A very good morning to you Matt, and all, from snowy Muroran in the north of Japan. Yes, yes I know you said North America but when you talk of hosting, people from other countries use north American companies too - I'm one of them. Hosting is becoming a global thing though, and I know there are many good hosting companies now both in Japan and around the world. When looking for a host, you shouldn't really limit your choices to one country even though that is where you live. The speed of connection does not really change that much just because the host is in a different part of the world. Still, I'll keep my response related to the U.S.
First and foremost, before you look at other hosting options, your really should look at the Moodle partners. By going with one of them (though not Moodlerooms as they are now owned by Blackboard) you know that you are giving back to the Moodle community in many more ways than one.
OK, so you've looked at them and thought they are a little too expensive. Hmmm, what to do. First, really think "are they expensive?" Remember that they set up the Moodle for you and know Moodle intimately. Depending on how much you consider your time is worth per hour, often they will be cheaper than hosting options in the long run.
So you still think, "no, I'm going with a host". OK there are lots of things you have to consider. Obviously price is one thing. You mention that you have received a quote for $70 dollars a year. You are probably thinking "how the heck can someone survive charging so little". Well, that is because companies that charge between $70-100 for shared hosting generally put up to and over 500 accounts on a single server. I've seen one with 1070 accounts on the one server. If you have friends who have shared hosting please do the following:
1. Go to http://whois.domaintools.com/
2. Enter the domain name in to the section there.
3. Click on the "lookup" button.
4. In the information section that appears after clicking pay careful attention to the "reverse ip" number. That tells you how many other people are sharing that server.
Now that 70 odd dollars a year starts to make economical sense 500x70 = 35000 dollars. That is one server the company probably paid around 5 thousand dollars for. They have to supply one or two people to get things going and, if they are good, backup servers etc but you can see that, yes, hosting could be quite profitable.
Economical sense for the company yes, but does it make sense for a teacher to use this kind of service? If you are professional and want the best for your students, then you have to think about giving students (in no particular order of importance, though obviously some are more important than others) 1. a reasonably quick site (having over 500 sites on one server obviously results in slower speeds) 2. security - moodle itself is secure enough and shouldn't be a problem with others on the same server but with so many accounts on a single server, the chances that something will go wrong increase. 3. stability - there is nothing worse than being in a class and the site crashing. It makes you, the teacher, look like a goose. If it happens during a quiz, or worse, an exam, then it is seriously damaging in many respects. There are other things too but I'm starting to get tired as you probably are too.
Right, you've considered price and checked on how they stack up regarding how many sites they stack on their servers (hence you've thought about security, stability and speed). What else? Your list of some of the nitty gritty things is a good one to start with - though when companies state "unlimited" disk space and unlimited mysql databases you should really be worried. For 70 odd dollars there is no way they can truly mean that and offer a speed and reliability at the same time. You'll also have to think about their service - do they answer your questions in a timely manner? (often they answer questions from potential clients far more quickly than they do actual clients!) Will they give actual Moodle support - you really shouldn't expect it unless they are a moodle partner. Check their stats for downtime. Do they offer "restore from backups" ie, do they back up their servers to a site outside where they have their servers? Worst case scenario - if there is a fire in the building where the servers are and they are destroyed, if there is no off site back up everything is gone. Think about that for a long moment....
OK, to the part you are probably wondering about - do I use shared hosting? Yes and no. Back in 2003 when I first started using Moodle I used shared hosting to begin with. I have kept using it for testing and other things though I have had my own server since 2007.
So many stories to tell of shared hosting.... The first host I chose took my money and many others I'm sure. Found out that after 4 months of good service one morning I woke up and the site was down. Found out months later that the person had got to the amount he wanted and decided it was time for him to go to the Caribbean. Sold up and left everyone with nothing. I lost everything. Since then, I've been more conscientious about taking backups of my courses and putting them in places (notice the plural "s") that are safe.
Didn't give up though and have been happy with the service of http://lumasis.com/ since 2005 My site there comes back with 85 on the reverse ip stat. It is a little more expensive but I've never had problems with them. I think the money is well spent. I work at a university in Muroran so am not involved with the hosting company. Last month I was in charge of a workshop at MoodleMoot Japan where I had up to 40 people accessing a training course I have on the shared hosting site. Many of the attendees were accessing as teachers creating and doing quizzes. The site held up well for the entire time. 50 people did the workshop module on the site over a separate 90 minute period and again, no crashes.
Now, I've spent a lot of time working out how to use the cPanel system and setting up Moodle etc. Looking back, I often think I might have been better to have gone with a Moodle partner. It is a steep learning curve being in charge of setting up Moodle and that takes a lot of time. I strongly advise you not to use the "one click" setup scripts such as Fantastico. There are so many problems with these that it would take a post longer than this one to cover them.
Still, I've become reasonably cognizant of servers and how the net works because of the time I spent learning how to do this and it has opened some doors that wouldn't have been opened otherwise. The big thing here really is - do you want to become a nerd for becoming a nerd's sake, or do you want Moodle with as little hassle as possible? If it is the later, then go with a partner. If not and you want to do the nerdy thing, then yes, go for a hosting company - but be well informed! Good luck with it all.