A virtual machine (VM) is a software implementation of a machine (i.e. a computer) that executes programs like a physical machine.


A virtual machine was originally defined by Popek and Goldberg as "an efficient, isolated duplicate of a real machine". Current use includes virtual machines which have no direct correspondence to any real hardware.[1]

Virtual machines are separated into two major categories, based on their use and degree of correspondence to any real machine. A system virtual machine provides a complete system platform which supports the execution of a complete operating system (OS). In contrast, a process virtual machine is designed to run a single program, which means that it supports a single process. An essential characteristic of a virtual machine is that the software running inside is limited to the resources and abstractions provided by the virtual machine—it cannot break out of its virtual world.

System virtual machines

System virtual machines (sometimes called hardware virtual machines) allow the sharing of the underlying physical machine resources between different virtual machines, each running its own operating system. The software layer providing the virtualization is called a virtual machine monitor or hypervisor. A hypervisor can run on bare hardware (Type 1 or native VM) or on top of an operating system (Type 2 or hosted VM).

The main advantages of system VMs are:

  • multiple OS environments can co-exist on the same computer, in strong isolation from each other
  • the virtual machine can provide an instruction set architecture (ISA) that is somewhat different from that of the real machine
  • application provisioning, maintenance, high availability and disaster recovery[2]

The main disadvantages of system VMs are:

  • a virtual machine is less efficient than a real machine when it accesses the hardware indirectly
  • when multiple VMs are concurrently running on the same physical host, each VM may exhibit a varying and unstable performance, which highly depends on the workload imposed on the system by other VMs, unless proper techniques are used for temporal isolation among virtual machines.

Multiple VMs each running their own operating system (called guest operating system) are frequently used in server consolidation, where different services that used to run on individual machines in order to avoid interference are instead run in separate VMs on the same physical machine.

The desire to run multiple operating systems was the original motivation for virtual machines, as it allowed time-sharing a single computer between several single-tasking OSes. In some respects, a system virtual machine can be considered a generalization of the concept of virtual memory that historically preceded it. IBM's CP/CMS, the first systems to allow full virtualization, implemented time sharing by providing each user with a single-user operating system, the CMS. Unlike virtual memory, a system virtual machine allowed the user to use privileged instructions in their code. This approach had certain advantages, for instance it allowed users to add input/output devices not allowed by the standard system.[3]

The guest OSes do not have to be all the same, making it possible to run different OSes on the same computer (e.g., Microsoft Windows and Linux, or older versions of an OS in order to support software that has not yet been ported to the latest version). The use of virtual machines to support different guest OSes is becoming popular in embedded systems; a typical use is to support a real-time operating system at the same time as a high-level OS such as Linux or Windows.

Another use is to sandbox an OS that is not trusted, possibly because it is a system under development. Virtual machines have other advantages for OS development, including better debugging access and faster reboots.[4]

Process virtual machines

A process VM, sometimes called an application virtual machine, runs as a normal application inside an OS and supports a single process. It is created when that process is started and destroyed when it exits. Its purpose is to provide a platform-independent programming environment that abstracts away details of the underlying hardware or operating system, and allows a program to execute in the same way on any platform.

A process VM provides a high-level abstraction — that of a high-level programming language (compared to the low-level ISA abstraction of the system VM). Process VMs are implemented using an interpreter; performance comparable to compiled programming languages is achieved by the use of just-in-time compilation.

This type of VM has become popular with the Java programming language, which is implemented using the Java virtual machine. Other examples include the Parrot virtual machine, which serves as an abstraction layer for several interpreted languages, and the .NET Framework, which runs on a VM called the Common Language Runtime.

A special case of process VMs are systems that abstract over the communication mechanisms of a (potentially heterogeneous) computer cluster. Such a VM does not consist of a single process, but one process per physical machine in the cluster. They are designed to ease the task of programming parallel applications by letting the programmer focus on algorithms rather than the communication mechanisms provided by the interconnect and the OS. They do not hide the fact that communication takes place, and as such do not attempt to present the cluster as a single parallel machine.

Unlike other process VMs, these systems do not provide a specific programming language, but are embedded in an existing language; typically such a system provides bindings for several languages (e.g., C and FORTRAN). Examples are PVM (Parallel Virtual Machine) and MPI (Message Passing Interface). They are not strictly virtual machines, as the applications running on top still have access to all OS services, and are therefore not confined to the system model provided by the "VM".


