By now, we’re all well acquainted with the word “virtual.” It has been used to describe everything from online banking to remote classwork to interpersonal communication. Technology applications aside, the word itself means “almost, or not quite.” When a task is virtually complete, it’s not quite done yet. Virtual reality doesn’t quite measure up to the real thing.
But in the world of information technology, it represents a new reality when it comes to leveraging and accessing computing power. Virtualization in cloud computing hasn’t just almost, or not quite, accomplished a paradigm shift in the way we utilize our technology resources—it has set the current standard. In fact, cloud computing would be impossible to deliver without virtualization.
So, let’s dig into virtualization and cloud computing, what it enables, and how you can become a cloud computing professional.
What Is Virtualization?
Virtualization, boiled down, is the process of making physical resources more widely accessible to both end users and programs.
In the early days of computing, if you needed a specific computing task accomplished, you had to find the machine that was capable of that task, sit down in front of it, log in, and run your one process—all the while hoping the machine didn’t freeze up because you asked too much of it. That computer was also the only place the data for your work lived. If you couldn’t get to the machine, or if it crashed mid-process, you were in trouble.
These days, the idea of needing access to an actual desktop machine to accomplish each of the myriad tasks we rely on technology for seems ludicrous and untenable. We don’t have to go to the bank to do our banking. We don’t have to be in a classroom to take a class. We’re less worried about losing data if a crash occurs. The main reason for that is virtualization and more specifically, virtualization in cloud computing.
Virtualization: Key Words
We’ve seen that the computing version of the word “virtual” takes on a slightly different flavor than the standard use of the word, so let’s clarify some other key terms and define them specifically for the concept of virtualization in cloud computing:
- Virtualization: Virtualization is the process of creating a virtual version of something, such as a virtual machine that emulates a physical computer.
- Virtual machine (VM): A VM is a software emulation of a physical computer that can run its own operating system and applications.
- Hypervisor: Also known as a virtual machine monitor (VMM), a hypervisor is a software layer that allows multiple VMs to run on a physical host. It abstracts the underlying hardware and allocates resources to VMs.
- Abstraction: Virtualization allows for the creation of an abstraction layer between the hardware and software layers. This enables multiple operating systems to run on a single physical machine.
- Host machine: The host machine is the physical computer that runs the hypervisor and hosts the VMs.
- Guest machine: A guest machine is a VM running on a host machine.
- Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI): VDI is a desktop virtualization technology that allows multiple users to access a shared desktop environment from different devices.
- Virtual network: A virtual network is a software-defined network that connects virtual machines together and to the physical network.
- Containerization: Containerization is a lightweight form of virtualization that allows multiple isolated environments to run on a single host machine, sharing the same operating system.
- Snapshot: A snapshot is a saved state or backup of a VM that can be used to restore the VM to a previous state.
Virtualization and Cloud Computing
So how does virtualization fit in with cloud computing? Essentially, virtualization makes cloud computing possible. While some are nervous about sending their data to the mysterious “cloud,” wondering where in the ether our private information has been beamed to, many of us now understand that our data resides on a physical server somewhere. Accessing our data from a handheld device or a laptop computer requires some element of virtualization.
There are three main services models used by providers of cloud services:
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): Host servers (physical machines) owned and run by a third party; computing and storage services rented out by other companies (for example, Netflix uses Amazon Cloud Services for IaaS); must be managed by the user.
- Platform as a Service (PaaS): A cloud services company provides a platform for other companies to create and deploy their own applications. The cloud services provider manages infrastructure, the user only manages the applications installed on the machines.
- Software as a Service (SaaS): Infrastructure and applications managed by the provider; the user is “renting” the use of an application.
In all three models, virtualization is used to make the required resources available to the customer without having to actually own the resources. These resources are delivered over the internet, allowing users to scale their computing capacity and capabilities up or down on demand. In other words, people only have to pay for the resources they actually need. Gone are the days when individual users or businesses had to maintain expensive hardware that they maybe used a fraction of the computing power on. Leveraging virtualization in cloud computing allows us to get the most out of our technology budget, and qualified cloud professionals are the ones who can help achieve budget goals.
Types of Virtualization in Cloud Computing
Virtualization in cloud computing is achieved by combining multiple layers of virtualization. These layers include hardware/physical, network, storage, desktop, and application virtualization. The use of these layers is dependent on the model of cloud computing required for business:
- Server virtualization allows multiple virtual servers to run on a single physical server, allowing greater utilization of resources and flexibility in managing workloads.
