What is virtualization?

Virtualization is computing technology that simulates physical hardware functionality to create software-based IT services like applications, servers, storage, and networks. By creating a virtual version of a resource or device (such as a desktop computer) from one computer system, virtualization enables companies to reduce hardware costs and increase efficiency.

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How does virtualization work?

Virtualization creates several virtual machines (VMs) from one physical machine using software called a hypervisor. Because virtual machines perform just like physical machines while only relying on the resources of one computer system, virtualization allows IT organizations to run multiple operating systems on a single server (also known as a host). During these operations, the hypervisor allocates computing resources to each virtual computer as needed. This flexible resource allocation makes IT operations much more efficient and cost-effective, and has made virtualization the foundation of cloud computing.

Virtualization methods can change based on the user’s operating system. For example, Linux machines offer a unique open-source hypervisor known as the kernel-based virtual machine (KVM). Because KVM is part of Linux, it allows the host machine to run multiple VMs without a separate hypervisor. However, KVM is not supported by all IT solution providers and requires Linux expertise to be implemented.

What’s an example of virtualization?

Here’s a common virtualization scenario: a business has three physical servers that each have a specific purpose: one supports web traffic, one supports company email, and one supports internal business applications. With each physical server only being used for its dedicated purpose, the business is probably only using one third of each server’s computing capacity—even though it pays 100% of the server’s maintenance costs.

With virtualization, you could split one of the servers into two virtual machines and cut your maintenance costs by 33%. This means one server could handle email and web traffic, another could host all business applications, and the third could be retired to save costs or repurposed for some other IT service.

Virtualization vs cloud computing

Cloud computing is the delivery of shared computing resources, software, or data as a service through the internet. Virtualization technology makes cloud computing possible by allocating virtual resources into centralized pools that can be easily managed and deployed using a layer of management software. Here’s how this works:

  1. Virtualization uses a hypervisor to create virtual machines from physical servers, making those servers’ computing power, applications, or storage available to virtual environments.
  2. These virtual resources get pooled together in a central location (usually an on-premises datacenter) that other computers can access via a network. This centralized resource pool is also called a cloud.
  3. When computers on the network need more storage or computing power, the cloud’s management software lets administrators easily provision and provide these network resources to the requesting computer. This step can also be automated to enable a “self-service” element to the cloud, so users don’t have to wait for admin approval to access cloud services.
  4. Once the requesting computer no longer needs the cloud computing or storage, the cloud’s automation capabilities can turn off the extra resources to reduce waste and control computing costs. This is known as elastic or automated infrastructure scaling.

The difference between virtualization and cloud computing is this: Virtualization is the technology allowing one server to provide capacity for many, and cloud computing allows different computers to access a shared pool of resources (which is a system made possible by virtualization).

What are the benefits of virtualization?


Virtualization software gives your organization more flexibility in how you test and allocate resources. Because of how easy it is to back up and restore virtual machines, your IT team can test and experiment with new technology easily. Virtualization also lets you create a cloud strategy by allocating virtual machine resources into a shared pool for your organization. This cloud-based infrastructure gives your IT team control over who accesses which resources and from which devices, improving security and flexibility.


Virtualization technology allows you to easily back up and recover your data using virtual machine snapshots of existing servers. It’s also simple to automate this backup process to keep all your data up to date. If an emergency happens and you need to restore from a backed up virtual machine, it’s easy to migrate this virtual machine to a new location in a few minutes. This results in improved business continuity and disaster recovery because it’s easier to recover from a loss.


Virtualization lets you have one machine serve as many virtual machines. This not only means you need fewer servers, but you can use the ones you have to their fullest capacity. These efficiency gains translate into cost savings on hardware, cooling, and maintenance—not to mention the environmental benefit of a lower carbon footprint. Virtualization also allows you to run multiple types of apps, desktops, and operating systems on a single machine, instead of requiring separate servers for different vendors. This frees you from relying on specific vendors and makes the management of your physical resources much less time consuming, allowing your IT team to be more productive.


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What are the security risks with virtualization?

