February 16, 2023
Physical server vs. cloud server: a guide

Growing a successful business means future-proofing. Your website is an investment in that business — so deciding what server to run your business on is critical.

Your choice of server directly affects site performance, so it’s an important decision to make.

What’s the right server for your business?

The server and configuration that’s aligned with your needs.

In this article, we’ll compare physical servers vs. cloud servers. We’ll walk you through the benefits of and differences between physical and cloud servers, and help you make the best decision.

Physical server vs. cloud server myths debunked

Let’s dispel some myths.

First off, all servers have a physical component. Cloud servers are still connected to a physical server — there’s no magic at work.

Secondly, physical servers aren’t dinosaurs and they’re not a step back in technology. They’re powerhouses that are utilized just as often today.

No server is the definitive option for customers, because it’s the unique needs of your business that determine which option would be best.

When reviewing physical and cloud server options, consider the following questions:

  • How big or complicated is your business?
  • What is your budget like?
  • Is fast scaling a concern?
  • How custom do you want your setup to be?

The bottom line is that both are excellent options — each of these options have benefits, and both have drawbacks.

Comparing physical servers vs. cloud servers

Physical servers

Physical servers are also known as “baremetal” servers.

Physical servers are exclusive and dedicated to one client. Your server is stored in its own spot on a physical rack in one of our data centers. Setup can be more expensive initially as the cost is largely dependent on what resources you want.

If you’ve ever bought a desktop computer, you know there are ready-to-ship models or you can customize your own. You choose your processor, graphics cards, and memory.

Why would you want to do that?

Because the basic models all have set specs for everyone that buys that model. A custom setup gives you exactly what you want.

If you go with a physical option, there is a breadth of hardware options to choose from among our offerings. When you know exactly what you’re working with, you can better gauge what your performance will be like.

You also have much more flexibility for custom setups, with options for hardware add-ons such as a hardware VPN, firewalls, etc.

Baremetal also adds a layer of protection from your neighbors. Your server is YOUR server.

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Cloud setups can have more than one client provisioned on the same physical hardware. This means your performance won’t be affected by another client drawing down resources.

While virtualization costs continue to shrink, baremetal servers benefit from not having virtual overhead. When you boil it down, physical servers are always going to outperform cloud options.

Physical servers are not without drawbacks.

If you underestimate your needs, you may eventually need to provision a new server and migrate. You can also overestimate your needs and end up buying robust hardware that doesn’t get utilized.

Working with a hosting provider that understands ecommerce and is invested in helping you make the right decisions for your business can help reduce that risk.

Running a big sale or other traffic-dependent event?

Baremetal sometimes requires pre-planning, even weeks ahead of time. Your host’s support team needs time to load test your site, confer with you about recommendations, and implement any necessary changes.

“In the moment” performance increases are limited for active events and sales.

Pros and cons of physical servers over cloud servers

Ability to choose specific hardware, providing known specific performanceInitial costs may be slightly higher
Head-to-head, baremetal will always offer the best performanceUndersizing and oversizing server needs can mean provisioning a new server and migrating
True isolation from potential impact of other client servers Traffic-dependent events often require significant pre-planning
Usually provides the most “options” for complex setupsOrder-to-delivery times are usually measured in days

Cloud servers

A cloud server is one of many virtual servers that exist on a baremetal system.

Hosting companies build out many baremetal systems and, through the use of virtualization software, create many virtual servers on that baremetal infrastructure.

What’s very attractive about cloud server options is that it takes a few minutes for most plan types to get spun up for clients, as opposed to days for a physical server. You’re getting a piece of a system that already exists, so it’s just a matter of configuring and allocating it to you.

Scaling your plan up or down typically doesn’t require migrating to a new server. Our support and engineering teams can swiftly scale our enterprise cloud solutions either horizontally or vertically depending on needs.

You can also upgrade certain resource limits with a reboot, which means your reactions to unexpected surges in traffic are handled near seamlessly.

Costs are typically lower, at least initially. Scaling for events can impact that as traffic dictates, but that’s also paired with the ease and convenience of quick changes.

The client is usually presented with various “resource limits” (instead of specific hardware) for their virtual server, such as a maximum vCPU (virtual CPU), memory, and storage limits.

Cloud hosting is ultimately “limit” based rather than product based when it comes to the “specifications” of a plan.

Cloud servers will always have some degree of performance overhead. While you do have your own isolated cloud environment, you are ultimately sharing a slice of a greater physical server with other clients.

The speed of delivery and quick adaptability to your needs make cloud servers a particularly good choice for businesses that have uncomplicated setup needs. Buying only what you need can be very cost effective.

That being said, not all hosts are alike.

Specific hardware varies from provider to provider, similar to how the plan you’re purchasing affects your site’s performance until it’s set up.

Pros and cons of cloud servers over physical servers

Extremely fast order-to-delivery times Potentially cheaper investment
Fast scaling, typically with no need to migrate to a new serverSome performance overhead
Upgrade resources quickly to adjust for unexpected surges“Noisy neighbors” impacting your server’s performance
Hard to understand what actual performance will be like

Which server option is right for me?

Small businesses gravitate toward cloud options because they don’t need as much power.

If you’re a photographer offering a couple of packages, you aren’t going to need as many resources to run your site efficiently. If you’re running a high traffic store with thousands of products like Target, a physical server probably makes more sense.

Baremetal generally makes the most sense for sites that need performance and/or complex server setups above all else.

Depending on what your business’s growth is like, baremetal may be our product recommendation. All of our largest hosted sites operate on baremetal clusters.

Growth-focused businesses and businesses whose traffic patterns vary greatly are typically better suited to cloud server plans.

With its painless scaling and Enterprise on Cloud products, you can also enjoy easy horizontal and vertical scaling of nodes.

Examining the costs of our various plans will help you determine which solution is best for your business.

The best solution is the one that fits in your budget and addresses your needs. That’s why we recommend talking to your hosting provider about it.

Consider Nexcess for your server needs

Anyone running a business online has to make a decision about where to host their site.

Whether you go with a physical server or a cloud server, it’s important that your site is up and running at peak performance.

Nexcess has a variety of plans and options to ensure every size business can see success.

Check out Nexcess managed hosting to get started today.


Nexcess, the premium hosting provider for WordPress, WooCommerce, and Magento, is optimized for your hosting needs. Nexcess provides a managed hosting infrastructure, curated tools, and a team of experts that make it easy to build, manage, and grow your business online. Serving SMBs and the designers, developers, and agencies who create for them, Nexcess has provided fully managed, high-performance cloud solutions for more than 22 years.

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