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

Running virtual servers can help create a more efficient IT infrastructure

A server rack, shot from a low angle and lit with blue light

With the volumes of data businesses collect daily 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.

Additionally, VMs offer IT teams a greater degree of flexibility, with staff allotted more capacity for their server needs, without the need to purchase or sell physical infrastructure. They can also be called for at very short notice, which just isn’t possible with the alternative.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of business flexibility has been made abundantly clear, with some organisations requiring major changes at incredibly short notice, and at times facing uncertain demand. As digital transformation expands across the country, virtualisation is only going to become more important to the modern economy.

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 to run programmes that are only compatible with Windows. Cyber security researchers looking to do real-world analysis can also use sandboxed VMs, which allow them to test malware within a controlled environment and without the risk of actually contaminating essential machines. 

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?

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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 offers various flavours of virtualisation management technologies, with its best-known offering being the ESXi hypervisor.

Hypervisors are the systems that manage the guest machines running as VM, and sit on the host machine to oversee these operations. 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 as 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. These are generally chosen for desktop machines as pre-packaged applications used for running incompatible software, as they are more user-friendly and present less of a learning curve than bare-metal hypervisors.

A man using a virtual server via a tablet

What are the benefits of running virtual servers?

There are many benefits to running a virtual server. Chief among them is the option to make servers more efficient and to reduce hardware costs, as they allow businesses to run multiple servers off one appliance.

The versatility of virtual servers is another big benefit. As opposed to physical servers, virtual servers use existing computing power, and as such can be scaled up or down dependent on the individual needs of each business.

Although many physical servers can boast impressive multi-core processes, these aren’t always properly utilised. 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 number 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, contractors can be used to establish VMs on a project-by-project basis. Upon completion, these VMs can be taken back down, so as not to take up any more resources or budget.

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 can easily be taken down.

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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