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Virtual — Information Technology’s favourite buzzword

By Jean-Claude Elias - May 04,2017 - Last updated at May 04,2017

 Virtual has been on everyone’s lips for some time now. Virtual reality, virtual storage space, virtual server, virtual here, virtual there… But is it really virtual, or is it more real than you would think it is?

Used in IT, the meaning of virtual is not to be taken literally, of course. It is not the antonym of real. It refers to matters that are as tangible as anything you would have and use, be it machines, data or applications. Still, it has a specific meaning in the technological context, with the closest one being perhaps “simulated”, or “remote”.

As a very simple example, a cartoon or an animation movie would be virtual, whereas one with human beings acting in it would be real. From there we can extrapolate ad lib.

For the private user, virtual often refers to what takes place in the cloud. We speak of virtual storage, all these places like Dropbox and Google Drive where we save our files. In this context virtual is synonymous of remote, as opposed to local, to what is saved and stored on your very computer.

Based on the above definitions the expression virtual reality would be a blatant contradiction, per se. And yet, it merely illustrates reality, with advanced digital means and animation processes. As long as we understand what it is intended for the meaning is clear.

A Google search of the expression virtual reality return this, as a first definition: “The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.” Again, the word simulation is used here, and rather wisely; it is a key word, a significant one in this case.

Apart of all above, and perhaps relevant in the professional IT field more often than in your home or small office, virtual machines constitute a most important and steadily growing application. Private users may not be directly involved, though they would be indirectly affected.

If you have a computer running under Windows 10 and for some reason absolutely need to also have Windows 7, computer virtualisation lets you have both on one computer, sparing you the expense and the trouble of having to buy and manage two physical computers where you would dedicate one for Windows 10 and one for Windows 7.

In such case, Windows 10 would be the main, the host operating system, and Windows 7 would run under additional software known as “virtual machine”, the two nicely installed on one physical machine. VMware and Oracle VM Virtual Box are two examples of excellent, widely used virtual machine software applications. In other words, having a virtual machine, simply means that you have more than one operating system (assume different Windows) running on the same physical computer.

Installing, setting up and using a virtual machine may not require a degree in rocket science, but it still takes a rather technically minded person to do, one who likes to play around with technology, a patient one preferably for things do not always work smoothly from the first attempt. It can be done using a laptop or a desktop computer. The result is very rewarding in all cases and puts power computing in your hands.

With server computers the result is even more spectacular, for it saves the owner significant amounts of money by avoiding the purchase of several physical server machines.

Just like the trend towards more cloud usage, the trend towards more virtual computers continues, making the virtual very real.

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