How Virtual Computing Works


Virtual computing allows
Virtual computing allows
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

Using North Carolina State University's computer lab once meant reserving a PC and then going to the lab at the available time -- possibly the middle of the night -- to work on it. That's no longer true, thanks to virtual computing. [source: North Carolina State University]

Today, students and faculty can reserve and log in to the NCSU Virtual Computing Laboratory anytime, anywhere from their own PCs or laptops. What's more, this remote-access system lets users choose the software they need, including industrial strength computer-assisted design (CAD) and engineering programs that take more memory than they have on their own systems. At the same time, professors can build customized software images in minutes for students to access anywhere.

Virtual computing makes one computer act and perform like many computers. Through virtual computing providers, users can download and use more than one operating system and perform a multitude of functions at the same time through a single mouse click and receive all the benefits of additional programs and hardware without having to purchase or install them on their own computer. Executives can check their company e-mail on the road, students can take classes from home and managers can keep up with documents stored on internal servers from anywhere in the world.

Virtual computing is increasing possibilities and performance in the world of information technology (IT): increased storage space, more software applications, performance and troubleshooting solutions, as well as data backup. In this article, we'll cover what virtual computing is, who performs the virtual services, the system requirements and the benefits and challenges to the user.

What is Virtual Computing?

Virtual computing allows computer users remote access to software applications and processes when they need it. Users gain access via the Internet through a wireless or network server. For a fee, users can boost their computers' capabilities, size, performance, processes and/or software applications whenever they need it. This real-time technology offers:

  • Operating and utility systems
  • Storage
  • Memory
  • Software
  • Allocation and reassignment of input/output and other processes
  • Data backup
  • Automated problem solving and troubleshooting
  • Tools for monitoring and managing systems

Users can access software applications for a single computer or an entire network because of the ability to select only what you need when you need it. They also can save or back up data and text documents to a virtual server (thus freeing space on individual computers) and reallocate or assign different processes to the virtual environment. This enables computers to operate at optimal speeds.

Virtual computing initially began as a method of borrowing space or storage for computer systems, but it's since grown significantly, offering data and software applications, as well as operating and utility systems. The corporate environment most commonly uses it, where IT system managers run multiple applications on several servers.

Virtual Computing Requirements

Virtual computing does not require large mainframe configurations.
Virtual computing does not require large mainframe configurations.
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

Virtual Computing Providers

The number of virtual providers is growing steadily. In this section, we'll cover four of the major providers of virtual computing and the services they provide.

Hewlett-Packard (HP): HP assists its customers with problem solving and troubleshooting, management of electronic systems and allocating storage as needed, including tracking and managing online and offline storage. HP offers hardware and software applications and solutions to its virtual customers, giving them customer support through HP OpenView Service Desk. Security and prevention of data loss are also included.

IBM: IBM offers management tools in system security, storage, performance, availability, operations and configuration. Each of these areas includes software, hardware, utilities, protection, and diagnoses and repairs of faulty software and applications.

Microsoft: Through its Windows Operating System, Microsoft provides hardware and software storage operations, management, upgrades and monitoring.

Sun: Sun Management installs, upgrades, configures and assigns software applications without interrupting operations. Sun does allow users to convert back to a previous configuration.

Although the above providers offer similar services, the system specifications vary per provider. This chart details the specific offerings.

System Requirements

Before you purchase and download virtual PC applications, you need to ensure that your computer meets the system requirements. Every computer system has a limited amount of resources. A reduction in available memory and storage occurs once those resources are used. While the system requirements to download virtual applications are dependent on the provider and the package, we'll provide the minimal requirements for Microsoft Windows and Mac users as an example:

Microsoft's Virtual PC application -- Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 -- requires a 400 MHz Pentium-compatible processor (1.0 GHz or faster) and 20 megabytes of disk space. The virtual application runs on the following Windows operating systems:

  • Windows Vista Business
  • Windows Vista Enterprise
  • Windows Vista Ultimate
  • Windows XP Professional
  • Windows XP Tablet PC Edition

Other systems, like Windows 98, Windows 2000, or Windows ME can handle virtual computing, but they require more memory to do so.

