Students may know Amazon as a source of cheap textbooks, but their Web Services division powers a huge chunk of the Internet, including Dropbox’s file syncing and Netflix’s streaming video. You can tap into that same powerful infrastructure and host a static-file website using AWS’s S3 service. They’ll even give you the first year for free.

After the first year, you’ll have to pay… but not much. While traditional hosting companies charge a flat monthly rate, and then cap your total usage (e.g., file space or bandwidth), AWS has no upper-end cap (which is kind of the point, to be able to scale way, way up), but charges by usage. The unpredictability of monthly charges may be unnerving, but the good news is we are talking about very small numbers here, like 1–5¢/month to host a very low traffic site. Yes, literally pennies! That should fit any recent grad’s budget. (You just need a credit card.) Use AWS’s monthly cost calculator to estimate your monthly charges (click on the S3 tab), but unless you are expecting hundreds of thousands of visitors, expect the bill to be very small.

Unfortunately, S3 does not support SFTP, so you’ll have to transfer files using the web interface, or with an S3-supporting client app like Cyberduck or Transmit.

Also, AWS’s web interface is notoriously confusing. Fortunately, Paul Katsen wrote a great step-by-step guide to setting up a static site on S3. True penny-pinchers can even take steps to optimize their sites even further.

NearlyFreeSpeech.net

Like S3, NearlyFreeSpeech.net charges only for the services and capacity you actually use. So hosting a small, static site without a ton of traffic might cost only $3–5/year. Unlike S3, NearlyFreeSpeech.net operates a more traditional shared hosting environment, and provides SFTP access to their servers. So if S3’s cloudy-instance jargon makes you uncomfortable, this service may feel a bit more accessible and welcoming. Try their pricing estimator, and don’t be intimidated by this FAQ: “Is your service easy to use?” Answer: No.

Cheap

Reclaim Hosting

A project out of the University of Mary Washington, this service is built specifically (and only) for students, faculty, and institutions. The first year will cost you only $12, and that includes registration of your domain name of choice. Beyond that, pricing hasn’t yet been finalized, but it may be around $20–30/year. Reclaim Hosting offers everything you’d expect from a typical shared hosting service — not only support for static files, but PHP, databases, a control panel UI and everything. Presumably, SFTP is supported (yay).

FastMail

I ♥ FastMail. They are so great. You may wonder, “Why should I pay for email?” Well, it is so worth it. An Enhanced subscription is $40/year and enables you to send and receive email through your custom domain, as in me@myname.com. Even better, this plan includes 5 GB of file space, and you can designate individual folders within that space to be served as standalone, static websites. So, really, a FastMail account is awesome email and simple web hosting rolled into one. Plus, you can use SFTP to access all your files in the usual fashion. You can even use FastMail’s interface to manage your domain’s DNS records at no extra charge. (Some domain registrars call this “Power DNS” and charge an monthly fee for it.)

BitBalloon

BitBalloon doesn’t support SFTP. Instead, you just ZIP up your site folder and drag-and-drop it onto their web interface. Crazy, right? It’s free to try, but adding a custom domain is $5/month.

Other Options

Google Drive, a free service, can be used to publish a folder as a static-files website, but the process isn’t pretty, and there’s no support for custom domains. For $9.99/year, Gweb.io can handle the messy parts for you, and enable using a custom domain.

Bluehost’s Spoke product offers discounted, full-featured shared hosting for students at $4.95/month. (Just show your .edu email address at the door.)

Dropbox is free, up to 2 GB, and any folder you make public is served as a static website. There’s no official support for custom domains, but it can be done with add-on services like Site44 ($4.95/month) or KISSr ($10/month).

Cactus looks like a beautiful way to develop your site on a Mac, and it has built-in integration with S3 for publishing. (Demo is free. One-time purchase of $29.99, plus monthly pennies for S3 hosting.)

Divshot is free for a single, static-files-only website (including use of a custom domain), but requires use of a command-line interface to configure your site and deploy files.

Pagoda Box is all git-powered, techie, and scalable. It’s probably overkill for most students, but it’s free to get started and to create your first instance. (Yeah, I thought I might lose you at “instance.”) Freebie instances don’t get priority, however, so they are put in sleep mode after a while. Still, if you’re on a budget and don’t mind visitors having to wait a few seconds as your site wakes up, you can’t beat free. You can always “caffeinate” your site to prevent it from sleeping for $8/month. (Pagoda Box hosts this website, alignedleft.com.)

Heroku is conceptually similar but even techie-er than Pagoda Box. But still, you can get the basic service free.

Worst case, you can host your own website on an old laptop, a $25 Raspberry Pi, or even an old iPhone. Just don’t host from your dorm room, as doing so probably violates your university network’s terms of service.

Thanks

Thanks to the many people who chimed in on Twitter with ideas, including John C. Osborn, Fabrício Tavares, Aaron Hursman, Jonathan Dahan, Evan Hensleigh, Jer Thorp, Carlos Scheidegger, Bill McKessy, Paul Katsen, Dev Nambi, Spike Grobstein, Noah Veltman, Denise Nepraunig, Mike Bostock, Kristina Durivage, Derek Braid, Christopher C. Akiki, Sam Leach, Steven Hoelscher, Peter Liu, Winston Fassett, Gabriel Dunne, Mark M., Chris Zubak-Skees, and Christopher H. Brown.