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

Running virtual servers can help create a more efficient IT infrastructure

Thanks to the ever-increasing amounts of digital data, apps, and software that modern businesses collect and use, there is often a need for multiple servers. Not only are such servers uses to host apps and store data, but they are often used to power virtual servers.

For companies that make use of the plethora of cloud services available, it is almost a certainty that they will be using virtual servers in one form or another. 

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The reason virtual machines are so prevalent is the process of virtualisation allows for more effective and efficient use of a server's hardware resources. The nature of multi-core server-grade processors means that one chip can effectively power multiple virtual machines or servers, which can avoid leaving its cores underutilised powering just one server. 

Not only can the use of virtual servers make more efficient use of server hardware, be it on-premise or within a cloud-powering data centre, they can also be easily spun up or scaled-down, meaning more flexibility for how a company harnesses its existing server resources and often avoiding the need to acquire more physical hardware. 

Given the rigours of modern business often require companies to do more with less, server virtualisation is arguably a key technology for businesses of all sizes to embrace in their IT strategy, especially if budgets are tight. 

What is server virtualisation?

At its core, virtualisation is the practise 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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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