Virtualization needs to be properly managed to keep your business’s data secure. Because virtual machines are copies of your servers, the more virtual machines you have the more targets you must protect from attackers who want to access your sensitive data. This security vulnerability makes it important to have a centralized management solution to monitor your virtual machines and protect them from unauthorized access. Virtualization security is an essential element of virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI.

What are the different types of virtualization?

Server virtualization

Servers are powerful machines designed to run specific, complex tasks. It’s common for IT to assign one task or application per server, but this can often result in underutilized capacity and higher maintenance costs. Server virtualization uses a hypervisor to partition your physical servers into multiple virtual servers, each running its own operating system. This lets you tap into the full power of your physical servers to significantly reduce computer hardware and operating costs.

Storage virtualization

Storage virtualization is when the physical storage from multiple devices on a network is pooled together in a unified virtual storage device that’s managed from a central console. To virtualize storage, you need virtualization software that can identify available capacity from physical devices and aggregate that capacity together in a virtual environment. For end users, virtual storage looks like a standard physical hard drive. Virtual storage is an important component in IT strategy like hyper-converged infrastructure and allows IT admins to streamline storage activities like backup, archiving, and recovery.

Data virtualization

Data virtualization enables an application to access and leverage data without requiring details like where the data is physically located or how the data is formatted. This means you can create one representation of data from multiple sources without moving or copying that data. This data aggregation relies on data virtualization software to virtually integrate and visualize the data through a dashboard, allowing users to access large datasets from a single access point no matter where this data is stored. Data virtualization is important for any kind of analytics or business intelligence application.

Networking virtualization

With the widespread use of virtualized environments, many organizations are also virtualizing their networks. Network virtualization works by splitting available bandwidth into independent channels, each of which can be assigned to a server or device as needed. Network virtualization makes it easier to program and provision the network—including load balancing and firewalling — without having to touch the underlying infrastructure. IT typically manages the software components using a software-based administrator’s console (also know as software-defined networking, or SDN). Another method is network function virtualization (NFV); this virtualizes hardware appliances that provide dedicated functions for a network (such as load balancing or traffic analysis) to make these appliances simpler to provision and manage. As computing needs evolve, network virtualization simplifies how IT rolls out, scales, and adjusts workloads.

Application virtualization

With application virtualization, users can run applications in a separate form regardless of the operating system in use. This is commonly used to run a Microsoft Windows application inside a Linux or Mac operating system.

Desktop virtualization

Desktop virtualization allows users to simulate A workstation load so they can access desktops remotely from a connected device, such as a thin client at a desk. These virtual desktops enable more secure and portable access to datacenter resources.

Virtualization within the workspace

App and desktop virtualization solutions are popular because employees want to use their own devices and have access to their apps outside the office. At the same time, installing and maintaining apps and desktops on individual computers for each user is expensive and difficult to manage. Virtual apps and desktops offer a better solution by residing on a central server from which IT can deploy hundreds of simulated apps and desktops to users at once. This eliminates the need to install these apps and desktops (and any patches and updates) on each computer, and users can interact with virtual apps and desktops with the same user experience as native ones.

Workspace virtualization takes this a step further by bundling multiple apps together into one unified, digital workspace. This simulates an entire computing workspace on a virtual machine, allowing the users’ applications to interact the same way they would on a physical machine. For example, workspace virtualization would allow a user to embed a spreadsheet into a word processing document; in conventional application virtualization, each individual app is virtualized separately so they cannot interact with each other.

Workspace virtualization also allows users to keep their own settings and data inside the virtualized workspace. This means the workspace can be customized to each user in the same way as a physical machine. Users can also move their unique virtual workspace to a different operating system or machine while still preserving all their apps and data. This provides more flexibility in how users access the apps and data they need for work on the devices they choose.

Citrix solutions for virtualization

For companies looking to increase IT agility and lower costs, Citrix offers some of the industry’s most comprehensive virtualization solutions. With Citrix DaaS, you can give users secure access to all the apps and data they need, from any device and location—all while simplifying IT.

Explore the benefits of virtualization with Citrix DaaS