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Virtual machines and virtual servers — what are they and how do they differ?

Are they related to virtual private networks? And what’s the difference between virtual hosting, shared hosting, and dedicated hosting?

These are important questions, especially if you’re going to host a website or a remote server. Fortunately, the answers are pretty simple and the usefulness of virtual servers may end up surprising you.

Virtual Servers: An Introduction

To understand virtual private servers (VPS), we have to first understand virtual machines What Is a Virtual Machine? What Is a Virtual Machine? Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems within your current operating system, but why does that matter? What are the pros and cons? Read More (VM). A VM utilizes some of the physical resources of a computer — e.g. CPU, RAM, disk space — to run an emulated version of a computer. Think of it like picture-in-picture: you can, for example, run a virtual copy of Windows on a physical computer that’s already running Windows.

It’s possible to run multiple VMs with a single computer and that’s what a lot of hosting companies tend to do. Imagine a data center full of servers where each server is running several VMs. These VMs can be rented out for consumers to use, and when this happens, the VM becomes a VPS. Technically, nothing has changed but the terminology itself.

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With the right software, anybody can offer VPS hosting, but if the VPS is going to be worth renting, the physical hardware needs to be powerful and secure. If you want the benefits of a VPS without renting one from a remote location, you might consider running a local VM Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Read More on your computer instead.

Be careful that you don’t confuse virtual private servers with virtual private networks (VPN). VPNs use secure private connections that take place over a public network to simulate a private network. You can use a VPS to facilitate a VPN, but otherwise the two aren’t directly related in any meaningful way.

Great Reasons To Use A VPS

The main competitors to VPS hosting The Various Forms Of Website Hosting Explained [Technology Explained] The Various Forms Of Website Hosting Explained [Technology Explained] Read More are dedicated hosting and shared hosting. Dedicated hosting allows you to rent out an entire physical server that’s used by you and nobody else while shared hosting uses one server to host multiple websites.

In other words, dedicated hosting is more powerful and expensive than VPS hosting while shared hosting is cheaper but less flexible than VPS hosting. For this reason, VPS hosting is often seen as a transitional option for website owners who have outgrown shared hosting but aren’t big enough to need a dedicated server.

That being said, VPS hosting isn’t that much more expensive than shared hosting. A beginner-friendly VPS host DigitalOcean: The Best VPS Host For Newbies DigitalOcean: The Best VPS Host For Newbies Read More like DigitalOcean offers per-hour rates as low as $0.007 per hour, which amounts to $5 per month. The cheapest shared hosting plans may cost $2 or $3 per month, but virtual private servers are more flexible and perform better. This is just one of many reasons why VPS hosting beats shared hosting Why You Should Use A VPS Instead Of Shared Hosting For WordPress Why You Should Use A VPS Instead Of Shared Hosting For WordPress Read More .

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What kind of flexibility does a VPS offer? Well, you can think of it as a remote computer. Anything that you can do on a computer, you can do with a VPS (as long as it falls within the terms and policies of the host). This means you won’t be limited to just web hosting, though many virtual servers are used to host active websites.

One big benefit of using a VPS is the sandbox security. If you somehow screw up a virtual server, it won’t harm the physical server’s operation since everything is running in a virtual sandbox. The VPS can be rebooted or reinstalled without much issue except maybe for lost data (so always keep backups What Is The Best Backup Solution? [Geeks Weigh In] What Is The Best Backup Solution? [Geeks Weigh In] Ten years ago an external hard drive – or even a physical disc such as a CD-ROM – was the only practical way to back up files. Consumer-grade network storage solutions were primitive, expensive and... Read More ). On a dedicated host, a mistake could cause permanent damage.

Plus, other users on the physical server won’t have access to your VPS setup. On a shared host, it’s possible for a malicious user to hack the host and access other user accounts on the server being shared. Since virtual private servers exist in a sandbox, other users can’t access your virtual environment unless they obtain your account login information.

What Can You Use A VPS For?

This discussion has been pretty abstract up to this point. Let’s explore some of the practical uses for a VPS and how renting one might make your life easier.

Running A Website

This is the most obvious and popular use. Since virtual private servers provide more resources for your website (e.g. CPU, RAM, etc.) than shared hosting, you’ll find that your website feels more responsive. Plus, with full control over the virtual server, you can install and remove software at will according to your needs rather than being stuck with what the host offers.

Hosting A Server

Have you ever wanted to run your own Minecraft server How To Setup a Minecraft Server How To Setup a Minecraft Server Minecraft has exploded over the last couple of years to become one of the greatest indie games of all time. There’s simply so much you can do with the game - not only by its... Read More ? Or maybe you need a private Mumble host for your friends to chat on? Or if you’re leaning more towards business uses, you could use a VPS for hosting files and other media. Basically, anything that runs as a server can be run on a VPS.

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Testing New Environments

Since dedicated hosting is so expensive, virtual servers can be used as testing grounds for server setups that aren’t ready for live deployment. They can also be useful for quick exploration and testing of new components: operating systems, frameworks, software, etc.

Seeding Torrents

Also known as a seedbox, you can use a virtual server strictly for torrenting purposes. If you torrent frequently, moving all of that action to a remote VPS not only frees up a lot of home bandwidth, but it also allows you to keep it going 24/7.

