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What is Virtualization? A Simple, Straightforward, and Jargon-Free Answer

by Dennis Junk
on December 23, 2013

virtualization1Smart phones and tablets and other devices are so tiny these days that it’s easy to forget how much hardware it takes to store and process all the data we use. But many businesses have large on-site server farms lined with huge racks of computer servers. It really is amazing how much information our devices can store in small, nearly weightless drives. But even more amazing is the sheer bulk of data that gets shuttled around in even small- to medium-sized businesses.  

Each one of the servers on those racks eats up a lot of power and generates a lot of heat. Plus, housing data or hosting applications on physical machines makes your information vulnerable to any issues that arise with the hardware. Another problem with servers is that their processing power can be greatly depleted as it gets diverted across diverse applications. For this reason, it’s common practice to devote a server to each application, which makes the problem of operating and maintaining the growing number of machines that much more difficult. 

This is why most businesses are switching from physical to virtual servers. To virtualize your servers, you use software to divide each physical machine into several virtual machines (VMs). Adding this layer of abstraction to data processing and storage gives you more flexibility in managing your environment because it frees your information from the hardware infrastructure you use to host it. Virtualization allows you to devote however much processing power a server requires to run a particular application without having to worry about it affecting other servers and other applications.   

The benefits of virtualization include: 

Efficiency: Many applications require relatively small amounts of processing power. By creating a virtual machine for each application, you make it possible to host several of them on a single server. You get the benefits of having a server devoted to each application while minimizing the total number of physical machines in your environment. And by using one large physical server to host several applications you can drastically reduce overall energy consumption. 

Resilience: You can have the same application running on identical virtual servers on two different physical servers. This type of redundancy allows you to keep the application up-and-running even if the primary physical server crashes. VMs that pick up viruses or malware can also be easily discarded so the issues don’t spread to other applications. 

Testing: Developers often worry that the new applications they create will somehow affect the operation of other applications on the same machine. They could do test runs of new software on separate physical servers, but that would obviously entail taking on the cost of the extra machines. Virtual servers, on the other hand, work like independent machines, so you can test new software on them without having to worry about how it will impact other applications. 

Migration and Running Upgrades: Since the same virtual server can operate on many different physical servers, it’s often possible to transfer applications and the VMs they’re hosted on to other computers. You may, for instance, be able to send the VM to a client, or to employees in distant locations. Another advantage of being able to free servers from hosting hardware is that you can perform maintenance or do upgrades on one part of your physical environment while running your applications on another part. In other words, you can move VMs from one server to another so you can work on them without having to deal with any downtime. 

There are a few options for hosting virtual servers. You can either host them in on-site environments (or even on a single computer), or you can host them in the cloud, which means they’ll be housed in the datacenters maintained by your cloud service provider. When it comes to virtualization in the cloud, Microsoft’s Windows Azure is the current market leader. Microsoft is also making headway into the on-site virtualization market with Hyper-V 2012, but VMware is still a tough competitor with its vSphere 5.1. 

If you’re not a tech person, you’ll probably be a bit overwhelmed by the task of comparing vSphere with Hyper-V. If you want to jump right in to the technical details, Keith Mayer has done a stupendous job of lining vSphere up against Hyper-V on a feature-by-feature basis in his post at TechNet. Mayer is a “technical evangelist” for Microsoft, so he may be a little biased. But he’s got a lot of experience working with both of the services. His main conclusion is that both vSphere and Hyper-V are strong products with few major differences in overall performance. For a lot of companies, though, Hyper-V may come in at a lower operation cost since it’s already included with many service licenses. 

If you have any questions about virtualization or want to learn more about the various hosting options, we’d love to hear from you in the comment section. You can also visit our contact page to find how the various options may help you address your own unique business challenges.

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Dennis Junk
I'm Aptera's Content Strategist. I've been writing about tech and marketing for 5 years and have certifications from HubSpot and The Content Marketing Institute. A big science and literature geek, I taught college rhetoric and composition while I was still busy going to school for way too long, earning bachelor's degrees in anthropology and psychology, along with a master's in British and American literature. Look me up on LinkedIn.
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