Servers are the backbone of any organization’s IT infrastructure. They store data, run applications, and provide services to internal and external users. Companies have three main options when it comes to deploying servers – physical servers, virtual servers, and cloud servers. Each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. This article provides an in-depth comparison between physical, virtual and cloud servers to help you determine the right approach for your business.
What is a Physical Server?
A physical server, also known as a bare metal server, is a dedicated computer hardware system used by itself for server operations. It consists of components like the motherboard, CPU, RAM, storage, and network interfaces. The operating system and software run directly on the underlying hardware.
Physical servers are highly configurable, allowing you to customize components for optimal performance. They offer dedicated CPU, memory and storage resources not shared with other servers. This eliminates resource contention issues seen in virtual environments. Physical servers are best suited for workloads that demand high computing power like databases, ERP systems, CRMs, and other resource-intensive applications.
Some common types of physical servers and their typical uses:
- File servers – Centralized file storage accessed by multiple users over a network.
- Application servers – Host applications and ensure high availability. Common for intranet apps.
- Web servers – Host websites and web applications accessible via the internet.
- Database servers – Manage and store large amounts of structured data like customer info.
- Email servers – Handle sending and receiving of employee emails.
- Print servers – Manage print requests from network printers.
What is a Virtual Server?
A virtual server, also called a virtual machine (VM), is a software implementation of a physical server. Virtualization software like VMware and Hyper-V allows you to create multiple VMs that run on a single physical server. The physical hardware is virtualized, so each VM has its own CPU, RAM, storage, and network virtualized from the underlying physical hardware.
VMs run their own operating systems and software, independent of other VMs on the same physical machine. This allows a single server to run multiple applications and services simultaneously by creating isolated virtual server environments. VMs can also be easily moved between different physical servers to balance workloads.
Virtualization provides huge cost savings through server consolidation. Instead of provisioning multiple physical servers, you can host many VMs on fewer powerful servers. It also enables quick deployment of new servers without waiting for hardware delivery. VMs can be backed up or cloned much more easily than physical servers.
What is a Cloud Server?
A cloud server refers to an on-demand virtual server hosted on a cloud computing platform like AWS, Google Cloud, or Azure. The hardware is owned by the cloud provider. As a customer, you access the virtual servers remotely over the internet.
Cloud servers provide all the benefits of virtualization without having to manage the underlying infrastructure. Server capacity can scale up and down to meet demand. You pay only for the computing resources consumed. Startup costs are minimal compared to investing in physical infrastructure.
Cloud servers are hosted off-premises by the service provider. This makes them ideal for mobility, disaster recovery, and global deployments. However, some organizations prefer keeping servers on-premises for security reasons. Hybrid cloud solutions allow you to run servers both on-prem and in the cloud.
Physical Server vs Virtual Server vs Cloud Server: Key Differences
|Parameter||Physical Server||Virtual Server||Cloud Server|
|Hardware Ownership||You own the servers||You own the physical hardware running VMs||Managed by cloud provider|
|Location||On-premises||On-premises||At cloud provider’s data center|
|Scalability||Limited – requires purchasing new servers||Flexible – spin up new VMs easily||Auto-scaling built-in|
|Costs||High upfront cost for new servers||Low upfront cost, reduces overall TCO through consolidation||Pay-as-you-go based on usage|
|Performance||Very high with dedicated resources||May be impacted due to resource sharing||Guaranteed baseline performance|
|Security||Full control over security||Added hypervisor security||Managed according to cloud provider policies|
|Maintenance||Your IT team responsible||Your IT team responsible||Outsourced to cloud provider|
|Disaster Recovery||Manual failover to standby servers||VMs can be recovered or failed over quickly||Built-in backup and cross-region DR options|
Physical Server vs Virtual Server vs Cloud Server: Historical Perspective
In the early days of computing, businesses had no choice but to use physical servers due to the lack of virtualization technology. As hardware got more expensive, IT faced escalating costs for constantly purchasing and maintaining standalone servers. High costs along with low utilization rates led to the development of virtualization software like VMware in the 1990s.
Virtualization saw fast enterprise adoption due to its ability to consolidate multiple physical servers onto fewer powerful servers. This allowed increased optimization of existing hardware. Virtualization evolved with advanced capabilities like live migration of VMs, storage virtualization, virtual networking and hyperconverged infrastructure.
The 2000s saw the rise of cloud computing with Amazon Web Services launching its on-demand IaaS model in 2006. Cloud services have greatly matured since then. Today, the cloud offers not just virtual servers but fully managed software services accessible over the internet. However, many organizations still run workloads across physical, virtual and cloud infrastructures.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Physical Server
Advantages of Physical Server
- Maximum performance with dedicated compute, memory and storage.
