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Virtualization vs. cloud computing

What’s the difference between cloud computing and virtualization?

Cloud computing and virtualization are not the same thing. While the concepts are sometimes confused for one another, cloud computing and virtualization are two distinct computing methodologies that are only tangentially related. Enterprises employ both to provide flexibility and scalability across their IT departments—cloud computing to increase the accessibility of both internal and external applications and databases, and virtualization to minimize physical hardware and streamline the DevOps process. Virtualization can be part of a cloud computing setup, but cloud computing doesn’t necessarily involve virtualization.

To learn more about their differences, let’s explore these two concepts in more depth.

What is virtualization?

Virtualization is a simple concept with a wide range of uses. In essence, virtualization is the process of creating a simulated, or virtual, machine (the guest)—an emulated computer system that exists solely in the software realm and that operates within a physical machine (the host). The guest machine has memory, a CPU, storage space, and an operating system, all defined by software rather than hardware. Virtual machines come in all sizes and have configurable parameters to support different workloads and use cases—sometimes they are created to emulate older, out-of-date hardware, and sometimes they offer a strategic approach to managing resources.

To work, virtual machines need software called a hypervisor, which acts as a resource manager and interfaces between the host and the guest. The hypervisor allocates the necessary memory, processing power, and storage space for the virtual machine. It also manages the applications and general health of the virtual machine while it’s active. Applications within a virtual machine are completely separated from the host machine, so guests and hosts cannot interact with each other’s files in any way.

In addition to virtual machines, containers provide another way of handling virtualization. While containers and virtual machines are sometimes confused—and while there are some similarities—they have different functions. A container is a dedicated and standalone runtime environment for an individual application, whereas a virtual machine provides a software-driven environment. While a virtual machine may be used specifically to access an individual application, it has the capability to do much more than that. If you only need to run a single application, a container may be a more resource-friendly option than a virtual machine.

Virtualization provides many benefits, including clearer resource allocation and hard silos between software resources. For an individual, an example use case might be installing a separate operating system on a physical computer (for example, Linux on a Windows machine). For an enterprise, virtualization can offer an easier path to server consolidation, among other benefits.

What is cloud computing?

Cloud computing is any application, database, storage, or networking service that lives online and is accessed through the internet. There are three main types of cloud computing services: software as a service, infrastructure as a service, and platform as a service.

Today cloud computing is something that nearly everyone uses. Whenever you use any type of online service, including TV streaming, photo backup storage, and social media apps, you’re using a form of cloud computing. At the enterprise level, cloud computing services can include cloud infrastructure, cloud-based applications, such as ERP, and cloud-based disaster recovery and backup.

Virtualization can be part of the cloud, but cloud computing itself is an entire infrastructure built around supporting online access to applications, services, and data. As long as a provider is enabling access to resources, compute power, and/or applications through an online pathway, they’re using cloud computing. This could be as simple as a single server that offers a custom application to a small group, such as a classroom or a group of coworkers. On a much larger scale, a platform service such as Zoom requires functions, data, and redundancy to be distributed across a large number of servers that work together.

Cloud computing offers many benefits, including the following:

  • Scalability: With cloud services, organizations can add users by simply purchasing more licenses without having to worry about purchasing or updating individual systems and resources.
  • Operational efficiency: Cloud software is updated by the provider, so every time it’s accessed, the user runs the latest version. This saves on IT costs and resources by removing the need to deploy updates or patches.
  • Access: Many cloud computing services are accessible via a web browser or a mobile app, with individual user data stored with the account rather than locally. This enables anywhere, anytime access that’s not tied to a single device.
  • Security: User data stored in the cloud is considered more secure compared to data stored locally. This is because cloud providers build their businesses around ensuring data is secure and available, whereas individual IT departments must work within allocated budgets to combat the latest risk or threat.

How virtualization is used in cloud computing

Cloud computing can use virtualization for many different purposes, from supporting simulated applications on different operating systems to creating silos between resources to maximize efficiency. While it’s possible to deploy clouds without virtualization, virtualization is a critical tool used to support many cloud platforms, especially those built for a larger audience.

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