Disclaimer: This article is designed for our clients to understand the two hosting solutions we provide, it is not a product comparison guide.
TL;DR (Short version)
WPEngine vs Digital Ocean (with Plesk)
WPEngine is essentially a “done for you” opinionated approach by WordPress hosting experts while Digital Ocean + Plesk is the opposite, highly configurable and flexible, where we are personally the ones managing everything from amount of server space, to what versions of operating system, server, database, and code stack, security settings, backups, etc.
… for small sites
Our Digital Ocean rented server + Plesk control panel solution is good for a small site with low traffic (less than 1,000 monthly users) and infrequent site changes where hosting price matters and your site occasionally being down for an hour or two every few months is not going to hurt your bottom line.
… for medium sites
Our WPEngine managed WordPress solution is good for a medium site (1,000 to 25,000 monthly users) where you are implementing somewhat frequent website changes, you need to maximize reliability because having your site go down for a few hours would hurt your bottom line. It also has more built-in security features. If you have international traffic, WPEngine will be faster around the world out of the box. WPEngine still goes down, but they have more monitoring, tooling and resources to fix unexpected downtimes faster.
… for large sites
Above 25,000 monthly users, Digital Ocean with self-managed solution starts to become a worthwhile consideration again. At this point, WPEngine pricing really jumps, and self-managing well can mean even faster sites, higher uptime, and lower hosting overhead, but higher implementation costs.
Why just these two options? The most important thing our clients care about is site load speed. And both have excellent speed.
Digital Ocean vs WPEngine: What’s the difference?
It is a question of having a low touch website server to host your site (Digital Ocean) versus having a fully managed solution for hosting WordPress sites only (WPengine).
Renting server space on something like Digital Ocean
Digital Ocean is essentially rented server space where we set up a hosting environment for you. It is designed for developers to have low cost high quality servers. On the servers we use a self-managed hosting control panel software called Plesk (sort of like cPanel but with more flexibility).
For us, this keeps ongoing hosting costs very low while allowing us to give clients high speed websites. We moved all of our client sites from Godaddy, Bluehost/Hostmonster, SiteGround, Dreamhost, etc., over to this solution in 2017-2018. It requires customization, monitoring, maintenance, but allows us to do many of those things for all of our WordPress websites at once.
It is more similar to AWS or Google Cloud, servers that can be used for anything. It prioritizes website performance over support, and if you are hosting a small site with us on Digital Ocean, it means your site may go down occasionally. We have 99.95% uptime (site is down a few hours per year), while WPEngine claims to have 99.99% uptime, but they calculate it differently and do not count what they call “excused downtime.”
If you are price sensitive, and your website is small, and it is okay if your site goes down for a few hours every few months or so, our Digital Ocean solution is a good option where your site will be fast for users and Google, and your costs will be as low as possible for good speed.
Alternative server solutions also exist. AWS and Google Cloud are the most popular, but we do not work with those for our client sites.
Premium Managed WordPress Solutions like WPEngine
WPEngine is a fully managed (by a third party) WordPress hosting solution. Managed solutions like this exist for good reason. WordPress is an open source project that has existed for 15+ years, and thousands of developers have worked on the code that goes into your website. WordPress is complex, a lot can go wrong.
WPEngine, and other premium managed WordPress hosting solutions try to take a lot of the hassle out of the process of hosting, managing and keeping WordPress websites secure.
It’s a pay more to get a fast site with hosting features that make things easier for you and more secure for everyone.
If you are paying a developer to work on your site hourly, you could conceivably save 5 dev hours by having them press a few buttons.There are a lot of one click button or simple step workflows in the UI to:
- Spin up a WordPress install
- Quickly and easily migrate sites to WPEngine with their migration plugin
- Add SSL/HTTPS
- Enable/disable CDN
- Enable caching and clear caching
- Take a backup as needed
WPEngine support is also reliable. I have used it over 100 times. If you have an issue, your chat wait time will be somewhere between 10 seconds and 10 minutes, usually on the lower end.
Their support technicians are reasonably well trained, they have good systems for solving common problems, and you often get someone knowledgeable enough for your issue (though, not always).
Other features they have:
- automatic daily backups for all your sites
- multi stage development workflow (dev – staging – live and command line interface, which many developers prefer to work with)
- secured by a specialized website security company called Securi, this means when popular plugins have security vulnerabilities that WPEngine may take action to notify you, deactivate the plugin, or force an update when a patch is ready
- fast loading across the world (international data centers across continents + managed global CDN (also good for international SEO)
My biggest complaint about WPEngine is their marketing and sales. Just look at their homepage. Everything is “digital experience platform” and other cryptic language. The salespeople I have interacted with on behalf of clients with very large sites were incredibly not helpful, and try to sell the idea of a “digital experience platform.”
Like, come on, bro. Just be a person.
Notes on Premium vs Cheap Managed WordPress solutions:
What is a premium managed WordPress hosting solution?
Premium managed WordPress solutions are generally more expensive options around $300+ per year. Meanwhile most mega hosting companies have a cheap managed WordPress solution now, often starting at $1 per month, and then increasing over time. We do not recommend these.
Alternative premium managed WordPress solutions include Get Flywheel and Kinsta. Flywheel’s interface is a little easier to learn. Both have decent site performance.
But even with those, (and arguably all managed solutions) developers are prone to being frustrated, I spent 2 hours setting up redirects in Kinsta once because it was buggy. Flywheel also limited developer access to database tables when it came out.
We have stopped working with those for our client sites in favor of saving time and being good at the one strong managed solution in WPEngine. There is just too much to learn, too many little quirks that eat up development and maintenance work. Many laypeople choosing WordPress use and are happy with these solutions, you wouldn’t be making a bad decision with either.
Godaddy and other mega hosting companies you’re familiar with have cheap managed WordPress options. But we do not recommend them.
These solutions are so cheap because they throttle site speed so they can jam lots of sites onto server instances. Godaddy Managed WordPress support is thinly veiled salespersons incentivized toward predatory practices of upselling you on things you don’t need or that should be free. We’ve also had major issues with core DNS settings being overwritten multiple times.
Ironically, the owner of Godaddy now has majority share ownership of WPEngine. Go figure.
Alternative fully custom hosting solutions
- Google Cloud, AWS, and Digital Ocean are the best solutions here.
- You select your server type, OS, choose your control panel solution and can fine-tune control everything effectively.
- Pros / Cons – You will save a few thousand a year doing this for all your sites – but you will spend 5-10k more to get it tuned up to what a good managed wordpress solution can do, and you have a bit more exposure to new issues as well as higher maintenance costs for core upgrades.
TTFB tests for WPEngine vs Digital Ocean
Disclaimer: this is not a great test. But for a time at least, it was considered to be a quick check Google could perform to get a proxy for site speed. And we found correlation with this metric over other performance measures.
The following shows that Digital Ocean can be fast and WPEngine can be slower:
Running TTFB test in Terminal with this command:
curl -w "@curl-format.txt" -o /dev/null -s "https://nameofsite.com/"
For my curl checking a self managed site on Digital Ocean I got
- Testing Website Response Time for :https://inboundfound.com/
- Lookup Time: 0.001909
- Connect Time: 0.012438
- Pre-transfer Time: 0.042033
- Start-transfer Time: 0.056328
- Total Time: 0.056840
For my curl checking Inbound Found site on WPEngine I got
- Testing Website Response Time for :https://inboundfound.com/
- Lookup Time: 0.006074
- Connect Time: 0.041180
- Pre-transfer Time: 0.113880
- Start-transfer Time: 0.121823
- Total Time: 0.10361