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

The amount of data we collect, process and store is so great that physical servers are no longer enough to fulfil business needs. Instead, many are turning to the new age of virtual servers and virtualisation

When we refer to virtualisation, we mean the act of creating a virtual version of a physical thing. In computing that is often a 'digital' application, like virtual desktops or virtual private networks (VPN). So in this regard, a virtual server is storage software that's provided by an internet hosting service.

As such, virtual machines are proving to be a very popular way to increase server efficiency. It allows businesses to cut costs and increase the capabilities of their hardware resources. These are the benefits of advancements with multi-core processors where single chips can power multiple virtual machines and reduce the need for more hardware.   

Another benefit is the flexibility it offers to IT teams which have the ability to increase or decrease their server needs with far more ease than buying, selling or not using a physical server. A virtual server, whether on an on-premise or cloud environment, allows much more control over what businesses do and do not use. 

As a result of the pandemic, many businesses needed this flexibility to either increase or decrease their server needs. And, with more digital transformation plans being implemented or accelerated, the trend looks likely to continue. 

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.

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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 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?

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 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 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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