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 taking physical computing objects, such as servers and network gear, and turning them into software-based alternatives. These ‘virtual’ equivalents help businesses reduce IT equipment expenses and physical footprint, and help to increase efficiency and agility.

Virtualisation has transformed how businesses operate and how their employees work day-to-day. Besides from freeing up physical space, perhaps its biggest advantage is the way virtualised components are able to integrate with each other, something that might have been difficult, or even impossible when using certain types of hardware in the past.

However, before we go into the nitty-gritty of virtualisation, it’s worth explaining how it’s usually deployed in a business.

What is virtualisation?

In order to best understand how virtualisation takes place, try to picture five physical computers, each one of them running their own operating systems and software. Using virtualisation, you can detach each operating system, along with its corresponding software, from the computers and then merge them into one ‘host’ computer, while also maintaining separate softwares and running as individual machines.

Virtual machines (VMs) are these separate virtual software instances, and they are coordinated by a single physical computer. This computer uses a software known as a ‘hypervisor’, through which a computer is able to manage all the VMs it has running, as well as share memory usage, network bandwidth, CPU cycles, and other resources, depending on demand.

Inherently, this means that the five hypothetical computers are able to be merged into a single machine, while, at the same time, maintaining their ability to function separately.

Virtualisation terminology

Virtual machines (VMs)

Virtual machines are one of the elementary units of virtualisation. This is best imagined as an independently-functioning computer, except that it lacks a normally-expected physical presence. A virtual machine, when deployed, has the ability to open up an additional operating system on a single device, and that’s including its own software.

The VM’s working is wholly independent of the host, meaning that it won't be affected if something goes wrong with the hardware used to access it. At the same time, due to the fact that it’s completely separate, the virtual machine can't have an effect on the running of the ‘host’ computer.

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.

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.

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"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.

"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."

A folder labelled "GDPR Compliance" on a desk

"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

Firstly it's cost-effective. When virtualisation is applied to storage, servers and desktops it can release assets, reducing overheads and operational fees. Virtualising an environment can transform a single server into many virtual machines, allowing you to get much more efficient use out of it that you could in a non-virtualised state. Reducing the number of physical servers you are operating will naturally decrease the amount of time your IT team requires to maintain your hardware. Virtualisation can also decrease the need for so many software licences that need to be used.

It can also enhance resiliency. When a serious fault affects a physical server, it may need fixing or even replacing, which can result in disruption lasting hours if not days or even weeks. Virtualised environments are much easier to deploy – you can simply clone the virtual machine that has been affected and get it back up and running in minutes, seriously reducing costly downtime.

A group of happy entrepreneurs gather around a laptop

Virtualisation also offers environmental benefits. It requires less server and storage resources, which leads to the manufacturing of fewer units, resulting of course in fewer units to dispose of at the end of life – as well as requiring less energy to operate.

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