By Scarlet Pruitt

If you have a technology-driven business, you may use many different types of software, some of which may require different operating systems. It’s easy to spend a lot of money on computer servers to run certain applications, and those servers could both eat up your office space and drive up your electricity bills.

If you’re already in this situation, or just thinking about adding more servers, it may be time to consider virtualization software. Virtualization allows you to run multiple applications on a single server by creating a simulated computer environment — often called a virtual machine — wherein each application runs.

Numerous Advantages

Although virtualization is an old concept that dates back to the 1960s, the technology has gained wider popularity in recent years as businesses have realized the cost and maintenance advantages of running multiple applications on one machine.

“With modern computers, virtualization has become very useable as anyone who has tried to use today’s iteration of the software on today’s Macs can contest,” says Luigi Baccari, president of the Boston-based IT firm E-Data Corp. “It’s very useful for Mac people who need to use PC-only software like Access.”

Application Virtualization

There are several different kinds of virtualization but one of the most common is application virtualization. In this case, when you run a server application with virtualization software, all the components that the program needs to run are present. The software acts as a layer between the application and the operating system, eliminating operating system-related conflicts. This is how you make PC software run on a Mac, for example. The virtualization software simulates the PC environment to allow the application to run.

If you run an OS on a server with virtualization, it runs as though it’s on a dedicated server since the virtual machine emulates the necessary hardware components.

Paravirtualization

Another type of virtualization is paravirtualization. This technology gives you an application program interface (API) to make your application run, but it requires some changes to the operating system. Paravirtualization is sometimes favored for performance advantages that we won’t delve into here, but if you’re serious about virtualization, talk to your IT advisor about the different types of technologies available to you.

A Variety of Uses

There are many ways to use virtualization and these expand almost every day. One of the most popular uses is server consolidation. Businesses can reduce the number of physical servers they need by running virtualization software on a few machines. Each “host” server acts as a “guest” to virtual machines serving different applications.

Virtualization can also be used for disaster recovery. Even if a business decides to keep all of its physical servers running normally, a server with virtualization can be used to back up those machines, and if one system goes down, the backup server can immediately start running needed applications in virtual environments.

Lately, virtualization has also helped make applications more portable. A handful of software vendors offer products that allow users to move applications from one PC to another using a USB memory stick, for example.

Enterprises are mostly interested in using virtualization for server consolidation, however, and it makes sense. You can reduce energy costs, free up your physical space, and reduce your maintenance time.

Given the demand, software vendors have stepped up to the plate, offering a variety of virtualization solutions, even some for free. As you explore the market, consider the free options but keep in mind that you will not be given support for these products and you will need to have a certain amount of know-how to set up each virtual machine.

“The enterprise software is a little trickier since they have more complex systems and more intensive operating environments,” says Baccari.

Finally, if all this information has got you geared up to go virtual, keep in mind that the physical server that hosts the software must have enough memory and power to handle the variety of applications you plan to run on it, so it’s essential to plan your hardware purchases in concert with your software strategy.