Why 'Data Center vs. Cloud' Is the Wrong Way to Think

There are a number reasons why the "data center versus cloud" comparison is problematic, as the two are not as different as they may initially appear.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology Analyst

May 30, 2023

4 Min Read
clouds inside a data center

What's the opposite of a data center? If you answered "the cloud," as many do, you are arguably not thinking in the most effective way about what data centers do and the role they play within the IT industry.

To prove the point, let's look at how data centers relate to the cloud and explore the reasons why comparing data centers to the cloud doesn't make a lot of sense.

Why Do People Compare Data Centers to the Cloud?

Let's start by examining the reasons why people tend to compare data centers to the cloud.

They do it mainly, I suspect, because there is a sense that before businesses began migrating workloads to public cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, most workloads were hosted in private data centers.

So, when folks use terms like "data center vs. cloud," what they really mean is "private data center vs. public cloud." But you wouldn't necessarily know it because those important qualifiers are often missing from conversations about the differences between data centers and the cloud.

Comparisons between data centers and the cloud also often carry the implication that private data centers lack many of the features of public clouds, such as:

The ability to scale infrastructure infinitely.

  • On-demand access to servers, data storage, and other resources.

  • Freedom from having to manage physical infrastructure.

Related:5 Considerations for Migrating Data to the Cloud

The idea that data centers are distinct from the cloud therefore often implies that data centers — or private ones, at least — are inferior to the cloud.

The Problems with the 'Data Center vs. Cloud' Comparison

If you think in more nuanced ways about how data centers relate to the cloud, you'll realize that terms like "data center vs. cloud" just don't make sense. There are several reasons why.

Public clouds use data centers

First and foremost, data centers are an integral part of public clouds. If you move your workload to AWS, Azure, or another public cloud, it's hosted in a data center. The difference between the cloud and private data centers is that in the cloud, someone else owns and manages the data center.

That difference has important implications for how workloads run, how they are priced, and so on. Still, it seems reductive — to put it mildly — to imply that data centers are somehow the opposite of the cloud. The cloud would quite literally not exist if data centers didn't exist.

Colocation is an alternative to private data centers

A second reason why it's tricky to compare data centers to the cloud is that not all workloads that exist outside of the public cloud are hosted in private data centers dedicated to handling just one business's applications and data.

Related:When – and When Not – to Go All-In on Cloud Migration

Instead, many are hosted in colocation centers, where multiple companies can rent space to host workloads. Colocation centers are private data centers in the sense that they are not owned by public cloud providers. But they're not the same as private data centers that are owned by just one company.

Colocation provides some of the benefits of public clouds, like freeing organizations from having to build and maintain their own data center facilities. In that sense, colocation blurs the lines between traditional data centers and the cloud.

Some private data centers offer IaaS services

Another cause for blurred lines between data centers and the cloud is that in certain cases, you can obtain services inside private data centers that resemble those most closely associated with the public cloud.

I'm thinking here of offerings like Equinix Metal, which is essentially an infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) solution that allows companies to stand up servers on-demand inside colocation centers. It's a lot like cloud-based IaaS services such as AWS EC2, except it doesn't require the public cloud.

Plus, a variety of data center providers offer "white glove" services to help with infrastructure maintenance and management, another feature that makes them resemble public cloud providers in some respects.

The public cloud has problems, too

Last but not least, it's worth observing that the public cloud is far from superior to traditional data centers in all ways.

Like private data centers and colocation facilities, public clouds can and do go down, which means that migrating to the cloud is hardly a guarantee of total uptime. The cloud can also end up costing a lot of money and is not always a way to minimize the TCO of workload hosting. The lack of control over infrastructure that businesses experience in the cloud is another obvious downside.

I'm not saying the cloud is inferior to private data centers. But I am saying that it's important to be careful about implying that the cloud is different from or superior to traditional data centers in all respects.


In short, instead of comparing "data centers" to "the cloud" in a binary fashion, the IT industry should focus more on understanding the nuances surrounding both private data centers and public clouds. There are many ways to use both types of solutions, and they are not as different in many respects as they may at first appear to be.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology Analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

Subscribe to the Data Center Knowledge Newsletter
Get analysis and expert insight on the latest in data center business and technology delivered to your inbox daily.

You May Also Like