What is Virtualization? Definition, Types, & Top Business Benefits

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What is Virtualization?

Virtualization refers to a set of techniques and tools to create a virtual (i.e., software-based) solution for processes that would typically require a physical platform. It is a very broad discipline that spreads into many different computing branches, including servers, personal workstations, and everything in between. Virtualization allows the same host/computer/server to run multiple guest operating systems using virtualization software known as a hypervisor and easily move virtual machines (VMs) between hosts. 

It’s hard to overstate how vital virtualization technology is for the Internet and our world as a whole. It forms the backbone of cloud computing. Virtualization is an invaluable resource for managing complex systems while reducing hardware complexity.

Why Do You Need Virtualization for Your Business?

Virtualization has solved many of the challenges from previous decades that businesses such as yours faced with their online presence. Virtualization can reduce costs, make creating new environments easier, and allow you to streamline tasks (like backups) across a virtual ecosystem. 

Rising loan rates and the overall cost of running a business grow constantly. You are always looking for ways to be more efficient so you can provide a product or service to your customers at a lower cost. In previous years, in order to add a server to handle added tasks as your business grew, you would have to purchase more physical servers. Purchasing servers can be very expensive. In turn, this new server would also require additional power to run and a sysadmin or IT team to configure, install, and administer it. 

Physical servers do not use all of their computing resources 100 percent of the time, which is where virtualization comes in as a cost benefit. By having multiple servers in a virtual environment, you would no longer need to add physical servers. Instead, you could use the unused resources from your existing servers to address your business’ growth needs.

Another benefit to virtualized environments is the ease of creating new servers within that environment. Instead of ordering a new physical server, waiting for the parts, and putting it together, you can create a new virtual server with a few clicks of a button. Shortening the length of time it takes to create a new instance allows your team to focus their efforts elsewhere. If your business has a constant need for creating similar environments over and over, you also have the ability to create templates that can be used to streamline the creation of similar virtual machines. 

Virtualization can also make it easier to perform the cloning or backup process of existing virtual servers. Many virtualization platforms like KVM or VMware make it easy to clone existing servers. This makes it very easy to test out any changes that the administrator needs to make to a system without having to do it on a system that is in production. Similarly, full server snapshots can be created or saved on-demand or on a schedule to be recreated in case of an emergency on the live system. 

Both of these examples can greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to recover from catastrophic events, test changes without interrupting the production server, or move to a completely new host. 

What are the Types of Virtualization?

The six types of virtualization are single-tenant server, multi-tenant server, desktop, network, storage, and application virtualization.

1. Single-Tenant Server Virtualization

Setting up a new physical server requires a lengthy installation and configuration process where a technician would need to put the server together, install the operating system, and configure all of the applications required for the site or workload to function. Although this can be sped up by directly installing a preconfigured disk image, it wouldn't be completely eliminated.

With virtualization, that process can be automated and simplified.

You can automate the provisioning process completely by using what’s known as a Type 1 hypervisor like VMware vCenter. A Type 1 hypervisor is a program that runs directly on the physical server (also known as bare metal) and provides a virtual environment on which operating systems can run. Since the hypervisor is always running, even when no operating system is present, it can create a new virtual machine from an image within minutes with no direct intervention.

This is perfect for servers with only one tenant using the resources. The tenant (you, in this case) would be the only one that would have full access to the physical environment. This means you would be able to create as many virtual machines as you want or need as long as the physical server has enough resources to allocate to the virtual machines.

2. Multi-Tenant Server Virtualization

Now, a virtual machine might not use all of the resources of the physical machine it was created on. In that case, another benefit of virtualization is the ability to host several virtual machines in a single physical machine, thereby sharing the physical resources of the host.

In this way, your business could have its database, mail, and web servers hosted on a single, more powerful machine that still functions as if the three servers were separated, significantly reducing the complexity of supporting the system.

Virtual machines don’t have to have different purposes. Load balancing is a common use of virtualization that involves multiple machines handling the same data. By distributing requests across multiple virtual servers, a website can efficiently handle a much higher volume of traffic than a single server could manage.

When a hosting provider creates multiple virtual machines for separate clients in a single parent server, this is called virtual private servers (VPS hosting), which are one of the most popular options for general-purpose online hosting. VPS still has all the capabilities of a physical server while being much more cost-friendly due to the reduced physical cost of maintaining a single, larger server, which simplifies data center operations. 

Another functionality benefit of VPS hosting is that changes such as adding more capacity, backing up and restoring the entire server or even creating and destroying additional ones can be done entirely remotely in a few minutes.

Another virtualized solution is private cloud, which can either be on dedicated infrastructure or shared across a multi-tenant cloud environment. VMware, the virtualization provider that Liquid Web uses for private cloud, allows businesses to create virtual machines to replace their existing servers, thereby consolidating and streamlining operations. 

