Virtualization: an In-Depth Overview

In the last year or two we have seen virtualization go from a poorly understood concept to a much-hyped industry buzzword being bantered about constantly in every conversation involving technology. There is no doubt that virtualization is playing an important role in today’s IT landscape, but the question is whether virtualization applies to the small and medium business markets at this time.

The quick answer to this question is: absolutely.

Unlike many technologies that provide a great degree of technological risk and expense and may not be appropriate for a small business, virtualization is a mature technology (IBM CP/CMS circa 1968) that is well understood. In short, it provides a layer of hardware abstraction that can benefit an IT organization of any size. It may possibly apply even more to small business IT departments than to the enterprise space.

Virtualization: Seriously, What is It?

Before looking at how virtualization can benefit the SMB market I would like to provide some definitions. In today’s IT landscape it has become popular to re-label many common technologies as “virtualization” for marketing reasons, unnecessarily complicating the issue.

True virtualization refers to the virtualizing of entire operating systems. Wikipedia uses the term platform virtualization and I will as well. Technically we could refer to this as “System Virtualization” or “Operating System Virtualization” to distinguish it from loosely-related technologies.

The basic concept of platform virtualization involves running an abstraction layer on a computer that emulates the hardware itself. Through the combination of abstraction and emulation we get what is known as a virtual machine. This virtual machine is a completely working “computer” onto which we can install an operating system just as if we were installing onto the bare metal of a dedicated machine.

Instead of being limited to only installing one operating system image per computer we can now – with platform virtualization – install many copies of the same or disparate operating systems onto the same piece of hardware. A powerful concept indeed.

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