Emulation of the underlying raw hardware (native execution)

This approach is described as full virtualization of the hardware, and can be implemented using a Type 1 or Type 2 hypervisor. (A Type 1 hypervisor runs directly on the hardware; a Type 2 hypervisor runs on another operating system, such as Linux). Each virtual machine can run any operating system supported by the underlying hardware. Users can thus run two or more different "guest" operating systems simultaneously, in separate "private" virtual computers.

The pioneer system using this concept was IBM's CP-40, the first (1967) version of IBM's CP/CMS (1967–1972) and the precursor to IBM's VM family (1972–present). With the VM architecture, most users run a relatively simple interactive computing single-user operating system, CMS, as a "guest" on top of the VM control program (VM-CP). This approach kept the CMS design simple, as if it were running alone; the control program quietly provides multitasking and resource management services "behind the scenes". In addition to CMS, VM users can run any of the other IBM operating systems, such as MVS or z/OS. z/VM is the current version of VM, and is used to support hundreds or thousands of virtual machines on a given mainframe. Some installations use Linux for zSeries to run Web servers, where Linux runs as the operating system within many virtual machines.

Full virtualization is particularly helpful in operating system development, when experimental new code can be run at the same time as older, more stable, versions, each in a separate virtual machine. The process can even be recursive: IBM debugged new versions of its virtual machine operating system, VM, in a virtual machine running under an older version of VM, and even used this technique to simulate new hardware.[5]

The standard x86 processor architecture as used in modern PCs does not actually meet the Popek and Goldberg virtualization requirements. Notably, there is no execution mode where all sensitive machine instructions always trap, which would allow per-instruction virtualization.

Despite these limitations, several software packages have managed to provide virtualization on the x86 architecture, even though dynamic recompilation of privileged code, as first implemented by VMware, incurs some performance overhead as compared to a VM running on a natively virtualizable architecture such as the IBM System/370 or Motorola MC68020. By now, several other software packages such as Virtual PC, VirtualBox, Parallels Workstation and Virtual Iron manage to implement virtualization on x86 hardware.

Intel and AMD have introduced features to their x86 processors to enable virtualization in hardware.

Emulation of a non-native system

Virtual machines can also perform the role of an emulator, allowing software applications and operating systems written for another computer processor architecture to be run.

Some virtual machines emulate hardware that only exists as a detailed specification. For example:

This technique allows diverse computers to run any software written to that specification; only the virtual machine software itself must be written separately for each type of computer on which it runs.

Operating system-level virtualization

Operating System-level Virtualization is a server virtualization technology which virtualizes servers on an operating system (kernel) layer. It can be thought of as partitioning: a single physical server is sliced into multiple small partitions (otherwise called virtual environments (VE), virtual private servers (VPS), guests, zones, etc.); each such partition looks and feels like a real server, from the point of view of its users.

For example, Solaris Zones supports multiple guest OSes running under the same OS (such as Solaris 10). All guest OSes have to use the same kernel level and cannot run as different OS versions. Solaris native Zones also requires that the host OS be a version of Solaris; other OSes from other manufacturers are not supported.[citation needed],however you need to use Solaris Branded zones to use another OSes as zones.

Another example is System Workload Partitions (WPARs), introduced in the IBM AIX 6.1 operating system. System WPARs are software partitions running under one instance of the global AIX OS environment.

The operating system level architecture has low overhead that helps to maximize efficient use of server resources. The virtualization introduces only a negligible overhead and allows running hundreds of virtual private servers on a single physical server. In contrast, approaches such as full virtualization (like VMware) and paravirtualization (like Xen or UML) cannot achieve such level of density, due to overhead of running multiple kernels. From the other side, operating system-level virtualization does not allow running different operating systems (i.e. different kernels), although different libraries, distributions etc. are possible.

List of hardware with virtual machine support

  • HP vPAR and cell based nPAR
  • GE Project MAC then
  • Honeywell Multics systems
  • Honeywell 200/2000 systems Liberator replacing IBM 14xx systems, Level 62/64/66 GCOS
  • IBM System/360 Model 145 Hardware emulator for Honeywell 200/2000 systems
  • RCA Spectra/70 Series emulated IBM System/360
  • NAS CPUs emulated IBM and Amdahl machines
  • Honeywell Level 6 minicomputers emulated predecessor 316/516/716 minis
  • Xerox Sigma 6 CPUs were modified to emulate GE/Honeywell 600/6000 systems

List of virtual machine software

Process (Application) virtual machine software
System (Hardware) virtual machine software
OS-level virtualization software

Extended descriptions of selected virtualization software

The following software products are able to virtualize the hardware so that several operating systems can share it.