VMware Private Cloud at Liquid Web handles both infrastructure and virtual machine setup and maintenance for you.

3. Desktop Virtualization

While virtualization is beneficial for Internet services and the cloud, that is by no means its only use case. Virtual machines on desktop computers are useful for many different purposes. Virtualization can be used to test applications developed for multiple operating systems on a single machine or to run legacy applications that aren’t compatible with newer operating systems.

Virtualization on desktops is accomplished through what’s known as a Type 2 hypervisor, which exists alongside the non-virtualized operating system that the computer uses typically (instead of having full control over all of the system’s resources).

That said, while you can run virtual machines on personal computers, it’s also possible to turn things around and run personal computers as virtual machines instead. There is usually a single, central machine running one (or several) virtual computers in this type of setup.

Individual users connect through devices known as thin clients to establish remote desktop connections without the full power and cost associated with a regular workstation. This simplifies IT costs and management in offices with many employees by centralizing individual workstations. Remote desktop is also very useful in schools and other similar organizations.

4. Storage Virtualization

A central data repository is immensely useful in any organization that creates content, but it can be problematic to access if the storage devices that hold the data are formatted for a specific operating system.

Storage virtualization alleviates that problem by presenting the data to each computer in the format it expects while storing it in a generic, compatible format that minimizes data loss.

Data virtualization has a lot of benefits over directly storing data on individual hard drives. Data virtualization is:

  • Accessible: Allows for multiple clients to access the same data (as any networked storage would) without having to manage the technical details of how that data is stored.
  • Safe: Administrators can quickly implement safety measures such as RAID mirroring and parity checks to minimize the chance of data loss during a drive failure.
  • Simple: Presents data to clients as if it was stored on a single drive, simplifying access.

5. Network Virtualization

We’ve discussed ways to virtualize servers, workstations, and network-attached storage, but what about virtualizing networks and the devices that connect them together? Many network devices that are used physically can be virtualized to minimize cost and make management easier:

  • Load Balancers: Distribute requests among multiple (physical or virtual) servers to ensure consistent performance.
  • Firewalls: Filter incoming and outgoing requests to block any malicious or unwanted traffic.
  • Intrusion Detection Systems: Monitor networks to detect suspicious activity.
  • WAN (Wide Area Network) Accelerators: Compress and cache data traveling through a network to increase its throughput.

The set of tools and techniques that allow us to virtualize these devices is network function virtualization (NFV). Like the virtualization techniques we discussed earlier, NFV simplifies data center operations by allowing a few more powerful machines to perform several custom appliances for each network function. Combining network virtualization with virtualized storage and servers provides powerful and complete infrastructure solutions such as VMware Private Cloud.

Even more so than individual devices, entire networks can be virtualized over the Internet using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), allowing multiple devices to connect privately across the Internet as if physically connected.

The term VPN has become synonymous with Internet proxies, which are just one application of VPNs. When connected privately in this way, a server in another part of the world can securely handle all incoming and outgoing traffic for any other members of the network.

6. Application Virtualization

We’ve briefly touched on how virtualization allows applications to run on machines they may not have been originally designed to run on. Developers can intentionally leverage application virtualization to deploy their software in countless systems without targeting each one. When applied in this way, virtualization enables developers to have a virtual environment that matches their application’s needs regardless of where it’s running.

Two popular solutions for application virtualization:

  • Virtual Machine: Used by the Java runtime environment, virtual machines allow programs developed in Java to run regardless of the platform.
  • Docker Containers: Docker is an open-source solution allowing developers to provide a defined set of dependencies for an application regardless of what is installed on the host machine without the need to emulate an entire operating system.

How Can Businesses Use Virtualization?

The advantages of virtualization are vast and never-ending. Based on your business model, you can choose between different types of virtualization to fit your needs. Rest assured that no matter which model you go for, it is much safer and more cost-effective than preserving your data on a physical server. 

The whole world has changed its approach to business even before Covid-19 struck. However, during the last two years, many companies understood the benefits of virtualization and switched from a physical data center to a virtual data center. From investing in your workspace to investing instead in digital spaces (and offices) where people can work freely, remotely, and safely, your organization can reap the many benefits of virtualization. 

Virtualization helps businesses solve these challenges by:

  • Reducing Physical Machines: Virtualization is both efficient and eco-friendly, and physical machines/servers can be repurposed.
  • Improving Application Availability: Instead of costly downtime for maintenance, applications are moved between hosts to keep them running smoothly if maintenance needs to be performed on the physical hardware.
  • Lowering Operational Costs: Employing a virtual machine allows for savings in multiple areas of business, such as time management, equipment expenditures, faster resource additions (like storage), and most importantly, energy usage.
  • More Backup Options: With virtualization, you have additional backup and restoration options for your virtual machines.
  • Ease of Data Migration and Cloning: If you need to move to a new host that is running a similar platform (like VMware), you can bring your servers with you by providing the cloud host with the images of the servers that you are currently using.

