What Is A Virtual Machine? (With Types, Uses And Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

There are many unique tools that developers might use when testing software or performing backups on data and applications. One common tool used to simulate different programs is a virtual machine. Learning about this tool can help you decide if the company for which you work might benefit from using it.

In this article, we discuss 'What is a virtual machine?', sharing essential details about this programming tool, like the different types, common uses and benefits.

What Is A Virtual Machine?

If you ask yourself, 'What is a virtual machine?' you can think of it as a digital tool that allows you to operate on software only instead of a full computer. These machines use host machines where the virtual machine can simulate different operating systems and applications that you might use on other devices. Many virtual machines can host several different operating systems. This can be essential for developers hoping to test how new programs or applications might function in different environments.

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Types Of Virtual Machines

There are two main types of virtual machines:

Process virtual machine

A process virtual machine is a tool that allows you to run a single application or suite of applications on a device. This allows you to run the application as if it is on another device or operating system, simulating your desired environment. For example, you can run a tablet-specific game on a virtual desktop to check its functionality before making updates to the application itself.

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System virtual machine

A system virtual machine simulates the entire operating system of another device. Rather than single applications, you can install and use many different programs on a system machine. This might happen within a particular virtualisation environment or within an operating system on the host device. With system machines, you copy existing operating systems over to the host device to run the unique programs.

How Does A Virtual Machine Work?

Along with the answer to "What is a virtual machine?" it can also help to learn how it works. When using this digital tool, an existing device dedicates a certain amount of computer processing to this new environment. You can either copy a new environment over entirely or copy specific applications that you might want to test.

This also works if you copy these programs or systems onto a server, like a cloud environment. The machine is typically an individual file that you can open in its own window. Within the window, you find the simulated environment that you can access and update, testing functionality, design and usability.

What Are Virtual Machines Used For?

The uses of a virtual machine can vary depending on the types of programs or operating systems you use. Here are some of the common ways that you can use these digital tools:

Program development

You can code and develop individual programs using a VM. Often, developers can download a development program application and code these applications in the new environment. If the VM has connections to a cloud server, you can deploy versions directly to the cloud for others to use.

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Testing

There are several ways you can use VMs for testing. For example, you can copy beta releases of software for testing before releasing the final versions to customers or employees. You can also run test scripts through the software to test the code before reviewing front-end functionality and design to ensure everything works properly.

Device backup

As VMs often copy existing operating systems or programs, this allows for file backup. You can backup the entire operating system, including your settings and existing applications that you can use on other devices. If any content on your current device gets an infection or issue, you can also access several prior versions of the application or operating system.

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Benefits Of Using A Virtual Machine

There are several key benefits to using this type of digital program:

Cost and time savings

Rather than creating development environments on several devices, and updating and maintaining them, you can access these from several locations. This can save you on development costs and help you quickly test or switch between applications and operating systems quickly. On one host device, you can run several test scripts in different environments to quickly address any issues.

Historical applications

You can access older versions of programs or applications on VMs. For example, if a customer reports an issue with an older version of an application, you can troubleshoot this using virtual technology. This can help you provide better customer service and see where any root causes of issues might originate. You also can use VMs to use these previous copies of programs and operating systems if any current versions have infections.

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Risk management

When managing technology, it can help to identify and manage risks regularly. For example, you might identify an acceptable amount of downtime for a program before it can affect business. With these multiple versions on servers or devices, you can minimise the risk in this area. You can also perform routine maintenance and checks to ensure systems are stable in other environments without affecting live environments.

Increased performance

With different copies of a similar environment, you can increase performance across teams. This can increase the performance of your applications, too. Rather than many people accessing the same program from the same location, these programs can run faster. With these tools, you can also increase the scale quicker. For example, if you experience a sudden increase in usage, you can adapt quicker and allow for more access with minimal effects on performance.

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Cybersecurity

You can use host devices rather than live devices to run programs that might have security issues. This helps ensure you protect employees' devices and data across an organisation. Many cybersecurity professionals also use VMs to inspect existing cybersecurity issues and study viruses. Rather than live environments, these duplicates can ensure any malicious problems stay contained within the virtual environment.

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FAQs About Virtual Machines

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about these types of machines:

What are the different types of virtualisation?

There are several different types of virtualisation:

  • Hardware virtualisation: Hardware virtualisation is when you create several VMs and host them on a shared server. This allows for a device to access several different operating systems on one device.

  • Software virtualisation: Rather than on a server, software virtualisation creates an environment on one device, often with several VMS. This uses the device's existing operating systems to run the needed programs for VM functionality.

  • Storage virtualisation: Storage virtualisation is when you create one single virtual storage environment where you can combine several physical storage units. This helps for quicker data storage, access and transfer.

  • Network virtualisation: Network virtualisation is when you consolidate several networks into one centralised network.

  • Desktop virtualisation: Desktop virtualisation is when you create a copy of a device's desktop and host it on a server. This means users can access their personal files, network and programs from several unique devices.

How does a VM differ from a container?

Containers are similar to VMs as they have the similar purpose of running applications on different devices. A container usually uses the host computer's operating system where you provide a package of the program file and needed dependencies for a particular application. Since VMs can be more work to set up and manage, developers might use containers to quickly access different application environments for testing or programming.

What devices can host VMs?

Most computers can host VMs if they have existing operating systems. Regardless of the operating system, you might need particular visualisation software and a VM file to simulate other environments. Developers typically use physical computers or servers to create these new environments.

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