Techsplaining 101: Virtualization and containers

by Elizabeth Jenike, IT Services

Hello, Miami faculty and staff, and welcome to the latest blog series from IT Services! In Techsplaining, we will be exploring some complicated tech topics and hopefully lifting the veil a little. The goal is that you’ll come away from these snippets with a better idea of how technology is used at Miami, and how the gadgets work in general - so that you’ll be able to talk about it at your next dinner party or event.

For this installment of Techsplaining, we’ll be discussing virtualization and containers. We use virtual servers in IT to save on energy, money, and physical space in the data center. And - this is the exciting part - we will be embarking on our first adventure into containerization within the next few months.

Now, what does all that mean?

Virtual reality… in the data center

What is virtualization? Simply put, virtualization allows us to take one physical machine and split it into several virtual instances by utilizing specialized software. We simulate a physical piece of hardware in a virtual environment - but only use the computing resources of that one physical machine. This is how we store and run applications at Miami - things like the Registration Override Request app, or the Canvas Bypass app, or the FERPA  Management app.

In today’s technological environment, we don’t have to have a physical box to house every application. Each piece of hardware is able to run multiple operating systems (OS) on each “virtual” machine. For instance, we have nearly 800 virtual machines running 23 virtualization servers in our environment right now - but only around 100 actual pieces of server hardware in the data center. This lets us have more servers in our data center without the actual physical machines - which is cost efficient, among other benefits.

Here is a helpful analogy from Nicole Shortslef for CCB Technology:

“Virtualization is like a school bus. Before the school bus was invented, every parent used their own car to drive their kid to school, using extra gas and resources - putting all of the kids into one vehicle wasn’t an option.

“One day, the school bus was introduced, exposing the inefficiency of every parent driving their kid to school separately. By using the school bus, parents could use less gas and fewer vehicles, all while transporting more kids.”

So instead of so many cars transporting kids to school, one bus does the same amount of work much more efficiently.

How is virtualization different from containerization?

Containerization goes hand in hand with virtualization. It’s a similar concept, but with a few key differences.

Instead of multiple OSes, containers share one OS installed on one physical server. So multiple containerized applications run on only one OS. They run as resource-isolated processes, meaning they put less strain on resources (computing power) than virtualized environments with individual OSes.

What is a container?

The really fun thing is that we’re getting ready to use containers to do even more cool stuff - to save space, create more efficient processes, and create cost savings in both the long and the short term. Because with containers, we’ll be able to use even more of the resources that we already have. In addition, they help accelerate the development process by putting better tools in developers’ hands and create a more streamlined deployment process.

IT Services has embarked on a journey toward a cloud-appropriate strategy, and containerization is one rung in the ladder. It’s actually quite exciting! Stay tuned for more information in the future about our cloud-appropriate strategy and what steps we’re taking to get there.

Now (hopefully), you will be able to hold your own in a conversation about virtual environments at your next dinner party. Join us next time for another snippet of technology know-how!