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virtual machine (VM)

A virtual machine (VM) is an environment, usually a program or operating system, which does not physically exist but is created within another environment. In this context, a VM is called a guest while the environment it runs within is called a host. Virtual machines are often created to execute an instruction set different than that of the host environment. (...Continued)

A virtual machine (VM) is a software implementation of a computing environment in which an operating system (OS) or program can be installed and run.

The virtual machine typically emulates a physical computing environment, but requests for CPU, memory, hard disk, network and other hardware resources are managed by a virtualization layer which translates these requests to the underlying physical hardware.

VMs are created within a virtualization layer, such as a hypervisor or a virtualization platform that runs on top of a client or server operating system. This operating system is known as the host OS. The virtualization layer can be used to create many individual, isolated VM environments.

Typically, guest operating systems and programs are not aware that they are running on a virtual platform and, as long as the VM's virtual platform is supported, this software can be installed in the same way it would be deployed to physical server hardware. For example, the guest OS might appear to have a physical hard disk attached to it, but actual I/O requests are translated by the virtualization layer so they actually occur against a file that is accessible by the host OS.

Virtual machines can provide numerous advantages over the installation of OS's and software directly on physical hardware. Isolation ensures that applications and services that run within a VM cannot interfere with the host OS or other VMs. VMs can also be easily moved, copied, and reassigned between host servers to optimize hardware resource utilization. Administrators can also take advantage of virtual environments to simply backups, disaster recovery, new deployments and basic system administration tasks. The use of virtual machines also comes with several important management considerations, many of which can be addressed through general systems administration best practices and tools that are designed to managed VMs.

Note: This entry refers to the term virtual machine (VM) as it applies to virtualization technology which creates independent environments for use by operating systems and applications which are designed to run directly on server or client hardware. Numerous other technologies, such as programming languages and environments, also use the same concepts and also use the term "virtual machine".

This was first published in October 2011

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