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Bare metal vs dedicated servers: which is the better hosting option?

Network servers in data room Domestic Room
Image Credit: Shutterstock (Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock)

When it comes to getting the best performance from dedicated server hosting, you now have a choice between traditional dedicated servers and next-generation bare metal machines. But how should discerning customers choose between these server solutions? This article sets out to provide clarity on what differentiates these two options, and dispel any myths that might have crept in along the way.

Aren’t bare metal servers the same as dedicated servers?

From a purely technical perspective, bare metal hosting and traditional servers have many features in common. Most obviously, they both come as a physical box, not a virtualized slice of server resources. In fact, this lack of virtualization or hypervisor layer is where the “bare metal” moniker originates: the idea being that the user gets unfettered access to the underlying hardware.

Both types of server are also single-tenant machines, meaning they provide a configuration of processor, memory and storage that isn’t shared between users. This means that whether you’re on a bare metal server or a more traditional dedicated machine, you can rely on the power of your own private hardware, and you don’t need to worry about performance taking a hit when other users get a spike in traffic.

While bare metal and traditional servers both offer a dedicated solution, bare metal machines tend to be among a hosting provider’s flagship products. Compared from the point of view of hardware, bare metal servers edge out the traditional dedicated servers. Bare metal configurations typically come equipped with the latest and greatest hardware, from the newest generation of Intel Xeon CPUs to DDR4 RAM with error-correcting code (ECC).

The storage technology on bare metal servers is also more likely to be top-tier, with NVMe solid-state drives (SSDs) now providing superfast loading that races far ahead of standard SATA SSDs and hard disks. Connectivity is an additional, vital element of server performance, and thankfully, both newer bare metal and older-style servers can be rented with a high-speed 1Gb/s connection to ensure all that dedicated hardware can be put to good use.

If you’re looking for performance from your server, it’s safe to assume you already have a specific use for it in mind. From high-traffic websites for big brands to more complex portals and advanced applications like SaaS, VoIP, video rendering and even online gaming, the performance of dedicated, physical hardware is unmatched, and oftentimes, the only way to go. 

Dedicated hardware can cope with much higher numbers of concurrent visitors and transactions on an eCommerce CMS like Magento, or deliver the lowest levels of latency for 650 simultaneous games of CS:GO (as was the case at epic.LAN’s latest tournament). When compared to shared hosting platforms, you can be 100% certain that a dedicated solution will always have access to your specified set of hardware resources – meaning a guaranteed level of service and performance.

Given their dedicated hardware, bare metal and traditional servers also offer very similar levels of security, complexity and control. You can deploy your own hypervisors, choose your own operating systems, and install your own server-wide applications on either platform. Both provide full root access, allowing you to customize your hosting environment any way you see fit.

Time is money

The biggest difference between bare metal and traditional dedicated servers becomes apparent when you go to order one: the pricing and contract terms. With a bare metal server you can get all the performance of a standard dedicated server (if not more), but with a more flexible, per-hour billing model. While traditional servers are typically rented via monthly or yearly contracts, you can run a bare metal server on demand for as long or short a period as required – and only pay for what you use. This is ideal for websites and applications that experience higher traffic at peak times, like during sales or seasonal events, for example.

The two breeds of server therefore exist to serve two different usage scenarios. Classic dedicated servers provide hosting resources to be used consistently for months or even years at a time. Bare metal servers, on the other hand, can be launched or shut down at short notice, even if dedicated performance is only required for a few days or hours.

Both types of server can usually be integrated with other hosting services to provide the best fit for your needs. A common scenario is hosting the main company website on a virtual private server or cloud server, and transferring load to dedicated hardware during busy periods. Another typical use case is application testing, where virtual machines can be used to create low-performance test environments, before launching into production on a dedicated platform.

In situations like these, however, bare metal boxes have a definite advantage over traditional machines, because they’re usually designed to operate as nodes in a wider network infrastructure just as much as standalone servers. With bare metal, you can count on cloud integration with minimal configuration, so it’s simple to get dedicated hardware up and running alongside virtual private servers or VMs to create hybrid, load-balanced setups. Often this can all be managed via a single cloud control panel.

Furthermore, in the past setting up a dedicated server was a challenging and time consuming affair since the servers had to be provisioned manually. Most reputable providers have more or less rectified this situation with their bare metal offerings, which now automate the provisioning process, thereby reducing the time it takes to get up and running.

What are you building?

The similarities between bare metal servers and traditional servers certainly outweigh the differences. 

On top of that, neither is better in every circumstance. You should choose one according to the requirements and peculiarities of your deployment. The choice then really comes down to what you plan to use the server for and whether or not you are willing to trade some flexibility for a cost-effective solution. 

The bare metal option is also preferable if you plan to run your server alongside other hosting services, with integration tools making it straightforward to integrate the physical machine within a hybrid cloud. And finally, if cutting-edge hardware is an absolute must-have, bare metal is the way to go. Bare metal machines represent the very latest generation of dedicated server technology, from CPU, memory and storage, to connectivity and control. When only the fastest, most powerful and flexible server will do, bare metal is the clear winner.

  • Neal Thoms is a content editor at Fasthosts. His main focus is cloud technology and how it’s transforming everything we do online. He’s worked in the web hosting industry for over five years.