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What Is Virtualization and What Are the Benefits?

Most agree that the number one IT investment organizations are making is virtualized server consolidation. Virtualization is one of the hottest industry trends, for good reason. It has the ability to increase efficiency, reduce or eliminate downtime, and deliver truly remarkable cost savings.

Virtualization is actually not a new phenomenon - in fact the concept is just about as old as the computer itself. IBM was virtualizing its extremely expensive mainframes in the 1960s to allow for multiple corporate users. In the 1980s IBM's central mainframe was replaced with a distributed, client-server computer system based on inexpensive servers and desktops that each ran specific applications. So virtualization became obsolete... for a while.

About ten years ago, when the proliferation of severs became nearly unmanageable, engineers began to take a second look at virtualization - adapting the IBM model to the current needs of organizations. This new generation of highly sophisticated virtual servers (referred to as virtual machines or VMs) is credited to the developer and current market leader VMware. Other providers include Citrix, Microsoft, IBM, and RedHat.

This time virtualization is here to stay. So the question for organizations isn't whether to virtualize, but why not virtualize?

What Exactly is Virtualization?

The term virtualization most commonly refers to server virtualization - running multiple operating systems on a single physical computer. While most computers only have one installed operating system, server virtualization software allows a computer to run several operating systems off the primary system at the same time by giving other systems access to the computer's hardware - such as the RAM, CPU, and video cards. And, because each virtual server is isolated from other virtualized servers, if one crashes, it doesn't affect the others.

Virtualization works by inserting a thin layer of software directly on the computer hardware or on a host operating system. This layer contains a virtual machine monitor - a hypervisor - that directs hardware resources. For instance, a virtualized Windows computer could run Linux within the Windows interface. Or a Mac could run Windows within the Mac OS X interface.

In addition to server virtualization, there are four other types of virtualization:

Network Virtualization clusters actual computing resources into a single virtual network.
Storage Virtualization consolidates storage from multiple network storage devices into a single virtual storage device.
Application Virtualization separates applications from the hardware and the operating system, allowing relocation without disrupting other systems.
Centralized Desktop Virtualization uses a central server to remotely manage individual desktops - this lets IT staff allocate, manage, patch, and upgrade desktops virtually.

The Very Real Cost Benefits of Virtualization

It's not hard to imagine that by reducing the quantity of servers, organizations immediately realize a significant cost savings. VMware reports that their clients typically save 50 - 70 percent on overall IT costs. Some of the big ways virtualization saves money include:

Increasing energy efficiency by accomplishing the same work with fewer machines. Analysts estimate that, without virtualization, most servers use only 5 to 25 percent of their total capacity.
Reducing labor costs by increasing the server to administrator ratio
Creating a highly efficient computing pool that will reduce the amount of future hardware expenditures
Allowing growing organizations to open up valuable rack space without adding more machines

Other Important Benefits of Virtualization

Applications are almost never created for a single operating system anymore and this is where virtualization shines. It allows developers to write and test code that crosses through an array of operating systems using a single workstation.

Virtualization creates powerful business agility. Organizations that use virtualization to cluster, partition, and manage workloads by configuring server groups into flexible resource pools are perfectly positioned to respond like a cat to changing marketplace demands.

Virtualization fundamentally changes the way IT managers interface with computing resources. Instead of wasting time monitoring 100s of machines, they can turn their focus to innovating - fully exploiting the capabilities and services the technology offers.

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