What is Virtualization, and Why Should You Care?

Virtualization is one of those technology buzzwords you’ve probably heard before without understanding what it is, how it works, or why it’s important. In a general sense, virtualization is a strategy for freeing up IT resources that are typically tied to hardware. Implementing a virtualized environment can be a bit challenging, but understanding the fundamentals of virtualization will help you determine whether it’s a worthwhile investment for your business.

What is virtualization?

Although it’s a broad concept, virtualization usually refers to server virtualization because it’s the most basic type there is. In this type, all of the storage, network, and compute resources from the physical server hardware are abstracted so they can do multiple things at the same time and run more efficiently. 

If your business doesn’t have a need for server resources in the first place, a virtualized server won’t have much value. However, if you’re currently running a dedicated server for your business applications, virtualization is an IT strategy worth exploring.

The main components of server virtualization include:

  • A bare metal server or another type of hardware and its operating system
  • Virtual machines (VMs), which contain all of the virtualized resources
  • Hypervisor software, which is the secret sauce that communicates between the bare metal hardware (or the operating system) and the virtual machines

Individual VMs can run their own operating systems and applications while sharing resources from the same physical hardware. Each virtual machine can function independently and interact with other devices, applications, data, and users as though it were a separate physical resource. And, because each VM is isolated from other VMs, if one crashes, it doesn’t affect the others.

Server virtualization involves a server’s resources, but the same principles can also apply to other systems. Network virtualization, for example, splits available bandwidth in a network into independent channels that can be assigned to specific servers or devices. 

Similarly, application virtualization separates applications from the hardware and the operating system by putting them in a container that can be relocated without disrupting other systems. 

Finally, desktop virtualization enables a centralized server to deliver and manage individual desktops remotely. This is useful for instances where you need to provision, manage, upgrade, and patch a user’s desktop without being physically located in front of their computer.

Prominent vendors in the server virtualization market include:

  • VMware
  • Microsoft
  • Citrix
  • Oracle
  • Red Hat
  • Amazon
  • Google

Related: Top Server Virtualization Companies

Virtualization vs. cloud computing

Virtualization and cloud computing are easily confused concepts, but they are not the same. Cloud computing is essentially a product of virtualization. Without virtualization, cloud computing wouldn’t be possible, but virtualization can take many forms outside of cloud computing. 

The difference between the two comes into play when considering the stage of the virtualized resources’ lifecycle. Virtualization is a type of software-as-a-service (SaaS) model that a business uses to create and manage virtualized resources. Cloud computing, on the other hand, is infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) that a business provides to other businesses based on virtualized resources that have already been created. 

A real-world example of how these two concepts work together is Google Drive. Google maintains millions of servers in remote data centers around the world. These servers have been virtualized to create a giant pool of resources that users can pay Google to access. When someone uses Google Drive, they are accessing Google’s virtualized storage without touching the underlying physical hardware.

Related: The Impact of 5G on Cloud Computing

Why should you care?

Before server virtualization was introduced in the late ‘90s, businesses were forced to run large servers that only performed one task, regardless of how much storage, network, or compute capacity that singular task consumed. This approach mostly stemmed from fear that running more than one application or task on a single server would put multiple systems at risk in the event of server failure.

Some businesses still choose to operate servers like this today, despite the expensive overhead costs required to utilize only 10 to 15 percent of each server’s total capacity. In contrast, virtualization makes it easier for businesses to do more with fewer resources. There are still some considerations that might prevent you from jumping to virtualization, but overall virtualization creates more advantages than disadvantages.

Pros of virtualization

Virtualization makes it possible to save money, improve productivity, respond faster in a crisis, and scale your IT infrastructure alongside your business. 

  • Lower operating costs: Because you can optimize your server resources to run more efficiently, you’re only paying for the exact capacity you need at any given time. 
  • Better energy efficiency: Running fewer servers means you’re consuming less energy as a whole, thereby reducing your total utility expenses.
  • Improved productivity for IT teams: You (or your IT staff) will be able to spend less time on manual tasks for server maintenance. 
  • Better for disaster recovery: You can automate backup and recovery with virtual machines, which offers peace of mind that you’ll be able to maintain business continuity in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. 
  • Easier to scale: As your business grows, you’ll be able to spin up virtual machines quickly and easily when you need them to run new applications.

Cons of virtualization

Although virtualization offers numerous advantages, you should still consider some of the drawbacks that come with it.

  • Higher implementation costs: The cost of implementing a virtualized server will be considerably higher than the cost of implementing a dedicated physical server, but the savings over time will offset the higher initial price tag.
  • Compatibility: Not all applications can be virtualized, so a hybrid environment is often required to support a business’s needs completely.

The future of virtualization

While virtualization took a while to gain traction as an IT strategy, it’s now one of the most widely adopted trends in the technology landscape. The reasoning makes sense: with virtualization, you’re able to minimize wasted resources, save time and money in the long run, and implement an infrastructure solution that will grow alongside your business. It’s had a profound impact on innumerable businesses to date. Most experts argue that virtualization will only continue to gain popularity despite new technologies like microservices and serverless computing on the horizon.

Read Next: Server Virtualization Guide for Small Businesses

This article was updated on April 5, 2021 by Kaiti Norton.

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