What is virtualisation?

Ever wondered what virtual machines are and how they work? Here's our guide to virtualisation

women uses virtual interface

Virtualisation is the process of making software-based, or virtual, representations of things, such as servers, applications and networks. It's an effective way for a business to reduce IT expenses and boost efficiency and agility.

Over the years, this has transformed how we work as more and more of things become virtualised and housed on a computer or network, take for instance calendars as an early example. There hasn't been a need for a physical calendar in an office since for decades as software version has forever been on computers. 

One of the biggest benefits of virtualisation is the way different applications can be integrated, using the calendar example again, this can sync up with your contacts, your email account and even the software you use for remote meetings, streamlining your working day.

What is virtualisation?

In the world of computers, a virtual machine is created when software separates the operating system and its applications from the physical computer hardware. This software process is called a hypervisor, which allows a physical machine to host multiple virtual machines as guests, sharing various computing resources such as memory, network bandwidth and CPU cycles. 

Types of virtualisation

Virtual machines

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One of the key applications of virtualisation is a virtual machine. This is a computer file that looks and acts like a computer in its own right. It's triggered using a computer but opens up a world that isn't a physical thing like your computer desktop, but an entire additional operating system or a device that is displayed through an application window.

The virtual machine works completely independently to the host. So if something goes wrong on the hardware you're using to access the virtual machine, the VM won't be affected. Equally, the virtual machine can't affect the running of the host, because it's completely separate.

Virtual memory

To ensure VMs work as smoothly as possible, it's pretty vital there's a high level of virtual memory available on the host computer.

This helps applications to improve overall performance and store and receive data. It's enabled by small additions to a machine's hardware, called segments or pages, that store the extra data a physical machine cannot.

It's enabled by small additions to a machine's hardware, called segments or pages, that store the extra data a machine cannot.

Virtual desktop infrastructure

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), is where an organisation purchases virtual desktops hosted by a third-party vendor and therefore don't have to deploy the technology on its on-premises infrastructure, lowering its costs and simplifying deployments.

According to Nick McQuire, VP of enterprise research at CCS Insight, the development of desktop-as-a-service, or DaaS, is proving very popular.

"Virtual desktops and applications have been trending within enterprise IT for over a decade, ever since the growth in remote working has increased the need for mobile workstations, strongly encouraging many organisations to implement the technology," he says.

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"As virtual desktops aren't hosted locally on the users' devices, an organisation can distribute stripped-down machines, known as thin clients, with access to company applications and data in the data centre to cut down on hardware costs and simplify management."

Virtual applications

Many of the merits of virtual desktops also apply to app virtualisation, which allows users to access apps without storing them locally and businesses to have more control over their usage.

"New uses of the technology have opened up the virtualisation of third-party specific applications such as Microsoft's Skype for Business or browsing," McQuire says. "Security requirements and compliance changes such as GDPR have also helped as more firms look for more control and visibility of the apps their employees use."

"As more organisations look to upgrade the 300 million or more PCs in enterprises that are over five years old, they are embracing newer PC platforms. The likes of Google Chromebooks and Microsoft's Windows 10 are growing heavily in the public sector in the US."

Benefits of virtualisation

There are many benefits of virtualisation for the enterprise. Firstly it's cost-effective. When applied storage, servers and desktops it can release assets, reducing overheads and operational fees, as well as decreasing the need for so many software licences that need to be used.

Virtualisation is also good for the environment, with less server and storage resources needed - meaning nothing needs to be cooled down. Also, there are fewer units to dispose of when the end of life comes, so nothing goes to landfill.

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