What You Should Know About Virtualization

The term “virtualization” has become somewhat ubiquitous in any area of information technology, although the definition seems to change and can be confused with other technologies. For most, it represents a move away from the tangible to the immaterial, from hardware to software, from dedicated equipment to shared storage spaces on the Cloud. So what is virtualization and how is it helping businesses keep pace with a progressive technology landscape?

What is Virtualization?

The trend to widespread application of virtualization began in the early 2000’s and has become a standard approach for managing data infrastructures for businesses and industries across a wide spectrum – large or small. Virtualization has a number of meanings and can be applied in a variety of different ways.

Virtualization actually has its roots in the mainframe era of 40 years ago. Large computing machines with multiple processors and sub-systems were equipped with operating systems that allowed more than one user to simultaneously log onto the system and share the systems resources. During the 80s and 90s as Moore’s principle withheld, PCs and servers became more and more powerful. Administrators began to take note of the fact that the servers and PCs they were supporting were rarely – if ever – utilizing 100% of their resources (CPU, memory, hard drive space.) To more effectively utilize the capital businesses were investing in their IT infrastructure, methods were developed to create separate “virtual” machines on each of the physical machines. Initially, the focus was primarily on the CPU utilization; however, as prices came down and size went up on memory and disk storage, virtualization of these resources became a focus as well – either as a part of the virtual machines or partitioned as services themselves.

One of the most important characteristics of virtualization is that it is extending resources from a centralized location. Applied appropriately, it can increase efficiency and reduce IT expenses, while helping businesses become more agile.

Different types of Virtualization

Virtualization has many different faces: storage virtualization, server virtualization, software virtualization, network virtualization, desktop virtualization and so on. Many types of information technology used in a business setting have virtual counterparts.

The most widely used types of virtualization are hardware virtualization and storage virtualization. Both of these areas are helping businesses become increasingly more productive and reduce technology costs expenses.

Server virtualization allows users to work with a host system via a network connection. Essentially, the host computer becomes multiple virtual servers capable of managing multiple systems for multiple users. In theory, this provides a more efficient utilization of hardware resources rather than having to fill up racks of servers dedicated to single purposes and over-provisioned. This can reduce costs associated with hardware and maintenance.

Storage virtualization allows multiple users to access virtual drives allocated out of a single pool of space. For example, a virtual hard drive may be only a fraction of a large storage array or may be actually spread across several hard drives or storage areas. From the users’ perspective, they simply see a single storage drive that maps like any other. Storage virtualization greatly reduces administrative and hardware costs as resources are partitioned out of a central location and easier to manage, move and backup.

Similar shared resource configurations exist for the other types of virtualized services mentioned.

Benefits of Virtualization

Benefits to organizations include more efficient management of data and IT infrastructures, reduction of hardware expenses, lowered utility costs and increasing the availability and survivability of your infrastructure.

A large advantage of virtualization is to allow simplification of your IT infrastructure through automation and consolidation. Instead of having multiple machines and data centers, virtualization allows consolidation of space, energy and time. Data center expenses can be reduced or eliminated by operating your own virtual data center in the “cloud”. You are able to do more with less and you have more flexibility to respond to change. Coordination becomes more fluid and processes run more smoothly.

The Risks of Virtualization

While virtualization allows you to make better utilization of any given system, you are also putting multiple virtual environments onto fewer devices or even a single device. This creates several different types of new risk to manage, primarily involving hardware failure and data security.

While you are making use of all the excess resources a server may have – you are also now putting multiple applications and environments onto fewer physical pieces of hardware. Virtualization can actually provide for very high reliability and survivability if configured correctly; however, if it is not or if the rest of your infrastructure is not designed accordingly there is a risk that a hardware or software failure could in fact impact multiple environments. A single physical server outage can take down many virtual environments.

Likewise, virtual operating systems and applications can provide for a complicated security management environment.

• Depending on the environment, virtualized systems are going to be shared amongst multiple users and possibly multiple entities. This means that an attack on one user could expose vulnerabilities in the entire system or server.
• If the virtual systems are not configured correctly, users from one virtual environment can conceivably access another virtual environment.
• Data access can be a risk. Virtualization requires a level of trust with the administrators and technicians where you are hosting your virtual systems.

Virtualization is a cost effective way to improve each level of your IT infrastructure, but it does come with some risks. Most organizations and businesses are moving to virtual servers, networks and applications as a way to reduce waste and improve overall production. It requires careful configuration and management to safely enable this complex system of shared resources.

If you want to learn more about the different types of virtualization and how they can be incorporated into your business we are happy to offer up our expertise.