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

With the volumes of data businesses collect on a daily basis surging year by year, traditional physical servers have been rendered incapable of fulfilling business requirements alone. Many organisations are, instead, pivoting to the power of virtualisation.

This is the process by which we create a virtual version of a physical entity, and, in computing, often refers to a digitised application, like a virtual desktop or virtual private network (VPN). A virtual server, in this respect, is the storage software provided by an internal hosting service.

Virtual machines (VMs) are becoming more widely used as businesses better understand how the technology can increase the efficiency of their servers while keeping costs down and increasing the capabilities of their hardware. Some of the greatest benefits are felt, for instance, in multi-core processors; single chips can power multiple VMs and reduce the need for more hardware.

VMs also offer more flexibility to IT teams, with staff awarded more capacity to increase or decrease their server needs, at short notice and without the need to negotiate the purchase or sale of physical infrastructure. Virtual servers, whether hosted on-premise or in the cloud, allow for more control over what businesses use and don’t use.

COVID-19 demonstrated how important this flexibility is for business continuity, with organisations often needing to change their server requirements drastically and at short notice, based on demand. With digital transformation plans continuing to accelerate across the economy, the virtualisation trend is only set to persist.

What is server virtualisation?

Virtualisation is essentially based on the notion of creating a computer within a computer. A host machine simulates another self-contained device within it, alongside attaching virtual core components such as the CPU, storage devices and operating systems. These processes, or applications, running on the VM don’t affect the host machine, beyond leaning on its storage and compute resources.

Virtualisation has many applications; for example, Linux-based operating systems can create a Windows VM in order to run programmes 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.

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For server applications, however, the primary benefit is that of efficiency. By using a single server to host multiple VMs, multiple different programmes 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?

Running a virtual server comes with many benefits, the main one likely being the option to streamline server usage as well as reduce hardware costs, as virtual servers allow organisations to run multiple servers off the same appliance.

Secondly, as opposed to their physical counterparts, virtual servers can be easily adapted to the shifting demands of an organisation, which has become increasingly important during the COVID pandemic and the ever-changing lockdown restrictions. As virtual servers utilise existing compute power, they can be scaled up or down, depending on the current needs.

Although many physical servers can boast impressive multi-core processes, these aren’t always properly utilised. In fact, they can be seen as almost wasteful, unless they are constantly being tasked with extremely heavy workloads. However, if you opt to divide the power to be shared with other virtual servers, it can be spread between multiple environments and help the physical appliance run more efficiently. In this way, you can use the same amount of processing power to run multiple workloads at the same time, without negatively impacting their performance. 

Moreover, by investing in virtual servers, organisations can also free up physical space as well as limit the amount of separate pieces of hardware which need to be managed by the IT department, allowing the team to focus on more important tasks. Virtual servers also make it easier to manage data backup and recovery, as they utilise integrated storage and don’t require important information to be stored on separate machines. 

Lastly, they are more financially-efficient: 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.

How does virtualisation benefit a business as a whole?

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 VMs 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 an 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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