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Top 10 Virtualization Terms in Health IT Infrastructure

Virtualization contains unique terms that can be difficult to process. Find out what they mean and how they fit into health IT infrastructure.

Virtualization is a relatively new concept for health IT infrastructure and becomes complicated when terms describing its characteristics are thrown around. Most of these terms describe digital concepts and can be difficult to follow when mapping out the concept of virtualization and virtual machines.

Virtualization definitions

Here are the top ten virtualization terms and concepts in the healthcare industry:

Virtualization

Virtualization is the abstraction of IT resources that masks the physical nature and boundaries of a server, endpoint, networks, storage, applications or operating systems (OSes) from users. Virtualization creates a pseudo or “virtual” version of hardware or software to be used for a different purpose than it was originally intended.

Most commonly, virtualization uses virtual machines to separate an operating system from the end-point device accessing it. The IT department is responsible for controlling and monitoring these virtual OSes which the user accesses with a thin client and a virtual private network (VPN) connection.

The healthcare industry stands to benefit from virtualization in a number of ways, especially in the area of mobility. The growing need for ubiquitous access to electronic health information by different doctors, specialists, and facilities makes virtualization a potential future option for many organizations.

Virtual machine

Virtual machines (VMs) are the main component of virtualization and are present in every type of virtualization deployment. VMs emulate a computer system’s architecture using specialized hardware and software. A virtual machine stored on a server allows thin clients to perform tasks beyond their physical capabilities. Machines within machines, VMs act as substitutes for actual hardware. Kernels support multiple user spaces separated or contained within the virtual machine, giving each end-user an individual virtual desktop within a virtualized environment.

VM technology provides healthcare organizations benefits including energy and hardware costs, efficiency, security, and maintenance.

Kernel

A kernel is the user interface between the hardware and applications that manages communication between hardware and software. The kernel is the central part of the operating system. In virtualization, kernel space is segregated and dedicated to running each user space to keep them functioning independently

Hypervisor

Hypervisors are used to monitor virtual machines by creating and running the VMs within a server or host machine. The hypervisor controls how much of the host machine’s processing power and memory is being used by user’s desktop, to prevent multiple virtual machines from interfering with each other.

Hypervisors contain kernels and are used specifically for virtual machines while kernels are necessary for all operating system deployments.

Thin client

Thin clients are endpoints or devices used to remotely access a server in a virtualized environment. Thin clients are not as powerful as an endpoint used for the same purpose without a virtual machine because thin clients depend mostly on server hardware. Thin clients at minimum consist of a user interface, gateway, and web browser. These tools are used to access the virtual machine from the user’s virtual desktop.

Thin clients can potentially benefit healthcare organizations by saving on the cost of employee hardware. Thin clients are less expensive because they don’t store data or need powerful parts to perform the same job.

Virtual private networks

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are extensions of a private network that can be accessed through the public internet. VPNs are not exclusive to virtual infrastructure environments but are essential for secure remote server access. VPNs work by creating an encrypted tunnel that connects the VPN client (i.e., a device used to access the network) and the intranet or VPN server. This tunnel securely wraps the connection separating it from the public internet.

Secure VPNs are a large piece of monitoring how, where, and when access is granted to a network as well as identifying any abnormalities or potential threats.

Container

Containers segregate hardware within a host machine for a specific purpose or provide the means for storing data in different containers based on an organization’s need. Containers can be used with physical servers and virtual servers depending on data management and maintenance strategies.

Data stored in virtual containers is easier to move from one environment to another and they provide an added layer of security. Virtual barriers separate containers and prevent penetration from one container to another on the server. If a lower-clearance container is hacked, the hacker is limited to the information in that container and cannot access other containers on the server.  

Desktop virtualization

Desktop virtualization is the most common type of virtualization found in enterprises. Desktop virtualization eliminates as much hardware as possible by storing a virtual machine on a thin client and using the VM to access the server. Desktop virtualization eliminates the need to download any information onto the device, including documents and applications, because they are stored and accessed on the server.

Virtual desktop infrastructure

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a type of desktop virtualization that uses virtual machines stored in data centers accessed by a thin client to present users with their personal desktop on any device. VDI routes desktop OSes to devices including mobile devices.

The difference between desktop virtualization and VDI is the location of the virtual machine. In desktop virtualization, the VM is stored on the thin client, meaning that the OS can only be accessed from that client. In VDI, the VM is stored on the server and accessed via a gateway on the thin client, making it more mobile than desktop virtualization.

Organizations may be interested in VDI because it gives medical professionals secure access to their personal, designated desktop anywhere from mobile devices.

Virtual mobile infrastructure

Virtual mobile infrastructure (VMI) uses the same concept as VDI, but routes a mobile OS to a mobile device. VMI solves usability issues when displaying desktop OSes on smartphones. Because the VM is not stored on the device, no data from the healthcare network is stored on the device, making VMI a good alternative to traditional BYOD solutions. The secure network is accessed by a gateway that uses a container to separate the personal information on the device and access the VM in the data center.

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