- Network virtualization enables the creation of virtual networks that operate on top of physical network infrastructure, allowing for better management and allocation of network resources.
- Storage virtualization allows multiple physical storage devices to be presented as a single logical storage device, simplifying management and increasing flexibility.
- Desktop virtualization enables the creation of virtual desktops that can be accessed from any device, allowing for more flexible remote work arrangements and simplifying desktop management.
- Application virtualization allows applications to be encapsulated in a virtual environment, reducing conflicts and simplifying management.
Features of Virtualization
There is a multitude of features specific to a virtualized environment that allow you to take full advantage of its capabilities. Some of these include:
- Partitioning: Virtualization allows for the partitioning of a physical server or storage device into multiple virtual machines or virtual storage units. Each virtual machine or storage unit appears as a separate and independent entity.
- Isolation: Virtualization provides isolation between virtual machines, meaning that each virtual machine operates independently of other virtual machines running on the same physical server. A crash on one VM won’t necessarily impact another, even when they have the same host.
- Encapsulation: Virtualization encapsulates the virtual machine or storage unit and its associated software, settings, and data into a single file or set of files. This makes it easy to move virtual machines or storage units between physical servers.
- Resource allocation: Virtualization allows for the allocation of resources such as CPU, memory, and storage to each virtual machine. This enables the efficient use of hardware resources.
- Flexibility: Virtualization provides flexibility in managing IT infrastructure. It allows for the creation of virtual machines and storage units on demand, making it easy to scale up or down as needed.
- Disaster recovery: Virtualization makes disaster recovery easier by enabling the creation of virtual machine backups or snapshots that can be restored quickly and easily.
Benefits of Virtualization in Cloud Computing
Even if the concept of virtualization is relatively new to us, we’re likely already familiar with at least some of the benefits of virtualization in cloud computing, like:
- Ease of access. We can get to our applications and data from anywhere with a network connection.
- Cost-effective. Physical hardware costs can be prohibitive, but with virtualization and cloud computing, we can effectively “rent” only the resources we need to accomplish our end goal, whether it’s accessing a bank statement from an application on our phone or managing a data warehouse for health insurance claims information.
- Security. Instead of providing access to the main systems, virtual systems with their own security measures can be created that only provide access to the information needed for the job. These security levels can be maintained independently of the overall hardware security, keeping access to the main servers restricted to the system administrators.
- Redundancy. Data can be backed up and archived in several places easily, reducing the overhead of maintaining a large, single repository of data and providing secure backups and restore points in the case of an outage or data corruption.
- Agility. Because users aren’t beholden to the limitations of their own hardware/software, they can quickly pivot to take advantage of changing technology and markets.
What to Know About Managing Virtual Systems
If you’re the one providing the virtualized resources, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure the performance, availability, and security of virtualized environments:
- Monitoring and performance management: Monitor the performance of your virtualized systems and applications to identify potential bottlenecks or issues. Use monitoring tools to track resource utilization, such as CPU, memory, and disk usage, and keep an eye on application performance metrics.
- Capacity planning: Ensure your virtualized systems have enough resources to meet the needs of your applications. Plan for future growth and allocate resources accordingly.
- Backup and recovery: Implement a backup and recovery plan for your virtualized systems to ensure that data and applications can be restored quickly in the event of a disaster or outage.
- Security: Protect your virtualized systems and applications from cyber threats by implementing security measures such as firewalls, antivirus software, and access controls.
- Patching and updates: Keep your virtualized systems up to date with the latest patches and updates to ensure that known security vulnerabilities are addressed.
- Resource management: Manage the allocation and use of resources, such as storage and network bandwidth, to ensure that applications have the resources they need to run smoothly.
- Documentation and reporting: Document all changes and updates to your virtualized systems and applications, and generate regular reports to ensure everything is running as expected.
While it may seem like a lot to keep track of, bear in mind that many of these tasks can be handled by the company providing the cloud services, depending on the model of cloud services we’re engaging them for—and the companies that provide these services often have dedicated, resourceful teams more than up to the task of managing each of these critical components of a virtualized configuration.
Ready to Kickstart Your Career in the Clouds?
Virtualization in cloud computing offers many benefits and is so commonplace now that, as consumers, we’re probably not even aware that it’s in play. And that’s the goal—providing seamless service with minimal interruption in a safe environment. Creating and maintaining an effectively virtualized environment of physical hardware is what enabled cloud computing at scale possible, after all.
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