What is virtualisation?

A guide to what virtual machines are and how they work

women uses virtual interface

The process of transforming physical IT infrastructure, like servers or network equipment, and turning them into software alternatives is called virtualisation. Instead of adding more server racks, for example, organisations can keep their data in a virtual server they access via the cloud.

One of the main reasons for harnessing virtual components is to save floor space, which brings significant cost reductions on setup requirements and maintenance. This unique innovation, it’s fair to say, has already impacted the way we work, whether that’s businesses reevaluating their hardware requirements or workers using virtual desktops.

Virtualised computing components can integrate with one another much easier than the physical hardware of the past, which is one its biggest benefits. Those who are in favour of virtualisation underline that this helps businesses by increasing their agility, as well as their efficiency.

What is virtualisation?

The best way to think of virtualisation is to imagine five physical computers, with each running its own isolated operating systems and software services. Each device can work separately on different tasks, but through virtualisation you’re able to unlink each OS and its software from each terminal and combine them into one single entity, or ‘host computer’. This can maintain separate software packages and run individual devices if it has to.

Separate virtual software instances are what is known in the industry as virtual machines (VMs) and are managed and coordinated by a single physical machine. This central computer utilises a ‘hypervisor’, which is a software platform the computer can use to manage the breadth of the VMs it runs. Through this hypervisor, it can share important elements like network bandwidth, memory usage, CPU cycles, as well as other computing resources.

These five computers we've imagined can, through virtualisation, be merged into a single combined machine while at the same time preserving their individuality, allowing workers to use them 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, can open an additional operating system on a single device, and that's including its own software.

The VM's working is 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, since it's separate, the virtual machine can't influence 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

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"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."

What are the benefits of virtualisation?

As you can probably guess, there are plenty of benefits of virtualisation. Firstly, it can be cost effective when utilised on servers, desktops and storage, as it can free up assets resulting in overheads being reduced as well as operational costs. When you virtualise an environment, for example, and transform a single server into various virtual machines, you're able to receive a more efficient use out of that data than if it was in a non-virtualised state. Obviously, this allows you to reduce the amount of physical servers you operate which reduces the amount of time your IT team requires to keep your hardware running and maintained. Also, virtualisation means you can use fewer software licences.

Moreover, you can also improve resiliency through this process. If a physical server is affected by a serious issue or fault, it might need to be replaced or fixed which could set you back hours, days or sometimes even weeks. Since these virtualised environments are much easier to deploy, you can simply clone the virtual machine that has been affected and restore it to its original state in minutes, drastically lowering the costly downtime.

Lastly, virtualisation also offers environmental benefits. This is because it requires less storage and server resources, meaning that there are fewer units that must be manufactured and fewer machines to get rid of at the end of their working lives. Additionally, it also reduces the amount of energy needed to operate the machines as there are less of them overall.

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