What is Virtualization?

Virtualization can mean different things depending on who you ask so we are going to take a broad look at what virtualization is, the different forms it comes in, and why it is so popular.

This is going to be pretty basic stuff so if you are looking for more advanced material I promise we will have advanced stuff in future posts.

Virtualization has been getting a lot of buzz the last few years as it moved from being “bleeding edge” technology to becoming an industry standard. You may have even heard that there are lots of benefits to virtualizing your datacenter…but you may not be sure whether it’s for you, how it works, or even what it means.

There are several kinds of virtualization, including server virtualization, storage virtualization, application virtualization, network virtualization, and desktop virtualization. But when most folks talk about virtualization, they’re referring to server virtualization, so that’s what we will cover today.

So, what is server virtualization?  Simply put server virtualization is the technology that is designed to allow multiple (virtual) servers to reside on a single piece of (physical) hardware and share the resources of the physical server – while still maintaining separate operating environments, so that a problem that crops up in one virtual server won’t affect the operation of others that may be running on the same physical “host.” To help explain what this means I’m going to use the house and condo analogy.

Let’s say you’re a land developer and you build residential property. You cut your land into smaller plots and build one house per plot. As part of the land development, you need to bring in all the utilities from the main street to each and every plot. All of this development costs money.  To make matter worse you know that your city’s population is growing, you’re running out of land to build on, and you also need to control the spiraling costs of building materials. How do you cut cost and provide more homes for a growing population on a limited amount of land?

Perhaps instead of building single-family homes and having one resident per plot you start building condominiums that hold several residents each. Now the utilities that are brought in to the condo complex are shared by all the residents and yet no one ever sees the other residents’ bills. You’re making more efficient use of the land you have and not wasting time and money bringing in utilities to each individual house. Plus one yard is easier to take care of than ten yards.

So how does this relate to server virtualization?

Each plot of land is a physical server, the structure you build on that plot is a server “workload” (i.e., Exchange, SQL, file server, print server, etc.), and the city is your data center. The utilities are things like power, cooling, and network connectivity. When there is only one workload per physical server, a lot of space and resources get wasted. It’s common to see only 10-15% (if that) processor utilization on physical servers which run only one operating system and one application.

With server virtualization we can now create several “virtual” servers on one physical piece of hardware – think of the hardware as little “server condos” if you like. Just as you can have one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom units in a single building, you can allocate differing amounts of processing and memory resources to the virtual servers depending on the requirements of each individual workload. Each virtual server can now share the physical resources of the host machine with the other virtual servers and never know that they are sharing. In fact, each virtual server “thinks” it’s running on its own dedicated hardware platform. By doing this you can now utilize 80-90% of the processing power of the hardware you own, and cut down on the total amount of power, cooling, and floor space you need in your data center.

For example (just pulling numbers out of the air), let’s say that you’ve been paying an average of $5K each for servers that would handle a single workload. If you need four of them, that’s $20K in hardware cost. But if you can buy one server for $8 – 10K to virtualize these 4 machines, that’s a significant reduction in hardware cost. And with fewer machines to plug in and keep cool, your savings can be up to 40% on power consumption alone. (Did you know that we’ve now reached the point where, over the service life of a typical new server, it’s going to cost you more to keep it cool than it cost you to buy it?)

Since the virtual servers are all located on one physical box you now have fewer pieces of hardware to maintain – allowing the IT staff to use their time more efficiently. You’ll save space in your data center. You’ll also cut down on the amount of waste (some of it hazardous) that must be recycled or disposed of when your hardware finally reaches its end-of-life.

You’ve also cut down time needed to bring a new server on line. In the past you would have had to acquire the hardware, assemble it, rack it, connect it to the network, install and patch the OS, install and configure the application, test it all, and finally put it into service. Now that the servers are virtual they can be created, configured, and put into production in a few hours as opposed to the weeks it used to take. In some cases, by using templates for commonly-needed workloads, it can take only minutes. This makes for a much more flexible and scalable environment.

So server virtualization can:

  • Cut hardware costs
  • Cut energy costs (for both power and cooling)
  • Cut system maintenance time and costs
  • Create a very scalable and flexible data center
  • Save space
  • Create a more environmentally friendly data center (a.k.a. “green computing”)

These are the main reasons that server virtualization has become an industry standard. According to folks like Gartner, we’ve now reached the point where the majority of new servers placed into service are being virtualized, and the majority of enterprises have made it a standard practice to virtualize all new servers unless there is a compelling reason why a server can’t or shouldn’t be virtualized. Virtualization also makes it easier to implement things like high availability, disaster recovery, and business continuity, but that’s a subject for a future post.

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