Servers: the foundation of your IT systems, and the powerhouse for your mission-critical company data.
 
When it comes to crafting your organization’s infrastructure, there are two main options to compare: a physical server environment, or a virtual server environment.
 
Over and over again our clients have asked which environment would be the best fit for them (usually when it’s time for a large-scale hardware upgrade). This conversation can get fairly technical, but it’s one we’re happy to dig into when the opportunity presents itself.
 
To help you make an informed decision about which sort of server environment is best for your organization, we’ll take the time to work through the benefits and challenges associated with each, and give our ultimate recommendation for which type we tend to prefer.
 

The benefits of virtual servers for business

With a virtual server environment, you’ll have the benefit of:

  • Scalability. Rather than having to buy new hardware every time you need a new server, you’ll be able to “spin up” a new server in far less time (and for far less money).
  • Efficient use of resources. Most physical servers only run at 25% capacity, which leaves plenty of leftover memory and processing power. With virtual servers, one physical server will be “hosting” multiple virtual servers—so you’re getting much more out of that one host (and that one investment).
  • Minimal downtime. If you have to work on one of your host servers (adding memory, for example), you can simply move your virtual servers to a new host, perform the required maintenance, and move them back with no interruption to your services.
  • Disaster recovery. It’s much faster and easier to restore a failed server in a virtual environment. You can also easily build in a second Storage Area Network (SAN) that replicates all of your data and gives you far more robust on-site recovery capabilities.
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  • Simplified management. Hypervisors will allow you to log into one server and manage all of the servers in that environment. You’ll also get more in the way of statistics and reporting than you would from a physical device.
  • Security. Security is centralized through the hypervisor software; instead of securing each of your individual servers, you just have to focus on building proper safeguards and controls into your underlying software. 

 

The challenges with virtual servers for business

Despite the benefits, there are a few drawbacks to having a virtual environment: 

  • Up-front costs. Typically, you’ll need to invest in at least two robust hosts and a SAN to get your virtual environment started. You’re probably looking at less money in the long run when compared to a physical server scenario, but there is still a large capital investment at the outset.
  • Single point of failure. Virtual servers require proper planning up-front; if you don’t have the proper redundancy in place, having all of your servers running off of one host means that if you lose that one server, everything is gone. You can mitigate this risk by having multiple hosts and a SAN on which you can back up your data, but this will be an additional investment for you.
  • Requisite skillset. A virtual environment is more complex than a physical environment. This means that if your IT team doesn’t have the proper skillset, you could be in for some trouble. 

 

The benefits of physical servers for business

When it comes to a traditional physical server environment, the main benefits are as follows:

  • Requisite skillset. On the flip side, a physical environment is easier to maintain than a virtual environment. This means it will be less difficult to find someone who can properly manage and maintain your systems.
  • Processing power. Certain applications will demand dedicated processing power to run optimally, and are really better suited to run on a physical machine (where they don’t share processors). 

 

The challenges with physical servers for business

Drawbacks with physical servers are:

  • Downtime. Need to perform maintenance on one of your servers? Plan for downtime.
  • Storage. Yes, a virtual environment will still require a few physical devices. With a purely physical server environment, though, you’ll generally need to account for a dedicated server room with much more space, much more cooling, and much more power to properly and safely store your network.
  • Capital investment. In order to get the same level of power and redundancy as you’ll get with virtual servers, you’re going to need to buy additional servers. This adds up quickly. 

 

Our overall recommendation

In case it wasn’t clear enough by the evident imbalance in these lists, our general recommendation is to use virtual servers wherever possible.


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Not only does a virtual environment provide far more flexibility than a physical environment, but it is generally more cost-effective to boot.
 
In the end, what’s most important is that you have a reliable resource to support whichever sort of server environment you end up moving forward with. If you need help with this piece, here are some articles we wrote on how to evaluate your internal IT team, or your outsourced team.
 
Technology is only as good as the people behind it, after all.

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