Virtualization vs. Emulation: What's the Difference?

Virtualization vs. Emulation: What’s the Difference?

Virtualization and emulation are two technologies whose concepts are often confused, and the terms are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably online. However, the confusion is understandable since the technologies share a common goal: to create a virtual environment capable of running a guest operating system or computer program.

There are, however, some key differences related to how each of these technologies achieves its goal, which clearly set virtualization and emulation apart.

What Is Virtualization?

desktop with two monitors

In computing, virtualization refers to the process of creating a virtual version of computing resources, be it hardware or software. These can include computer, hardware platforms, storage devices, computer network resources, operating systems, or computer programs in general.

Read More: Practical Reasons to Start Using a Virtual Machine

The process is accomplished with the help of a hypervisor, or virtual machine monitor (VMM). It virtually splits a single physical computer into multiple virtual servers by allocating dedicated resources from the “host” system to the newly created “guest” system.

By running on dedicated resources, both the host and guest systems can function without relying on each other as completely independent environments, “virtual machines.” In practice, you can create several computers from a single physical one through resource allocation.

What Is Emulation?

boy sitting in front of desktop

In computing, emulation refers to the process of creating an environment that emulates the properties of a system, either hardware or software, inside a completely different one. This is done through an emulator, a computer program designed to imitate the properties of a “guest” system inside a “host” system.


Read More: How Do Emulators Work?

To properly achieve emulation, emulators rely on an interpreter. An interpreter is a computer program that reads the emulated guest system code instructions and then executes semantically equivalent operations on the host system.

Emulation is very popular for running programs and video games that have become obsolete in the host system or that were originally built for another environment.

Virtualization vs. Emulation: What’s the Difference?


The main difference between them is that in virtualization the guest system runs code directly on the host system’s language. In emulation, the guest system needs a software bridge, an interpreter translating its code into the host system’s language.

Furthermore, because in emulation the guest system does not run on the host’s physical hardware, emulation is slower when compared to virtualization. By contrast, in virtualization, the guest system gets direct access to the host’s allocated resources, resulting in higher throughput and minimal overhead.

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