Virtual Server vs. Physical Server: 8 Key Differences to Know

Posted on Jun 6, 2022

As more physical data centers move to data center virtualization, virtual servers also become increasingly popular. However, it doesn't mean physical servers are out of date. Both have their own benefits and uses. This article will draw a comparison between physical servers and virtual servers to help you choose a viable option for your network.

What is a Physical Server?

A physical server, also known as a bare-metal server, refers to a computer server with the motherboard, CPU, memory, hard drive, network connection, as well as an operating system (OS) for running programs and applications. Physical servers are stored on-site and provide a mainframe for communications, data storage and processing.

Made up of powerful server components including physical hardware and an OS, a physical server is usually large in size. Because the resources and components of physical servers cannot be shared among different digital tenants, a single physical server is only able to serve a single business.

physical server

Common Types of Physical Servers

There are varied types of physical servers depending on their role in the network. The following is a list of some common types.

Web servers: Used for accessing the world wide web through public domain software. Put simply, web servers help your own computer access information from an internet website.

Proxy servers: Function as a bridge between a server and a client. As its name suggests, a proxy server acts on behalf of the user. It helps prevent invasions to a private network, and it can also be used to build a firewall.

File transfer protocol (FTP) servers: Used to relocate files between different computers. You can use FTP servers to download files from the server onto your computer or upload them from your computer to the server.

File servers: Store data files for multiple clients. They make data retrieval faster and make it easier to save or write files to a computer.

Database servers: Function as large storage that can be used and accessed to run multiple programs and applications. A database server can always run independently.

Print servers: Print files through a network by connecting remotely to local computers. Multiple computers can be connected to a print server so that they can share a single printer.

What is a Virtual Server?

A virtual server or virtual machine is a software-based environment that emulates all the functions of a physical server. They are used to deal with the virtualization of resources of a physical server, but usually the difference between a properly set-up virtual server and a physical one is not that palpable to end users.

Multiple virtual servers can be deployed on a physical server. We know that a single physical server can only run one type of operating system, but if it houses multiple virtual servers, each virtual server operates like an independent server. It runs its own OS and uses its own allocated resources such as memory, storage and computing components.


How Does a Virtual Server Work?

To set up a virtual server, a hypervisor has to be installed on top of physical hardware. Once installed, the hypervisor can create and manage virtual servers that have their own virtual computing resources. A hypervisor can abstract computing resources, memory, storage etc from the underlying hardware and assign them to virtual machines. This way multiple operating systems and applications can be loaded on top of the virtual hardware.

Since a hypervisor can support multiple virtual servers that share the underlying physical hardware, multiple applications can be run simultaneously and more operating systems can be allowed.

Physical Server vs. Virtual Server: 8 Key Differences

Now that we have had a closer look at both physical servers and virtual servers, let's move on to discuss their differences. The following lists 8 key differences you should know.

1. Performance

As physical servers have dedicated resources such as CPU, memory, storage, and network components, there is no competition. Thus physical servers are generally more powerful and efficient, and have better overall performance. While multiple virtual servers have to compete with one another for computing resources, making them prone to performance issues. This might lead to reduced efficiency and stability.

Even when a virtual server has the same capabilities and computing resources as a physical server, it cannot have the same level of performance. If your organization network has to work with a large amount of data and runs operations that require the full use of computing resources, a physical server may be a better choice.

2. Management

As for management, virtual servers are relatively easier to manage than physical servers. For instance, if a physical server fails, it could take a long time to restore it to its original state. By contrast, the recovery process for virtual servers can be finished fast by initiating previous backups.

In addition, because virtual servers are built upon physical hardware that is already in place, they can be created and powered on in a short time. That is not the case with physical servers which need additional components to be installed and set up before they can be used.

However, a high level of expertise is required to manage virtual servers. You should make sure your IT team is equipped with enough specific skills to manage your virtual platform.

3. Security

Security management is easier in a virtual environment than in a physical one. With technologies at the hypervisor layer, security can be centralized for easier management. But for every physical server, you have to build an individual system of protection based on its own capabilities, computing resources, and the confidentiality of data stored. If there are a large number of physical servers in your network, it would be hard labor.

Moreover, a virtual server can be protected using a universal security model. Your IT team can develop, document, and implement security policies through dashboards on the hypervisor.

4. Portability

Portability is another major difference. You can easily move the workload across the virtual environment, for example, from one physical hardware platform to another without much input on your part. This workload migration can be done online.

But migrating your physical servers to another place is a complex process. In this case, you will need to move all data and hardware resources stored on the server to a new location, and then reinstall all of the software/hardware components on a new physical server. That means you almost have to rebuild a physical server from scratch.

5. Scalability

Physical servers are more difficult to scale. Additional hardware components have to be used. In the case of new operating systems, new servers have to be purchased and installed. Besides, the process of installation and configuration takes a long time.

A virtual server environment is more scalable. Multiple virtual machines can be easily added to or removed from the virtual environment. Based on your own business needs, you can easily scale up or down your virtual environment. Plus, no additional server hardware is needed.

6. Space Requirements

As mentioned above, multiple virtual servers can run on one single physical server, and they also share all physical hardware. This means virtual servers are more space-efficient. By contrast, physical servers require much more space since they have to house physical hardware such as CPU, memory, and storage.

7. Maintenance

For both physical servers and virtual servers, it is essential to carry out 24/7 monitoring to prevent potential risks. When a physical server has some issue, only one physical entity needs to be fixed, which can simplify troubleshooting.

At the same time, virtual servers have the ability to isolate physical component failures from operating systems. This can lower the risks of downtime to some extent.

8. Cost

To build a virtual server environment, you need to invest more in hardware and software, but upgrading and scaling are far more cost-efficient. So virtual servers may lower the total cost in the long run.

For physical servers, you may save some money on initial software purchase, but if you want to expand your physical environment, it will incur higher costs.

When to Choose One over the Other?

The discussion above shows that both physical servers and virtual servers have their own benefits and limits. No one wins in every aspect. To help you make the optimal choice, here we sum up the most important considerations.

  • If you have demanding workloads and processing speed is your major concern, go for physical servers as they have powerful performance.

  • If your network needs to be scaled up and down flexibly depending on your business growth, virtual servers may be a preferred choice. They can also meet more variable needs of SMBs and large enterprises.

In a word, there’s no simple answer. When choosing between the two, it is important to consider their distinctive features and your own business needs to find out which fits your infrastructure best.

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