You might have heard of “virtualization” or “virtual machines” in passing, but you’re not quite sure what the concept actually means, or what it can do. We’ll break down the basics for you here, so you can apply them to your business and reap the benefits.
What is Virtualization?
People will describe virtualization in a number of complicated ways, but in basic terms, virtualization is the creation of multiple computer systems that run on only one set of hardware, through the implementation of a hypervisor (a piece of software that separates physical resources from virtual environments). Hypervisors can be installed directly onto hardware, or they can exist on top of an operating system.
These virtual computers may use different operating systems, run different applications, and do entirely different jobs, but they all run on partial usage of CPU, Memory, Storage, and Network devices in a physical system, or systems. They may utilize different percentages of computing power, and serve different purposes for a business.
Virtualization technology has been around since the 1960’s, though it wasn’t adopted in a broad manner until the 2000s, when the need to increase efficiency and run legacy apps on servers became a necessity for many companies. It is so prolific now that even small businesses can benefit from its many applications. In fact, you might already benefit – virtualization is the basis for cloud computing.
Types of Virtualization
There are several different types of virtualization that can be applied for different uses. Here are just a few:
Data virtualization allows a hypervisor to consolidate multiple data sources into one source. This source can then deliver the correct data from multiple places at the right time to any user or application.
This allows a hypervisor to deploy desktop environments to several physical machines; sometimes this can be hundreds of environments. This allows for administrators to apply mass updates, security updates, etc., on all machines
Different from Desktop virtualization, this allows you to place more than one operating system on a single computer, such as Windows and Linux.
Like our example above, server virtualization allows for servers to be partitioned and operate more efficiently by doing more tasks.
Network virtualization allows for the creation of virtual network resources that can replace physical assets. It can also separate key network functions so that they can be evenly distributed across different environments.
Advantages of Virtualization
The first and most obvious advantage of running virtual machines is efficiency. Imagine having three physical systems running tasks that only take 30% of their computing power; a web server, a mail server, and a server that runs legacy apps on an earlier version of windows. With virtual machines, you could be using just one physical system running 3 virtual machines to do the same tasks. This not only reduces your electricity usage, but can save you on hardware as well.
Virtual machines also allow for easier server and system maintenance. For example, if a hard drive fails in a physical system, it’s possible to take a “snapshot” of a VM at a specific point and time, “migrate” the virtual machine to different hardware, and keep it running while the part is replaced. This process can be done so quickly that uninterrupted service is possible.
On a large scale, virtual machines can run on server batches and be divided into “clusters.” Clusters utilize all the features of virtual machines to provide always-on functionality, dynamic backup processes, and no time-lag. Virtual machines also can reduce the number of switches, routers, cables, and hubs needed to construct a network. This can simplify network management immensely.
These were all server-based examples, but virtualization can help you at the user level as well. For desktop users, a virtual machine can allow you to run apps from different operating systems without having to switch computers or reboot into a different OS.
Finally, virtualization can offer security benefits, such as the ability to isolate machines from one another, segment groups, and even “nest” a virtual machine inside of another virtual machine. This provides a secure environment to conduct maintenance, test applications, and a variety of other uses.
Limitations of Virtualization
Virtualization might have several benefits, but there are some limitations to consider when you are looking to implement VMs into your infrastructure.
If your servers are dedicated to tasks that already take up a lot of processing power, tread carefully with virtualization. If every task isn’t given enough resources, everything will slow down; which, it goes without saying, is the opposite of what you want.
Migration can also pose an issue, if your hardware is not all from the same manufacturer. For example, it’s not possible at this time to migrate a VM from a physical machine with an Intel processor to one with an AMD processor.
Finally, Virtualization carries some gaps in security that traditional security systems cannot necessarily protect, such as:
- File sharing between hosts and guests can be unsecured
- Weakened isolation between components (such as guest operating systems) and applications, hypervisors, and hardware.
- Applications on the same host, if compromised, might spread to multiple servers that are consolidated using VMs.
The use of virtual machines in your business can increase efficiency and reduce costs, while allowing you to continue to run legacy applications and keep information secure. However, there are some current limitations on the technology, so it’s important to consider how you would like to implement VMs into your business infrastructure.