When you set up a website, you’ll be faced with the immediate question: what type of web hosting solution is best for me? Is a physical or a virtual server the best option? Is a shared or dedicated hosting suitable for what I want to do?

Let’s look briefly at the three main options:

  1. Shared hosting
  2. Dedicated server hosting
  3. Cloud or virtual private server (VPS) hosting

Room to share

Shared hosting is by far the most common option for small businesses and individuals. Consisting of many websites hosted on one single server, shared hosting offers extremely good value for money. Security is less of an individual concern as it is provided by the hosting company through the installation of firewalls and server security programs, which means that your fellow users will be unable to access your account or your website.

Shared hosting is also very simple to set up, making it ideal for the beginner or non-technical user who has no interest in learning about servers, but who needs a website up and running with the minimum of fuss. One potential drawback of hosting in a shared environment is that a lot of traffic is generated overall by many users, which drains bandwidth and sometimes leads to slow loading and response times. With shared hosting, you can also face the risk of getting blacklisted by search engines if someone else on your server engages in unethical practices such as spamming.

Dedicated server hosting on the other hand, is a single server hosting the websites or applications of a single user. The advantage of having a dedicated server is that the entire server is focused on optimum performance for one individual, all of the time. While dedicated hosting is more expensive than shared hosting, the huge amount of processing power makes it worth the cost if your website requires very fast page-load times, a dedicated IP, and the ability to handle a lot of traffic – as many as 100,000 visitors per month, for example. The level of control in a dedicated server is much higher as users can add their own preferred applications, programs, and scripts to create something bespoke for them. Dedicated servers are highly secure and often offer several IPs for multiple services that need to be kept separate.

Cloud hosting, sometimes known as virtual private server (VPS) hosting, is probably the most difficult to describe out of the three types. A VPS is a virtual machine (VM) which functions as a server, but uses virtualisation to share the resources of one or several physical machines. Its resources can therefore be adjusted without needing to power down the hardware and perform physical upgrades (as on a traditional server).

Imagine a computer with the potential for thousands of processor cores, terabytes of RAM, and unlimited hard drive space. Then imagine that, for an hourly fee, you could access as much or as little of those resources as you needed at short notice. In a sense, it’s the best of both worlds: a huge amount of computing resources, similar to that of a single dedicated server, but for an affordable price comparable to that of shared hosting – and with the benefit of scalability and flexibility thrown in. In a way, it’s a bit like hiring a freelancer instead of a full-time employee. The resources are available when you need them (up to a point, as they are probably being shared with other people), but you don’t have the full-time expense of hiring someone indefinitely to work at full capacity.

With more customization options than shared hosting, VPS hosting is also good for the more technically inclined, and usually caters to programmers and web designers.

Bare metal servers: Best of both worlds?

But there’s one option that we haven’t mentioned so far: bare metal servers. This is a relatively recent development that offers a hybrid solution, providing performance and cost-effectiveness by combining the best bits of both dedicated hardware and cloud technology. Bare metal servers are not completely new – they’re more like a reinvention of dedicated servers – but they differ from dedicated servers in how they integrate with cloud-based technologies to offer increased flexibility and cost control.

Bare metal servers are ‘physical’ servers, not virtual, and they’re also ‘single tenant,’ meaning that each one belongs to a single customer. While each server may run any amount of work for the customer, or may have multiple simultaneous users, a bare metal server is nevertheless dedicated entirely to the one customer who rents it. Unlike many servers in a data center, these machines are not shared between multiple customers. Compared to the cloud, where multiple users reside on the same physical server, the bare metal server only has one customer.

Bare metal servers are designed to deal with significant, but short-term, processing needs. Data can be stored, processed or analysed on a server for as long as is necessary, and then the server can be wound back down when it’s no longer needed. This way, resources aren’t wasted, and there’s no need to continue running the server for longer than necessary.

Bare metal = no hypervisor = best performance

Bare metal servers offer higher performance by eliminating the need for a hypervisor layer (the virtual machine monitor which creates and runs VMs and which manages the execution of the guest operating systems). This is because the operating system is run directly on the server. Running the hypervisor inevitably puts a drain on resources, which is what can lead to the degradation in performance on cloud servers. However, there is no hypervisor layer on bare metal servers (because they are dedicated, physical machines), so this overhead, and the resulting performance hit, is eliminated.

From a technical perspective, a bare metal server is basically the same as a dedicated server – in that it offers high-performance resources that are dedicated to one user – but with the advantage of flexible, pay-as-you-use billing and no contracts.

It’s all about the hybrid

Bare metal servers really come into their own when they’re combined with a more traditional cloud infrastructure. If you already have a cluster of virtual machines hosting your website for example, you can link your bare metal server to your VMs and have them work together.

High-performance bare metal servers are ideal for situations where companies need to perform short-term, data-intensive functions without any kind of overhead performance penalties, such as big data processing. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) means that more data is being collected than ever before, but you may only need to process your data once or twice a year. It may only take a couple of days or a couple of weeks, so there’s no need to waste money on a fully-functioning server 365 days a year.

Another benefit of bare metal is security. The risk of breaking regulatory compliance in an environment with multiple tenants was the main reason why security-sensitive organisations were originally reluctant to move their data to the cloud. But with bare-metal servers, it is possible to implement physical segregation of resources and so isolate your own operations.

To summarize its selling point, the bare metal/cloud hybrid solution provides a way to complement or substitute virtualized cloud services with a dedicated server environment that eliminates the hypervisor overhead, but without sacrificing flexibility, scalability and efficiency.

So, you can see that VMs are great for some things and bare-metal servers are great for other things. Sometimes those reasons are technology-based and sometimes those reasons are finance-based.

The type of hosting you decide on will ultimately come down to your budget, the amount of control you need, and your unique server and website needs. Pick a server that best serves your needs and is in your price range, but which has the flexibility to scale up when the time comes.