Head in the Clouds: Cloud Server vs. On-Premise?

As an IT advisor to clients throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I frequently get asked these questions:

  1. What’s the real difference between on-premise servers and cloud servers?
  2. Which is better?
  3. Which should we be using?

These are good questions to ask – but the answers to #2 and #3 are entirely subjective upon the business. Let’s consider the answers:

1. What’s the difference?

First, don’t confuse “on-premise” with entirely physical servers. “On-Premise” simply means the server is within the enterprise-controlled network environment – but it could still be a virtual server hosted in a cluster on a single host.

Likewise, don’t confuse a server located remotely in a datacenter as a “cloud server” – strictly speaking, a cloud server is a specific type of virtual instance hosted in cloud provider’s network environment meant to be accessible via the internet wherever you go, provided the access is there – whereas datacenter servers most often require a type of direct connection, like a VPN.

So, brass tacks: What’s the difference?

As mentioned above, a cloud server is going to be hosted by a cloud provider, like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, who will also be entirely responsible for maintaining the physical hosts and infrastructure delivering the server to the internet.

An on-premise server is going to controlled and maintained within the enterprise infrastructure – ultimately, either the business or strategic IT partners are going to be responsible for server operation and maintenance.

2. Which is better?

Both have their advantages and disadvantages, like everything else in life. Let’s cover the main points:

Cloud server advantages:

  • Deployment can be very quick and scaled to business requirements; no paying for more than you need. Expanding hardware to meet expanding requirements is usually inexpensive and easy to do.
  • All hardware maintenance effort and costs borne by the provider.
  • Responsibility for regulatory measures and compliance related to server infrastructure falls on the provider (although due diligence is still required of the business to select the right provider in this regard).
  • Cloud servers can be accessed anywhere the internet can be accessed. Just log in and go!

…and the disadvantages:

  • Entirely dependent on the internet connection. If the connection goes down for whatever reason, the cloud server is completely cut off.
  • No control over hardware. While cloud providers put a lot into responsible maintenance and control, there is still no guarantee that the cloud server will be there at the end of the day.
  • The provider becomes a 3rd-party to the business; they may have access to your data.
  • Security – this is the big one. While an on-premise server can be tightly controlled to the degree where nobody can access it unless literally in front of the machine, not so with a cloud server; remote access using some type of credential(s) is required. And where there are credentials, there are people trying to crack, steal, and exploit credentials.

…and On-Premise? The advantages are basically the mirror image:

  • Can still be accessed internally if the internet goes down with no interruption to access of vital data and internal apps.
  • Full oversight and control of hardware. Can be leveraged to the business’ exact specifications with no surprises.
  • No third parties have to be introduced to the equation. The server can stay totally locked down to internal access only.
  • Security is totally in your hands. Lock it in a safe, dip the safe in concrete, and store it at the bottom of the Pacific if that suits you.

…but the disadvantages should be obvious by now:

  • Deployment is not quick; it takes a lot of time and effort to deploy physical hosts. Not as bad when working with a virtual infrastructure, but – in my experience – still not as simple as spinning up cloud servers with a provider like Amazon Web Services.
  • All hardware maintenance effort and costs are borne by the business; this means keeping systems administrators on staff, or partnering with an IT service provider.
  • Responsibility for regulatory measures and compliance related to server infrastructure falls on the business, requiring a strong focus on compliance.
  • The server is probably not going to be externally accessible without a VPN; not a huge deal, but if the VPN goes down, then the server connection goes down with it.

3. Which should my business use?

Good advice is hard to find, but bad advice is in seemingly endless supply. One piece of terrible advice is this: “Gotta go Cloud. Everything is going Cloud! Don’t get left behind hitchhiking on the information superhighway!”

I might be exaggerating the above comment a bit, but some IT professionals really do recommend Cloud solutions for everything simply because it’s the latest and greatest thing. In reality, the utility of a cloud server vs. on-premise depends entirely on the business model and how the server needs to be leveraged to provide value.

A good example of a wisely chosen cloud server is one which requires frequent access by users who will be on the move, needing to connect anytime and anywhere – the ability to connect at will without relying on a VPN (which is commonly blocked on public WiFi, by the way) is a major advantage. This is also true if the server is running an enterprise application which needs continuous uptime – the cloud server is more easily accessed and cloud providers are great maintaining service.

A poorly chosen cloud server, meanwhile, would be an instance used as a file server hosting large image files requiring frequent access and modification by users who are all in the same building. The cloud server is a poor choice: the read/write demands often associated with a file server are likely to kill office bandwidth, impeding workflow for everyone.

In the above case, an on-premise server would be a better choice – the server can be deployed and managed in such a way as to optimize read/write on large files without sucking up bandwidth for external internet use. But also, there’s no good reason to place the server into the cloud for this case; all users who need it will be onsite. Why open the server up to the type of remote access a cloud server needs – with all the security baggage that entails – when the server can be far more locked own while onsite?

What about a Hybrid infrastructure?

The final consideration is a hybrid solution – combining public cloud resources with a private cloud platform deployed internally, aiming to offer both the uptime and accessibility of a public cloud server with the security and control over a server deployed internally on a private cloud infrastructure.

This can get complicated quickly, so I suggest reading through this primer from TechTarget.com if you’re interested in the technical details. Generally, a true hybrid environment is going to be a good fit for large organizations requiring servers running functions from the moderately trivial up to the multi-million dollar level of importance, with varying levels of accessibility and uptime needed for different components of the enterprise.

For smaller organizations, an unofficial form of hybrid infrastructure is to simply deploy the different server types as requirements dictate. Not all servers need be one or the other: the business can pick and choose server types in accordance with requirements. Need a file server? Deploy it on-premise. Need a server running a demo application for use by traveling sales staff? Put it in the cloud. They can both be integrated into the business without any trouble.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of cloud server vs. on-premise; this is why the business needs either skilled IT professionals on staff, or a partnership with a trustworthy IT services firm, who can help determine where the business IT infrastructure needs to go. Weigh the importance of mobility, accessibility, and uptime alongside security, compliance, and maintenance cost – the answers will begin to make themselves clear.

Categories: The IT Philosopher

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