Bare Metal Server vs. Virtual Machine: Which Is Best for Your Business?
By: Ernest Sampera on October 26, 2021
Today’s organizations have a lot of choices when deciding how to deploy their IT infrastructure. The days of relying upon dedicated on-premises deployments have given way to a diverse marketplace of options for hosting applications and data. Selecting the ideal strategy requires IT managers to have a firm understanding of their security and performance requirements. This is especially true of two of the more popular options available: bare metal servers and virtual machines.
What Is a Bare Metal Server?
The phrase “bare metal server” conjures up images of a single server bolted into a rack mount all by itself with nothing but a few cables running out the back. This actually isn’t too far off from the reality, and provides a helpful image for understanding what a bare metal server is and how it functions. A bare metal server is a single machine that is used by a single tenant who has access to 100 percent of the server’s computing resources. The tenant installs whatever operating system and applications they want on the hardware, and they can configure it to meet their specific operational needs.
If this sounds suspiciously like an on-premises server, that’s because it works in much the same fashion. Any private, physical server that hosts an in-house IT solution is technically a bare metal server, but the phrase itself is most commonly applied to colocated servers in third party data centers that are rented out for use. For the purposes of comparison, the defining characteristic of a bare metal server is “one machine, one tenant.” That is, only a single organization stores data and locates application workloads within the server. It’s processing resources are never utilized by anyone else.
What Is a Virtual Machine?
Virtual machines (VMs), on the other hand, represent a very different approach to IT management. As the name suggests, VMs don’t exist in a tangible, physical sense. They are created by a hypervisor program that parcels a server’s processing resources into distinct units, each of which utilizes those resources independently. A single physical server, then, can contain multiple VMs that all operate like mini-servers capable of running their own operating system, applications, and networking services.
But VMs aren’t necessarily limited to the capabilities of a single server. Cloud computing providers network multiple servers together to pool processing power and then deploy hypervisors to organize it into distinct virtual machines that can draw upon limitless capacity. One server, then, could potentially have multiple tenants utilizing its processing resources at any given time, each one managing a distinct and completely compartmentalized virtual machine. This virtualization technology is the foundation of cloud computing services, but it can also be used to provide customers with a distinct, fully customizable virtual server that, for all intents and purposes, works exactly like the server they used to keep in the closet down the hall.
What Are the Benefits of a Bare Metal Server?
The primary benefit of having a bare metal server is security. Because the client is the only one storing data and running applications on the server, there is zero chance of data accidentally seeping through the software defined boundaries of a virtual server. In order to access data stored on that server, users must be logged into applications running on it. There’s no possibility of someone gaining access to one virtual machine and then moving laterally to other tenants storing data within the cloud environment. Although such instances are quite rare, many industries with strict compliance regulations simply cannot take that chance and instead choose to store their mission critical data and workloads on a bare metal server.
Having the full power of a dedicated server available can also provide better performance for some applications. Large enterprises, for instance, are often better off managing their applications and data on a collection of bare metal servers they can fully customize to their very specific performance needs rather than relying upon virtual resources.
What Are the Benefits of a Virtual Machine?
While bare metal servers offer unparalleled control, they also put a very real limit on capacity. Once an organization’s IT needs grow beyond the processing resources of that server, they need to add more hardware to their infrastructure. Setting aside the cost considerations involved, this can also be a time consuming process. If a business is growing quickly, it may not be possible to add new equipment quickly enough to keep pace with demand. Even worse, if that demand suddenly disappears after the new servers are up and running, the organization is left paying for capacity that’s sitting idle.
Virtual machines offer far greater flexibility and eliminate much of the burdensome toil associated with managing physical infrastructure. Since resources are virtualized, they can be spread across multiple servers. This makes it easy to scale capacity upward or downward as it’s needed. For organizations undergoing rapid growth or facing volatile market demand, virtual machines offer a level of flexibility that bare metal servers can’t match.
Bare Metal Servers vs. Virtual Machines: Which Is Best for Your Business?
For most companies, making the decision between a bare metal server and a VM comes down to existing application needs, the ability to tolerate risk, and an assessment of future requirements. Of course, circumstances can change very quickly in today’s fast-paced environment, and a decision that makes sense today might prove less appealing a year later.
Fortunately, colocation data centers allow organizations to enjoy the best of both worlds. With their robust infrastructure and connectivity options, colocation facilities can support dedicated, bare metal servers while also providing their customers with access to virtualized resources offered by any number of providers via direct cloud on-ramps. A small business that starts out with a single bare metal server, for instance, may cope with rapid growth by connecting that server to multiple VM instances through a multi-cloud deployment. At a certain point, that same company might decide that they can operate more efficiently by pulling back on their cloud spending and adding additional physical servers.
By migrating their IT deployment into a colocation facility, companies maintain maximum flexibility that helps them avoid vendor lock-in and ensures that they will always be able to reimagine their infrastructure. When that versatility is combined with monitoring tools that provide greater visibility into how they’re actually utilizing resources, they can make more informed decisions when creating their technology strategy.