  • Adeos is a Hardware Abstraction Layer that can be loaded as a Kernel Module in Linux. It allows the loading of a real-time kernel as a module, at the same time as Linux but with higher priority.
  • Denali uses paravirtualisation to provide high-performance virtual machines on x86 computers. Denali's virtual machines support specialised minimal OSs for Internet services. The system can scale to thousands of virtual machines. Denali does not preserve the application binary interface (ABI), and so applications must be recompiled to run within a library operating system; in this sense it is similar to the Exokernel.
  • OKL4 from Open Kernel Labs is designed for use in embedded systems and is primarily deployed in mobile phones. It is the only commercial hypervisor employing capability-based security.
  • OpenVZ – Operating System-level server virtualization solution, built on Linux.
  • Parallels provides virtualization of x86 for running unmodified PC operating systems. It also uses a lightweight hypervisor technology in order to improve security and to increase the efficiency. Parallels has become popular for its ability to run Windows as a guest under Mac OS X on the Apple–Intel architecture.
  • QEMU is a simulator based on a virtual machine, which gives it the ability to emulate a variety of guest CPU architectures on many different host platforms.
  • Returnil Virtual System allows you to virtualize your Windows based system and requires only a restart to rebuild the virtual machine.
  • VirtualBox is an open source (GPL)/proprietary virtual machine developed by Sun Microsystems. It allows virtualization of x86 and supports various host operating systems including Windows, Linux, BSD and Solaris. It also supports VMware Workstation Virtual Machine Disk Format.
  • Virtual Iron provides virtual machines for x86 that run unmodified operating systems, such as Windows, Red Hat and SUSE. Virtual Iron open source virtualization technology implements native virtualization, which delivers near-native performance for x86 operating systems.
  • VMware provides virtual machines for x86 that can run unmodified PC operating systems. The technology involved in doing this is complex and also incurs (sometimes significant) performance overheads with hosted VMware products (VM Server and Workstation). ESX server provides near-native performance and a fully virtualized option (along with para-virtualization of some hardware components). Xen trades running of existing operating systems for running modified (paravirtualized) operating systems with improved performance. Virtual Iron provides full OS compatibility for existing or new OSes with near-native performance without the performance trade-offs between paravirualization and binary translation.
  • Xen Virtualization system whose motivation differs from that of Denali in that it is intended to run a moderate number of full-featured operating systems, rather than a large number of specialised, lightweight ones.
  • KVM is a Linux kernel module that enables a modified QEMU program to use hardware virtualization.
  • libJIT Just-In-Time Compilation library is a library for development of advanced Just-in-time compilation (JIT) in Virtual Machine implementations, Dynamic programming languages, and Scripting languages. Currently it is used for Common Intermediate Language, Ruby, Java, Domain-specific programming languages.

See also


  1. Smith, James E.; Nair, Ravi (2005). "The Architecture of Virtual Machines". Computer (IEEE Computer Society) 38 (5): 32–38. doi:10.1109/MC.2005.173. 
  2. http://www.vmware.com/solutions/business-critical-apps/
  3. Smith and Nair, pp. 395–396
  4. http://www.vmwarez.com/2006/05/super-fast-server-reboots-another.html
  5. See History of CP/CMS for IBM's use of virtual machines for operating system development and simulation of new hardware

Further reading

  • James E. Smith, Ravi Nair, Virtual Machines: Versatile Platforms For Systems And Processes, Morgan Kaufmann, May 2005, ISBN 1-55860-910-5, 656 pages (covers both process and system virtual machines)
  • Craig, Iain D. Virtual Machines. Springer, 2006, ISBN 1-85233-969-1, 269 pages (covers only process virtual machines)

External links

af:Virtuele masjien ar:آلة افتراضية bn:ভার্চুয়াল মেশিন bs:Virtualna mašina bg:Виртуална машина ca:Màquina virtual cs:Virtuální stroj da:Virtuel maskine et:Virtuaalmasin eu:Makina birtual fa:ماشین مجازی ko:가상 머신 he:מכונה וירטואלית lo:ຄອມພິວເຕີຣ໌ຈໍາລອງ hu:Virtuális számítógép ml:വർച്ച്വൽ മെഷീൻ ms:Mesin maya nl:Virtuele machine ja:仮想機械 pt:Máquina virtual simple:Virtual machine sv:Virtuell maskin ta:மெய்நிகர் இயந்திரம் tr:Sanal makine yi:ווירטועל מאשין

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.