Virtual hard drives are essentially a computer within a computer, but with storage rather than processing power. They are typically attached to virtual machines and function as their data drives. Virtual hard drives have similar functionalities as physical external hard drives and rely on your computer’s memory. For managed services providers (MSPs), virtualization is an important area of knowledge that introduces operational flexibility and may even provide security benefits to boot.
How does a virtual hard drive work?
Typically, creating a virtual drive is done by dividing disk space on a machine in order to install virtual elements. When a virtual drive is installed on a computer in this way it can contain an operating system, data, and applications.
In these cases, the capacity of the physical drive affects the capacity of the virtual drive. There are a few types of virtual drives that determine how they will take up physical disk space on a host’s file system. Fixed-size drives automatically take up the entire allotted space as soon as the drive is created. Conversely, a dynamically expanding option will only use as much space as is needed, starting with just a small amount. A differencing virtual hard disk refers to another virtual or physical disk, storing changes made to the other system so they can be reversed if needed.
In some cases, the term “virtual drive” can also refer to a cloud-based storage solution. Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive, and Dropbox are all examples of virtual hard drive services.
What is the purpose of a virtual hard drive?
Virtual drives serve a number of different purposes, such as storage, security, and additional storage. In some cases, this disk image file format is used for replicating an existing hard drive—including all data, applications, and structural elements—and storing the contents somewhere the physical host can access and use. This means they are associated with virtual machines, and function as their system drives. While this is convenient and flexible, it often leads to slower performance.
Security is another major purpose of virtual drives. Because the virtualized drive is separate from your main system, it’s possible (though still not guaranteed) that cyberthreats will remain confined to this drive. MSPs can work on a virtual drive to protect business data within a broader system, and a virtual drive can be a useful environment in which to test changes and updates without directly impacting the main server. That said, you shouldn’t rely on virtual drives to keep viral threats isolated, and it’s advisable to follow security protocols with virtual drives just as you would with physical computers.
Virtual drives are equally useful for storage, especially in cases where data needs to be fairly portable. This is particularly useful for Windows devices, as this OS can natively mount a VHD or VHDX file just as easily as it might mount other removable media. (VHD is often used to mean “virtual disk drive,” but it also refers to a Windows-specific virtual hard disk image file format.)
There is also a virtual drive utility within SolarWinds Backup that helps you find and restore single files from within a backup job.
Creating a virtual drive in Windows
It’s not difficult to create a virtual drive directly in Windows 10, presuming your physical hard drive has the capacity. Here’s how to create a virtual drive by easily initializing, partitioning, and formatting a VHDX or VHD.
Simply search Start for “Create and format hard disk partitions.” Go to Action, Create VHD, then Browse to find the folder you’d like to house the virtual disk. You’ll need to give this folder a name, choose either VHDX or VHD as the file type, and specify the drive size. For the VHDX format, choose Dynamic Expanding, and for VHD, choose Fixed Size.
After creating this virtual drive, you’ll need to right-click the drive and hit Initialize Disk. Choose the Master Boot Record option and hit OK. Now, right click the unallocated space and select the New Simple Volume option. After choosing the Drive letter, be sure to format the volume for NTFS, choose Default Allocation Unit Size and Perform a Quick Format, then select Enable Compression. Your virtual drive should then be ready to use.
Using a virtual drive
It’s a good idea for managed services providers to be familiar with virtual drives and their potential use cases. Mounting a virtual drive on a device can be useful in a number of surprising ways, and can provide compatibility, flexibility, and even certain security benefits.
Check out our blog for more tactics and best practices about optimizing your virtual drive’s performance.