Server virtualisation: What is it and what are the benefits?

Running virtual servers can help create a more efficient IT infrastructure

A cloud server concept

We are collecting, processing, storing and using data at such a rate that physical servers on there own can no longer fulfil our business needs. Now is the age of the virtual server and, indeed, virtualisation. 

Virtualisation refers to the act of creating a virtual version of something. In computing, it is often a 'digital' application instead of a physical one, such as a desktop or storage device. Ergo, a virtual server is storage software that's provided by an internet hosting service.

Virtual machines like this have become so popular because the process of virtualisation allows businesses to use their hardware resources more effectively. Thanks to advancements with multi-core processors, single chips can effectively power multiple virtual machines, which in turn helps to reduce the need for hardware.

This also brings flexibility with IT teams able to increase or decrease their server needs with ease. Be it on-premise or within a cloud environment, virtual machines allow businesses more control over what they use and what they don't. 

This has proven to be a requirement for many businesses during the pandemic which brought sudden changes and alternative cloud-based needs overnight. It also helps keep IT budgets down. 

What is server virtualisation?

At its core, virtualisation is the practice of creating a computer within a computer. The host machine simulates another self-contained machine, complete with virtual versions of core components like processing hardware, storage devices and operating systems. Any processes or applications running on this virtual machine (or VM, for short) do not affect the host machine, apart from the storage and compute resources required to run them.

Virtualisation has many applications; for example, Linux-based operating systems can create a Windows VM in order to run programs that are only compatible with Windows. Cyber security researchers also frequently use sandboxed VMs, which allow them to examine and test malware samples without the risk of contaminating their machine.

For server applications, however, the primary benefit is that of efficiency. By using a single server to host multiple VMs, multiple different programs can be run in tandem, with different operating systems and resource allocations if necessary. This gives IT departments increased flexibility, as well as greater control over cost.

This means that the physical server that a business has already invested in can be used to run concurrent workloads, whether that's running applications, tasks or virtual desktops.

Using a virtual server also means that IT staff have much more transparency, using a single dashboard for viewing all operations and workloads, identifying consumptions and tweaking workloads where necessary for totally seamless performance.

What is a hypervisor?

Even if you're not familiar with virtualisation technology, you're almost certainly familiar with the biggest provider of it: industry stalwarts VMware. The company, now part of Dell Technologies, offers various different flavours of virtualisation management technologies, with its best-known offering being the ESXi hypervisor.

Hypervisors are the systems that sit on a host machine and manage the various guest machines running as VMs. Bare-metal (also known as native) hypervisors sit directly on a server with no underlying OS and are exemplified by the aforementioned ESXi, as well and Microsoft's Hyper-V software and Oracle VM Server.

Hosted hypervisors are a separate kind of system, which on top of a standard operating system and run VMs with a layer of abstraction between the host OS and the guest machine. Typically more user-friendly than bare-metal hypervisors, these are generally used on desktop machines as pre-packaged applications to run incompatible software.

A man using a virtual server via a tablet

What are the benefits of running virtual servers?

The main benefit of using a virtual server is that it allows businesses to run multiple servers off the same appliance, significantly reducing the number of servers needed and thereby cutting hardware costs

Because it utilises existing compute power, virtual servers can be easily up and down-scaled according to demand, making it a much more flexible option when compared to using a physical server environment.

Most physical servers don't use their resources to the biggest benefit, with multi-core princesses looking good on paper, but a little redundant unless they are tasked with particularly heavy workloads.

By splitting the power to work across multiple virtual servers, the physical appliance can run more efficiently as the power is spread between the virtual environments. No longer is a business wasting what it has invested in because more can happen concurrently using the same processing power.

This means that workload-heavy apps or services that would usually need to be run off a single server can now run together, without performance being affected.

Virtualising servers also helps free up physical space and reduce the number of separate pieces of hardware needing to be managed by the IT department, freeing up their time to work on more business-critical tasks.

With virtual servers making use of integrated storage, data backup and recovery can be more reliable and easily managed as information is not separated out onto different machines.

If a business wants to significantly overhaul its existing legacy infrastructure by moving towards digital transformation, a virtualised environment offers a quick way to quickly upscale or downscale resources. It avoids the need to invest heavily upfront and this means costs can be re-assigned to other parts of the business or eradicated in some cases.

Virtualisation is not just a boon to IT

Virtualisation can have benefits for the entire organisation. Rather than needing to permanently onboard new employees to deal with enhanced IT resources, it can instead choose to use contractors and spin up virtual machines on a project-by-project basis. When the project is completed, it can be spun down again, making it a more resource and cost-effective way of running a business.

If a company wants to explore new applications or services, these can be installed on virtual servers rather than taking up space on physical hardware, thus saving space and offering more flexibility. If it's decided that application is not right for the business need, it can be uninstalled and the virtual server spun down again, making it a more efficient way to use resources.

Providers and vendors are now supplying the tools businesses need to set up their own virtualised resources. VMware's virtual servers, Dell's blade servers and Citrix's virtual software and desktop tools are all making it easier for companies to move towards a virtualised infrastructure and freeing themselves from the legacy server chains.

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