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The Headache-Free Guide to How #Virtualization Works

When someone from IT starts discussing virtualization with most business managers or small business owners, the businessperson's eyes often begin to look blank and glazed. The person may start fidgeting, tapping fingers on the desk or making distracted "Mm-hmm" sounds while the IT worker or even the CIO tries to explain cloud computing.

Unfortunately, too many in the C-suite clamor for cloud computing without understanding how it works. As the ambassador between your company and the virtual computing environment, you should be able to explain the cloud to a non-IT professional. A business leader who understands what you're doing is a business leader who's more likely to be in your corner when you ask for budget increases or you ask to make cloud-related organizational changes. Cloud computing security doesn't have to be complicated; here's a simple guide.

What Is Virtualization?

Bill Kleyman of MTM Technologies has written a beautiful primer on how virtualization works for Data Center Knowledge. Kleyman explains virtualization as the ability of one or a few pieces of physical hardware to share their resources among a number of virtual machines. Because we can't see these virtual machines, we refer to them as existing in the "cloud."

All virtualization begins with hypervisor software. Hypervisor software, produced by VMware and other companies, works as the operating system of a server much like Windows works as the operating system on a desktop computer. Alternatively, the hypervisor can be installed on top of an existing server operating system. Once installed, the hypervisor creates virtual machines that run as guests using the resources and processing power of the original server, or the host machine.

A single host machine, instead of supporting one physical machine, can scale its powers by hosting a number of virtual machines. The host machine is in charge of apportioning resources between the virtual machines. In the past, when one server supported a limited number of cable-connected machines, the server only used a portion of its capacity. Thanks to hypervisor software, businesses can take full advantage of the server's computing power, creating a defined number of virtual machines instead of hooking the server up to physical machines.

Virtual Services Instead of Individual Machines

By creating an army of virtual machines instead of physical computers, virtualization takes certain objects and transforms them into services. The cloud-computing stack is divided into three main types of services: infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS) or software-as-a-service (SaaS):

  1. IaaS. You can own the host machines for your cloud environment or you can use someone else's machines as a service. You can purchase host machines and build your own infrastructure within your datacenter, or you can purchase computing power from someone else, such as Amazon Web Services. In other words, you don't need to own the host machines to use the virtual ones.
  2. PaaS. When companies develop applications, they need an environment in which to test and maintain them. Companies can build these testing environments within their own datacenters or they can, again, use someone else's machines as a service.
  3. SaaS. Instead of picking up a box of software or downloading an application from a website, employees can login to software that lives on someone else's machines.

All of these services may live on a limited set of machines, but the resources are shared among a number of different entities. When one entity isn't using the host machine's processing power, another entity can. This sharing is what makes the cloud model so elastic and scalable. It's also more energy-efficient, more economical, universal to access and available on-demand. These services can be deployed differently based on a company's security and sharing needs. For example, the company could share resources with other companies in a public cloud or keep its infrastructure private within a private cloud. The company could also use a hybrid cloud that puts low-priority items in a public cloud infrastructure and sensitive items within a private cloud infrastructure.

Cloud Security Risks

Virtual machines have unique security vulnerabilities. Sharing access and partitioning virtual machine components within a set of host machines creates new pathways for cyber attackers. Once your company leaders understand how virtualization works, they can begin to understand why you need to invest in cloud-specific security solutions.

Published Tuesday, July 15, 2014 6:33 AM by David Marshall
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