Check with your new cloud hosting provider’s SLA to ensure an understanding of support levels and migration support provided.

How Can Virtualization Benefit Your Business?

Virtualization using technologies such as VMware or KVM can improve the way you do business while protecting your data and ensuring unobstructed business continuity. 

Here are the main benefits of virtualization: 

1. Reducing the Operating Costs

Managing operating costs is every business owner’s nightmare, which is why most successful businesses turn towards a virtualized environment. What does this mean for your business? In a nutshell, virtualization is all about transferring as much data as possible from a single, physical server onto the virtual server hosted on the cloud. Let's say that you own a data center and are also paying for the building, servers, Internet, IT team, and AC systems that support your business. Moving your data to a virtual data center hosted by a trusted web hosting company allows you to take advantage of the cost savings on building costs and maintenance, hardware costs, and more. 

2. Easy Server Resizing

Regardless of whether you have a single VM or several VMs hosted in a virtual environment, resizing your servers is a very easy process with very little or no server downtime. As your business grows, so does your need for more resources for your servers to serve your website or applications. With a few clicks of a button, you have the ability to add additional CPU cores, memory, and disk space to any of your virtualized servers within minutes. Additionally, in most cases, you can easily downgrade your servers when resources are no longer needed.

3. Flexible Environment Options

You may need a more complex environment or the flexibility to align resources to a number of different virtual servers. With virtualization, all of the options are available to you and can be tailored by the web host to meet your business needs. Virtualized environments also allow you to choose a preferred operating system. 

4. Choice of Preferred Operating Systems

Since virtualization does not depend on requiring specific operating systems, you can choose which operating system you want to use such as CentOS, Ubuntu, Windows, or AlmaLinux. You can even run different operating systems in the same environment within a single-tenant environment. Most reputable hosting companies will also have preconfigured templates to choose from and can help make recommendations based on how the server is intended to be used.

5. Easier Data and Server Migration

If you already have a VM on another host, you can most likely bring that server with you into a VMware or KVM environment. Simply get a snapshot of the VM from the host and upload it to the new environment to get started. You may have to make some configuration changes if it's a custom setup, but the heavy lifting of reconfiguring and migrating data will already be done. 

6. Faster Server Provisioning

With virtualization, you can create a new server in a matter of minutes. Once the resources are allocated in the virtual environment, the OS template is copied, an IP is assigned to the server, and some final configurations are applied, your server is online. It's that simple. 

7. Dedicated Support and a Team of Professionals

If you choose virtualization with a hosting company, you're not only leasing the server space, but you're also getting support from the experts. Having access to these support teams is invaluable when you run into an issue on a fully-managed server, if you have any questions, or you simply need help to provision a new virtualized environment. 

Liquid Web's Support Teams are available 24/7/365 on the phone or in live chat within 59 seconds or less.

8. Enterprise Level Hardware

While virtualization can run on consumer-grade hardware, reputable hosting companies, like Liquid Web, provide virtualized environments using enterprise-grade hardware. Consumer-grade hardware will not keep up with the rigorous demand from a virtualized environment. Enterprise-level hardware must be used to ensure that your server stays online by avoiding server downtime due to hardware failure

9. Additional Security

When people think of virtualization benefits, they most commonly ask about security. How safe is it to migrate things to a virtual computer? Fully-managed virtual or cloud servers are safe places to store your data. 

The key benefits of transferring your site, app, or workload to a virtual space with a trusted infrastructure provider include:

10. Data Restoration

Finally, if the worst thing happens and your data gets damaged or lost, you will be able to instantly restore it and continue running operations smoothly. There are several types of backups that can be taken to protect your data during disaster recovery

When it comes to virtualized environments, the way that a server or data is restored is one of its many benefits. For instance, if an entire server fails and snapshots (or full server backups) are available, that snapshot can quickly be restored to the same or another instance, and the virtualization software does the heavy lifting. In contrast, on-server site backups are also recommended in the event that data is accidentally removed so it can be restored without having to recreate the server from a snapshot. 

Employ the 3-2-1 Rule of Backup. This backup best practice means having three copies of your data, utilizing two different types of backup media, and storing at least one copy offsite or in the cloud.

Virtualization for Your Business at Liquid Web

Liquid Web has the expertise and solutions for businesses looking to jump into virtualization. From Cloud Dedicated Servers all the way to Private Cloud powered by VMware and NetApp, Liquid Web has you covered.

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About the Author

Jake Wright

Jake Wright has been immersed in computers for a majority of his career and is still fascinated in learning new technology. He's provided support in many IT related fields, including: end user support, networking, hardware, server and system administration, web hosting and training (just to name a few). He greatly enjoys outdoor activities with family and friends when he is not at the keyboard.

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