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 (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.
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 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 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 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.
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). 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? 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!