Virtualisation: What businesses need to know

The first question that businesses are likely to ask when considering virtualisation is: what exactly is it? In IT terms, hardware virtualisation refers to the act of using virtual, rather than physical computer resources. Practically speaking, this means that there is an abstraction layer between the physical hardware and the IT resources that the business consumes. For example, virtualisation software will enable a single, physical machine to deliver multiple workloads simultaneously, with each workload only accessing the specific physical resources that are allocated to it.

In its most simple form, virtualisation may refer to the partition of a hard drive, as this makes a single, physical storage device behave as if it is two hard drives. However, IT virtualisation examples also come in much more complex forms. The core concept to remember is that to the end user, virtualisation makes it appear as though they are accessing a single IT component or resource, regardless of the underlying hardware. Virtualisation enables businesses to consolidate IT resources, such as network, CPUs, memory and storage and provision them as they see fit, usually via a network connection.

Different types of virtualisation

In a business environment there are a number of different types of virtualisation that are being adopted. Whether relating to hardware or software, the following examples all have their own particular strengths and will suit some organisations more than others.

Desktop virtualisation

Desktop virtualisation refers to the process of hosting the entire desktop infrastructure remotely, so that it can be accessed via a network connection. By disconnecting the desktop from the physical device that it is accessed from, businesses and their employees can benefit from much greater mobility than was previously possible. All of the software associated with the desktop is also virtualised and can be accessed whenever and wherever the employee needs it, providing they have an Internet connection and their user credentials.

In addition, desktop virtualisation allows organisations to replace their current hardware with thin clients. These light-weight devices are specifically built to access IT resources remotely from a server, meaning that they do not need moving parts, significantly reducing the likelihood of mechanical faults occurring.

IT managers also benefit from desktop virtualisation as it enables them to deploy updates to all the necessary employees at once. Upgrades become straightforward affairs where IT leaders simply deploy them centrally for employees to access next time their log-in.

Server virtualisation

In server virtualisation, the physical server resources are hidden or masked from the end user. Instead, software is used to partition the server into many environments, often called virtual or private servers. This contrasts sharply with the traditional approach to server hardware, where each server is dedicated to a specific task or workload. Of course, this led to many servers remaining underutilised for vast periods of time, leading to the adoption of server virtualisation.

Another advantage of server virtualisation is that it can significantly reduce the amount of space required for a company’s server estate by consolidating multiple environments into a single server. Furthermore, virtual servers enable developers to create independent virtual machines on which they can test applications and operating systems. Rather than having to acquire a new, dedicated physical machines, a virtual server can be provisioned instead.

Virtual servers can also help to mitigate any issues surrounding legacy hardware. Upgrading old hardware can lead to compatibility issues that threaten to disrupt your business. With server virtualisation, IT administrators can create virtual versions of legacy hardware in order to give the IT team time to test migration to newer platforms.

There are also other types of virtualisation that businesses may wish to explore. As well as those listed above, storage virtualisation, where data centre storage is abstracted and pooled together, is an option, as well as network virtualisation, where a large physical network is broken down into smaller ones.

Business transformation

One of the broader benefits of virtualisation generally, is the way in which it places organisations on the path towards further business transformation. With traditional hardware resources, businesses are limited in the ways in which they can be flexible or agile. By adopting virtualisation, many companies have instigated a cultural change whereby they abandon restrictive ways of working. A recent study by IDC found that many businesses that embraced virtualisation quickly moved towards a cloud environment.

Both virtualisation and the cloud place great emphasis on efficiency, agility and flexibility and enable businesses to focus on their core processes. What’s more, virtualised resources are much easier to transition to the cloud than traditional hardware solutions, meaning that virtualisation is often used as a precursor to cloud migration. Interviews carried out for the IDC White Paper: “The Business Value of Virtualization and Extending to the Cloud,” highlight the important role that virtualisation has played in the adoption of cloud computing.

“Creating a virtualized server and then migrating to a cloud-based environment is the best route to go,” explained one of the White Paper interviewees. “Not doing so typically requires a lot more time and resources.”

In addition, many of the management tools used within virtualised environments share characteristics with those used in cloud computing, which makes integration a much smoother process.

Challenges

Of course, as with any other new technology, virtualisation comes with its own challenges. In particular, security experts have identified virtual networks as potentially adding vulnerabilities into an organisation. With each additional virtual router, firewall or switch, businesses provide another entry point for a cyberattacker. If these are all secured effectively, then businesses should not have any issues, but this can become increasingly difficult as your virtualised resources become more complex. In fact, virtualisation can create complexity issues generally due to the sharing of resources across multiple environments.

However, the complexity sometimes associated with virtualisation has not put off many organisations. And with the variety of virtualised resources now available, there’s a good chance that at least one of them could bring added flexibility and cost benefits to your business.

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