- Highly customizable hardware configurations.
- No virtualization overhead leading to most efficient workload utilization.
- Full control over entire software and hardware stack.
- May have lower licensing costs for OS and software.
- Suits applications requiring access to proprietary hardware and drivers.
Disadvantages of Physical Server
- Higher capital expenditure and operating costs.
- Not easily scalable – adding resources requires new servers.
- Underutilization can be an issue.
- More physical space needed in server rooms.
- Manual hardware installation and cabling.
- Difficult replication and DR requires duplicate servers.
- Hardware failures can cause prolonged downtime.
- OS or app changes need server reboots and downtime.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Server
Advantages of Virtual Server
- Reduces costs through increased hardware optimization.
- Easy and fast deployment of new servers.
- Virtual servers can be moved across physical hosts.
- Balances workloads by shifting VMs across hosts.
- Failover and recovery of VMs is easy.
- Can isolate apps and increase security.
- Built-in live migration, snapshotting and backup.
- Redundancy and high availability features.
- Hardware maintenance does not affect VM uptime.
Disadvantages of Virtual Server
- Potential performance overhead compared to bare metal.
- Requires advanced skills to manage virtualization.
- Affects all VMs if hypervisor host fails.
- Host hardware bottlenecks can impact VMs.
- Virtual networks add complexity.
- OS support limited to what hypervisor supports.
- Licensing costs for virtualization tools.
- Features like live migration increase bandwidth needs.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Cloud Server
Advantages of Cloud Server
- No large upfront investment in hardware.
- Pay-as-you-go and scalability to handle spikes.
- Faster deployment without lengthy IT procurement.
- Automatic failover and backup features.
- Geographic redundancy across regions.
- High availability guaranteed in SLA.
- Access servers from anywhere.
- Transfer CAPEX spending to OPEX.
- Available expertise of cloud provider staff.
Disadvantages of Cloud Server
- Monthly costs can exceed long term ownership over time.
- Potential data security and privacy risks.
- Reliance on internet connectivity.
- Limited configuration options compared to on-prem.
- Migrating data to cloud can be challenging.
- Loss of full control – bound by cloud provider policies.
- Vendor lock-in makes moving providers difficult.
- Cloud provider outage can disrupt operations.
Physical Servers – Have high upfront costs of purchasing server hardware and data center infrastructure like racks, power and cooling. Ongoing costs include IT staff for maintenance, upgrades, security patching, and manual disaster recovery.
Virtual Servers – Require initial investment in powerful servers, virtualization software licensing, and IT skills training. Saves money long term by reducing number of servers through consolidation. Further cost savings by avoiding frequent physical server replacements.
Cloud Servers – No initial hardware investments. Pay only for actual cloud resources used. Saves on hiring expert staff needed for management. Reduces overall IT operational costs for small to mid-size organizations. Larger enterprises may find cloud costs exceeding their on-prem infrastructure over the long term.
How to Choose The Right One From The Three?
Here are some key factors to consider when deciding between physical, virtual and cloud servers:
- Application performance needs – Physical servers for high throughput apps using maximum compute and storage.
- Information security requirements – On-prem options if data privacy is critical. Cloud brings security risks.
- In-house vs outsourced IT expertise – Cloud ideal if limited in-house skills and budget.
- IT staff workload – Cloud servers reduce hands-on management.
- Budget – Both virtual and cloud reduce hardware costs. Cloud has predictable monthly spends.
- Agility needs – Cloud and virtual allow fast deployments to meet dynamic demands.
- Disaster recovery needs – Cloud has automatic failover across regions.
- Regulatory compliance – Physical or virtual may be required to meet data residency laws.
Here are some real-world scenarios that favor one deployment over others:
- A small business without an IT team is best served by cloud servers. Easy management and lower costs.
- A mid-size company with 500 employees is well suited for a hybrid model. Critical apps on secure on-prem VMs and web servers in the cloud.
- Large enterprises with stringent security needs likely still need their own physical data centers or private cloud.
Physical, virtual, and cloud servers all bring unique capabilities to the table. Physical servers provide raw computing power and customized hardware. Virtual servers allow consolidation and flexible resource allocation. Cloud servers enable ubiquity, automation, and offloading of IT responsibilities.
As the examples illustrate, most organizations employ a combination of deployment models. The right fit depends on your application architectures, security posture, IT skills, agility requirements, and budgetary constraints. A hybrid approach balances the pros and cons of each. But continuously evaluating your servers against business demands ensures you end up with optimal infrastructure.