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31-01-2009, 12:48 AM

Virtualization is a way to run multiple operating systems on the same machine at the same time. It is akin to multitasking, but where multitasking allows you to run multiple programs on one os on one set of hardware, virtualization allows multiple oses on one set of hardware. This can be very useful for security and uptime purposes, but it comes at a cost.

Imagine an os that you can load in nearly no time, and if it crashes, you can simply throw it out, and quickly load a new one. If you have several of these running at the same time, you can shut one down and shunt the work off to the other ones while you are loading a fresh image. If you have five copies of redhat running apache, and one goes belly up, no problem. Simply pass incoming requests to the other four while the fifth is reloading.
If you save 'snapshots' of a running os, you can reload it every time something unpleasant happens. Get hacked? Reload the image from a clean state and patch it up, quick. Virused? Same thing. Virtualization provides the ability to reinstall an os on the fly without reimaging a hard drive like you would with ghost. You can simply load, unload and save oses like programs.
It also allows you to run multiple different oses on the same box at the same time. If you are a developer that needs to write code that will run on 95, 98, me, 2000 and xp, you can have five machines on your desk or one with five virtual oses running. Need to have every version of every browser to check your code against, but ms won't let you do something as blindingly obvious as downgrading ie? Just load the old image, or better yet, run them all at once.
Another great example would be for a web hosting company. If you have 50 users on an average computer, each running a low level web site, you can have 50 boxes or one. 50 servers is the expensive way to go, very expensive, but also very secure. One is the sane way to go, that is until one person wants cold fusion installed, but that conflicts with the custom mods of customer 17, and moron 32 has a script that takes them all down every thursday morning at 3:28am. This triggers a big headache for tech support as they get hit with 50 calls when there should be one.
Virtualization fixes this by giving each user what appears to be their own computer. For all they know they are on a box to themselves, no muss, no fuss. If they want plain vanilla suse, redhat with custom mods, or a cold fusion setup that only they understand, no problem. That script that crashes the machine? It crashes an instance, and with any luck, it will be reloaded before the person even notices the server went down, even if they are up at 3:28am. No one else on the box even notices.
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