Introduction to Virtualisation: What Is a Virtual Machine?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Virtual machines are growing in popularity in many industries. Learn what is a virtual machine, why they are important, and how to develop related professional skills.

[Featured image] An IT support specialist sets up a virtual machine on a laptop computer.

Virtualisation is when a physical item is transformed into a virtual version. For example, when a physical DVD is converted into a digital file stored on a computer, the files go through the process of virtualisation. 

Virtualisation uses specialised software that can mimic hardware functionalities. Since the Prime Minister of India, Narendrea Modi, launched the Digital India Programme—a plan to transform India into a trillion-dollar digital economy—virtualisation in India has grown exponentially [1]. Understanding how virtual machines work will likely be a sought-after skill in the upcoming years. 

What is a virtual machine (VM)?

A virtual machine is a file that replicates the computing environment of a physical machine. It’s similar to how virtual reality (VR) environments replicate the real world with similiar functions like exploring and interacting with objects.  

Instead of imitating video game functions, virtual machine software emulates computer system functions, allowing you to run programs and store data without hardware. 

What are VMs used for?

Creating a simulated version of a computer system makes it possible to separate hardware resources from its physical infrastructure. Here are several common applications of VMs: 

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

2. Software testing. You can use virtual machines to 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 to the rest of the infrastructure.

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

5. Running programs with incompatible hardware.Virtual machines can simulate a previous OS that may no longer be compatible with a current one 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 and virtual machines have many distinguishing features but have similar purposes. The main difference between the two lies in the virtualisation process. Traditionally, virtualisation 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, it holds just the application and its libraries. The result is a faster and smaller virtualised 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 

If you’re interested in virtual machines, several occupations work with them. These occupations belong to the computer and information technology industry. Here are some examples of careers in virtualisation.

Virtual server administrator

Average annual salary (IN): ₹4,53,952 [2]

What they do: Virtual server administrators operate, configure, and troubleshoot virtual databases. Their primary focus areas are system monitoring and cyber security. Attention to detail is essential in this role. 

Where to begin: If you’re interested in becoming a virtual server administrator, consider obtaining a computer science-relevant degree. 

Virtualisation engineer 

Average annual salary (IN): ₹3,10,446 [3]

What they do: Virtualisation engineers manage virtual computing platforms. They troubleshoot issues with end-users, handle data migrations, and set up and maintain virtual machines. A virtualisation engineer must be up to date on the latest, most efficient virtualisation practices, so continued education is a priority. 

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

Cloud architect 

Average annual salary (IN): ₹20L [4]

What they do: A cloud architect oversees cloud computing strategies for organisations. They focus on cloud design, management, and maintenance. They also translate technical requirements into architectural projects, so they must have excellent leadership and communication skills. 

Where to begin: A degree in a related field, such as computer science or information technology, can also be highly beneficial. 

Information technology architect 

Average annual salary (IN): ₹22L [5]

What they do: An information technology architect is in charge of overseeing the development of information technology systems, testing and reviewing existing systems, training new team members, and helping inform strategic technological solutions. With virtualisation skills, information technology architects can ensure their organisation can securely transition to online networks.

Where to begin: Start with a bachelor's degree in a related field. Although some companies look for candidates with a BTech or BE degree, you can start with a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as a BSc in computer science.

How to create your own virtual machine

There are opportunities to work with virtual machines and virtualisation technology outside of professional positions. Platforms and tools are available to develop your own virtual machine project, like the Google Cloud Console. 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

Whether you want to create a virtual machine on your own or pursue a career in virtualisation, you can get started today. Develop the skills you need to succeed in this field by earning the Google IT Support Professional Certificate on Coursera. This Professional Certificate covers IT skills that will stand out to employers and can be expanded to pursue many different careers in virtualisation.

Article sources


Ministry of Electronics and IT. “Narendra Modi Government is making India's startup and digital economy grow faster, ReleaseIframePage.aspx ?PRID=180 3551.” Accessed April 4, 2023.

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