Introduction to Virtualization: What Is a Virtual Machine?

Written by Jessica Schulze • Updated on

Read on to discover the definition and utility of a virtual machine (+ examples). 

[Featured Image] A person researches virtual machines on a computer and a cell phone.

Virtualization refers to virtual versions of real-world computer systems, such as computer hardware, storage, and networks, and virtual machines (VM) are part of that virtualization process. It is essentially a software program that acts like a separate computer system. It runs on a physical computer (the host) and behaves like a real computer with its own operating system, memory, storage, and applications. Think of it as a self-contained computer environment existing within another computer.

Read on to learn more about virtual machines, their uses, pros and cons, and types of virtualization careers.

What is a virtual machine (VM)?

A virtual machine is not a physical machine. It’s a file that replicates the computing environment of a physical machine. It’s similar to how virtual reality (VR) environments replicate the real world. VR isn’t a physical space; it’s a virtual imitation. Still, we can perform real-world functions in VR, such as exploring and interacting with objects. Instead of imitating video game functions, virtual machine software emulates computer system functions. With VR, you can explore a new environment without leaving home. With VM software, you can run programs and store data without using hardware. 

What is an example of a virtual machine in real life?

Imagine you have a powerful computer in your home office that can run multiple programs simultaneously. You can use virtual machine software to create isolated environments on this computer, like separate rooms in a house. Each virtual machine acts like a completely independent computer.

For example, imagine you want to run different operating systems from one computer. You could have one virtual machine set up with Windows for your usual work tasks, another with Linux for software development, and even a third with an older version of macOS to run a specific legacy program. All these would operate independently on the same physical computer.


What are VMs used for?

Creating a simulated computer system version makes it possible to separate hardware resources from their physical infrastructure. Many applications for this technology exist. The list below outlines five examples:

1. Cloud computing: Virtualization technology creates virtual resources from physical hardware. Then, cloud computing distributes those virtualized resources via the internet. Examples of cloud computing include Dropbox, Salesforce, and Google Drive. 

2. Software testing: Virtual machines can create fully functional software development environments. These environments are useful because they’re isolated from the surrounding infrastructure. Isolation allows developers to test software without impacting the rest of the system. 

3. Malware investigations: VMs enable malware researchers to test malicious programs in separate environments. Instead of spreading the malware to the rest of the infrastructure, a VM contains the malware for study.

4. Disaster management: You can use a virtual machine to replicate a system in a cloud environment. This replication ensures that another version exists to replace the system if it is compromised. For example, iPhone users regularly back up their data by syncing their devices with iCloud. iCloud stores a virtual version of the phone, allowing users to transport their existing data onto a new device in case of theft or damage.

5. Running programs with incompatible hardware: Suppose you have an old application on your phone. It hasn’t released an update in a few years, but your phone has updated several times. Since the application hasn’t been updated with your phone, it may no longer be compatible with your phone’s current operating system (OS). You can use a virtual machine to simulate the previous OS and run the old application there.

What is the difference between virtual machines and containers?

When researching virtual machines, you will likely encounter the term container. Containers are often confused with virtual machines because they serve similar purposes. However, VMs and containers have many distinguishing features. The main difference between the two lies in the virtualization process. Traditionally, virtualization creates a virtual version of the physical machine, including:

  • A virtual copy of the hardware

  • An application

  • The application’s libraries and dependencies

  • A version of the hardware’s OS (the guest OS) to run the application

In contrast, containers share the host hardware’s OS instead of creating a new version. Since containers avoid creating a separate guest OS, they can hold just the application and its libraries. The result is a faster and smaller virtualized system. Containers are appealing because they can be easily transported to other software environments.

Advantages and disadvantages of virtual machines

Advantages of VMsDisadvantages of VMs
Portability. VMs allow users to move systems to other computing environments easily.Infected VMs. It can be risky to create VMs from weak host hardware. An improperly structured host system may spread its OS bugs to VMs.
Speed. Creating a VM is much faster than installing a new OS on a physical server. VMs can also be cloned, OS included.Server sprawl. The ability to create virtual machines can quickly lead to a crowded network. It’s best to monitor the creation of VMs to preserve computational resources.
Security. VMs help provide an extra layer of security because they can be scanned for malware. They also enable users to take snapshots of their current states. If an issue arises, users can review those snapshots to trace it and restore the VM to a previous version.Complexity. System failures can be challenging to pinpoint in infrastructure with multiple local area networks (LANs).

How to work with virtual machines 

Several occupations within the computer and information technology industries work with virtual machines. Between 2022 and 2032, jobs in this field are expected to grow much faster than average, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. Take a look at three examples of careers in virtualization.

1. Virtual server administrator

What they do: Virtual server administrators operate, configure, and troubleshoot virtual databases. As the virtual server administrator, your primary focus areas are system monitoring and cybersecurity. Attention to detail is essential in this role. 

Average annual salary (US): $66,201 [2]

Where to begin: To become a virtual server administrator, consider obtaining a computer science-relevant degree, such as a Master of Science in Cybersecurity

2. Virtualization engineer 

What you do: Virtualization engineers manage virtual computing platforms. In this position, you troubleshoot issues with end-users, handle data migrations, and set up and maintain virtual machines. You must be current on the latest, most efficient virtualization practices, so continued education is a priority. 

Average annual salary (US): $108,685 [3]

Where to begin: Relevant degrees for this career path include a master of computer and information technology and a bachelor of science in computer science.

3. Cloud architect 

What you do: A cloud architect oversees cloud computing strategies for organizations. You focus on cloud design, management, and maintenance in this role. Cloud architects translate technical requirements into architectural projects, so you must have excellent leadership and communication skills. 

Average annual salary (US): $142,976 [4]

Where to begin: A degree in a related field, such as computer science or information technology, can be highly beneficial. Some universities offer cloud computing specializations. 

The computer and information technology field is fast-paced. Many employees prefer candidates with experience working with specific systems and technologies. An excellent way to increase your strength as a job candidate is to earn Professional Certificates in related fields of study. For example, consider the Google Cloud Certification: Cloud Network Engineer Professional Certificate.

Read more: How to Become a Cloud Architect: Degrees, Skills, Jobs, Courses

How to create your own virtual machine

Opportunities exist to work with virtual machines and virtualization technology outside of professional positions. Platforms and tools, like the Google Cloud Console, allow you to develop your own virtual machine project. Building a virtual machine requires knowledge of cloud computing and operating systems. If you want to learn how to create a virtual machine, consider the Google Cloud Training Project: Creating a Virtual Machine

Learn more about virtual machines with Coursera.

Virtualization creates a simulated computer system, like a virtual machine (VM). Whether you want to create a virtual machine on your own or pursue a career in virtualization, you can get started today. Develop the skills to succeed with this guided, step-by-step project from Microsoft, Introduction to Virtual Machines in Microsoft Azure.


Article sources


Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Computer and Information Technology Occupations,” Accessed June 14, 2024.

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Jessica is a technical writer who specializes in computer science and information technology. Equipp...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.