Mac users can access virtual computing through Virtual PC for Mac Version 7. They'll need a 700 MHz native PowerPC G3, G4 or G5 processor, 3 GB of free hard drive space and 512 MB of RAM. Virtual PC for Mac will run on Mac OS X Version 10.2.8, 10.3, 10.4.1 and later versions.

Virtual Computing Advantages

Virtual computing files are easy to back up, as on this flash drive.
Virtual computing files are easy to back up, as on this flash drive.
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

The benefits of virtual computing vary depending on the user. The main benefits cited by providers and users are explained in this section.

You can achieve faster system speeds due to freeing up the system, memory and storage. Virtual computing provides increased efficiency by allocating a computer's processes to a virtual environment, making the computer available for other processes and applications.

Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center uses virtual computing to give medical and administrative staff online access to the software of their choice from whichever computer they're near, including patients' bedsides. The medical center provides on-demand access to 40 medical and business applications from more than 1,000 terminals, using a solution from Citrix Systems.

The medical center has saved $1.3 million on maintenance, upgrades and help desk calls, according to Benjamin Bordonaro, director of information technology. At the same time, having immediate access to patients' records in their rooms allows nurses to record medications as they're given and doctors to chart orders on the spot during rounds. [source: Citrix]

It's also flexible. You have the ability to use software when you need it without having to install, configure and store it on the computer. In addition, technical support is available electronically or by telephone at any time.

Automated troubleshooting, diagnosing and repairing of hardware and software are available as needed. Virtual computing programs automatically review your computer's speed and efficiency and reallocate processes or repair programs as needed.

You have the flexibility to change platforms and servers at will. Virtual computing users can run more than one operating system on one PC at the same time. For instance, through virtual computing, you can run Windows on a Mac computer. Effectively, your computer has the capability of becoming many computers.

There's a reduction in cooling and power costs, as well. Virtual computing eliminates the need to operate multiple computers and servers, which saves energy.

Virtual files are easy to back up. Entire virtual machines can be stored on one or two small files, making copying an easy and fast process.

Virtual Computing Disadvantages and the Future

Virtual computing expands your computer's capabilities beyond what you can plug in.
Virtual computing expands your computer's capabilities beyond what you can plug in.
Photo courtesy Dreamstime

While virtual computing does enable servers to perform more tasks and run more applications, it can also be time consuming and laborious for some IT staff. Even though the applications are remote, managers must still track and monitor files, applications, data and storage. Virtual computing can increase their workload because now they have more places to track.

Security and firewall issues must also be monitored and addressed to prevent the loss or theft of data in a virtual or remote environment. Transfer of information and the need for physical computers and servers to interact remotely must also be monitored continually. It's a balancing act, but for many organizations, virtual computing doesn't cut costs or the need for IT staff.

Other cost issues include what virtual providers should charge for each use of software application. Because virtual computing allows one computer to run many applications at the same time, the computer could be running several different applications of the same software simultaneously. There have been concerns regarding paying repeatedly for the same software. To address that issue, providers are exploring a meter process, which would provide users a specific amount of uses and charge them for any overages.

The Future of Virtual Computing

Virtual computing has been in existence for years. Only recently has its application become more popular in the corporate IT world. In the technology world, however, new developments and explorations continue to produce faster, more integrated technologies than before.

IBM introduced the concept of grid computing. Grid computing joins the monumental power of all of IBM's data centers worldwide (forming a grid) and makes it available to customers. Unlike traditional virtual computing, grid computing offers consumers unlimited use. The government, aerospace industry, science, higher education facilities and the military are all currently using grid computing. For more information on grid computing, read the white paper, "Grid Explained."

Consider also virtual computers, where files aren't stored on a hard drive, but are remotely accessed through cyberspace on any computer where you can log in to the Internet. This concept is currently available to computer users for Internet and e-mail access. Virtual computers will expand that capability and allow users access to all of their files and applications from any computer. Traditional microcomputers with large, external hard drives won't be necessary. Users will not need to carry laptops or removable storage devices like CDs from one computer to another.

For lots more information on virtual computing and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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