Are data centers physical or virtual?

Both physical and virtual infrastructure are important components of modern data centers. While the physical data center houses the actual server hardware, virtual infrastructure provides flexible and scalable computing resources through software abstraction.

The Physical Data Center

A physical data center is a dedicated facility that organizations use to house their critical IT infrastructure, including servers, storage systems, networking equipment, and power and cooling systems. The physical data center contains racks upon racks of powerful servers along with various supporting infrastructure.

Some key characteristics of the physical data center include:

  • Specialized building or dedicated space – Data centers are housed in facilities specifically designed for housing computer systems. They have raised floors for airflow and special cooling systems.
  • Reliable power – Data centers require abundant, conditioned power supplied through battery backup systems and generators.
  • High-speed network – The servers are connected via high-speed fiber optic networks and switches.
  • Physical security – Physical access to the data center is tightly controlled through security protocols.

The physical data center provides dedicated space, power, cooling and security for critical IT infrastructure. Leading providers operate large data centers across multiple sites to ensure maximum uptime and redundancy.

Virtual Infrastructure

While the physical data center provides the raw computing hardware, virtual infrastructure refers to computing resources simulated through software abstraction.

Some key aspects of virtual infrastructure include:

  • Server virtualization – Allows multiple virtual servers to run on a single physical server.
  • Storage virtualization – Combines physical storage from multiple devices into a single pool.
  • Network virtualization – Creates a virtual network on top of the physical network.
  • Desktop virtualization – Enables desktop environments to be hosted centrally.

Virtual infrastructure increases hardware utilization through sharing and abstraction. It provides important benefits such as:

  • Increased efficiency – Allows more workloads per physical server.
  • Flexibility – Resources can be provisioned and scaled on demand.
  • Isolation – Virtual resources are separated logically from each other.
  • Hardware independence – Virtual machines can move between physical hosts.

Virtual infrastructure underpins key technologies like cloud computing and software-defined data centers.

The Interplay Between Physical and Virtual

Both physical and virtual elements are essential building blocks of modern data center architecture. The physical data center provides the foundation, while virtualization enables efficient and agile use of resources.

Here is how physical and virtual infrastructure work together:

  • The physical data center houses and powers the server, storage and network hardware.
  • Virtualization software allows this hardware to be divided into virtual resources.
  • Workloads are deployed to virtual machines and storage located anywhere in the data center.
  • Software definied networking connects and manages the virtual infrastructure.
  • Orchestration software coordinates and automates provisioning of virtual resources.

The combination of physical and virtual infrastructure gives organizations the best of both worlds:

  • Physical – Performance, reliability, security
  • Virtual – Flexibility, efficiency, automation

Physical Infrastructure Remains Relevant

While virtualization unlocks massive gains in efficiency and agility, the physical data center continues to play a key role.

Reasons physical infrastructure remains essential include:

  • Physical hardware is required to run virtual workloads. Virtual machines must run on a physical server powered within a data center.
  • Performance limits. Hardware still bounds peak performance, especially for demanding workloads.
  • Hardware lifecycle. Servers must eventually be upgraded or replaced as they age.
  • Data gravity. As data sets grow ever larger, there is a pull towards processing data where it resides. This favors decentralized physical infrastructure.
  • Security and control. Heavy workloads may require isolated physical infrastructure for security or regulatory compliance.

The bottom line is that physical data centers aren’t going away. Leading cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft operate massive global data center fleets to power their digital empires. On-premise data centers also continue to play a key role in many organizations and use cases.

Example Data Center Physical Infrastructure

Component Description
Servers Provide the core computing power, running both virtual machines and bare metal workloads.
Storage Shared storage area networks and software-defined storage provide abundant, flexible data storage.
Network High-speed switches and routers connect servers to storage and networking infrastructure.
Power Redundant power equipment like generators and UPS provide conditioned power.
Cooling CRAC units, evaporative cooling and free cooling techniques remove heat.
Racks Standardized frames and enclosures mount equipment and cabling.


Physical and virtual infrastructure each play important complementary roles in the modern data center. The physical side creates a redundant, secure and high performance foundation. Virtualization makes efficient use of hardware through sharing and abstraction. Together, physical and virtual elements provide the bricks and mortar as well as the flexibility and automation needed to power today’s demanding digital workloads.