Private Backups

The leftover disk space in a VPS plan can be used to store private backups of important files. It’s cheaper to use cloud-based storage The Cloud Storage Showdown - Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive & More The Cloud Storage Showdown - Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive & More The cloud storage scene has heated up recently, with a long-awaited entry by Google and a revamped SkyDrive from Microsoft. Dropbox has gone unchallenged by the major players for a long time, but that’s changed... Read More from a price-per-gigabyte perspective, but if you’re already using a VPS for some other reason and you have leftover space, you might as well think of it as free file storage.

There are plenty of ways to benefit from a virtual server. It can be a bit intimidating at first — there is a learning curve — but I promise that the results are well worth it. Ready to give it a try? Start off on the right foot with our compilation of the best hosting services The Best Web Hosting Services The Best Web Hosting Services Are you looking for the best web hosting services for your needs? Whether you need a place to host your small personal blog, or a major corporate website, this list is for you. Read More .

For those who have an active VPS, what do you use it for? Do you have any tips for minimizing the potential for hassles and problems? Share with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Laptops Via Shutterstock, Virtual Network Via Shutterstock, Data Center Via Shutterstock, Server Data Storage Via Shutterstock

  1. Adrian
    August 24, 2016 at 7:51 am

    Does using a VPS mean that you have to use a remote desktop connection? That is, you can't just log in to Windows as normal and see the network drives, run programs accessing databases on the server etc.

  2. Adam
    May 12, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    I want to make a private intranet available only to people logged on to the LAN, regardless of internet connection - would a VPS facilitate that ?

    • Anthony
      August 14, 2016 at 10:09 pm

      Yes you can use VPS for that, I work with xeliux since 1 year without any problem, a friend recommended me and I am pleased with their service.

  3. Andrea
    April 10, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    We use VPS in our company we adquire it on xeliux.com we are glad with their services. Hope it helps for someone.

  4. Jonathan
    November 12, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    I couldn't resist posting here.

    My favorite host in general is 123systems.net

    Especially when they frequently give 50% off for life coupons.

    ;) Yeah. Exactly.

  5. telnetuserid
    March 5, 2015 at 10:21 am

    A VPS can be used as VPN server to connect securely to the internet or bypassing net restrictions.

    • Joel
      March 10, 2015 at 3:54 am

      Absolutely, I should've mentioned that. Thanks!

  6. Keith
    December 10, 2014 at 4:44 am

    I am kind a beginner, and I have two questions.
    Can I run and access a GUI on a remote VPS?
    Is there a way to automatically run entire server backups and send them Google Drive?
    If anyone has any comments I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

    • Iam
      December 26, 2014 at 10:48 pm

      yes u can install a gui but it will use space and memory.

    • Kieran
      June 6, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      You can normally use ssh to log on to a vps, with a command such as ssh user@ipaddress where obviously you substitute the user and IP address. If you log on using ssh -X user@ipaddress this displays what would be displayed on the server on your own computer if that helps?

  7. jasray
    December 8, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    VPS is a great way to set up a personal VPN with OpenVPN or SSH. Inexpensive, secure, and no one else is on the line. The speeds are terrific compared to other VPN companies I've encountered--40MB down is typical. I think the VPS I use is $5.00/year.

    • Joel Lee
      December 11, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      Which service are you using that offers VPS for $5 per year? That's insane!

  8. likefunbutnot
    December 8, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    I maintain the host hardware for some virtual servers my customers use. Almost everything I do amounts to just running a few scripts that create new virtual machines that users can interact with. The machines themselves range from secured virtual desktops running Windows to low-use Sharepoint Servers to LAMP boxes.

    For the most part, I don't care what people do with them so long as it's not actively outside my datacenter's TOS, but I only actively administer about a third of the instances. The rest are either completely automated or have another IT-knowledgeable person someplace who can administer them remotely.

    • Joel Lee
      December 11, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      What's the worst error or mistake that you've had to deal with as far as virtual machine management is concerned? Has there ever been a serious meltdown of some kind or is it all relatively safe and secure?

  9. CoolHappyGuy
    December 8, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    At one point, my laptop acted as a VPS when I was using PLEX to serve up my movies. It was a bit of a hassle as you have to boot up the laptop when you want to watch a flick.

    I've been entertaining the idea of buy a Synology server. That way, I could have a dedicated machine that is always on. I could serve up my PLEX entertainment media on any device, host my own secure VPN (so I can get past my employer's firewall when I want to check my email), set up my own video security feed, back up files, and essentially have my own Dropbox. I'm not ready to fork over $400-600 to make this happen -- but someday I will!

    • likefunbutnot
      December 9, 2014 at 3:24 pm

      For what it's worth, the Synology Plex server, while functional, isn't really the best experience. For one, it can't transcode, so you have to manually re-encode all your media into moderate-resolution MP4s that are suited for streaming. For another thing, the Synology box doesn't really have the CPU horsepower to support more than two simultaneous streams.

      You'd be far better off buying something an older, off lease i3 or i5 desktop and filling it with hard drives if Plex is on your radar as a potential interest; your other interests can all be accommodated without too much hassle on a Windows or Linux PC regardless and probably at a price very similar to the Synology box.

  10. m-p{3}
    December 8, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Atlantic.net has $1/month VPS plans, and so far it works well.

    You can use CloudFlare to reduce the load on the actual VPS as well.

    • Andreas rosenberg
      December 9, 2014 at 9:09 pm

      How do I use cloudflare? And how does it reduce load from the vps?

    • Joel Lee
      December 11, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Wow! Never heard of Atlantic before but it's awesome to see such a cheap entry-level VPS package. The resources aren't too bad either (256MB RAM, 10GB SSD, 1TB bandwidth) given the price. Thanks for the heads up!

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