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2.1: Abstraction and virtualization

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    Before we talk about processes, I want to define a few words:

    • Abstraction: An abstraction is a simplified representation of something complicated. For example, if you drive a car, you understand that when you turn the wheel left, the car goes left, and vice versa. Of course, the steering wheel is connected to a sequence of mechanical and (often) hydraulic systems that turn the wheels, and the wheels interact with the road in ways that can be complex, but as a driver, you normally don’t have to think about any of those details. You can get along very well with a simple mental model of steering. Your mental model is an abstraction.

      Similarly, when you use a web browser, you understand that when you click on a link, the browser displays the page the link refers to. The software and network communication that make that possible are complex, but as a user, you don’t have to know the details.

      A large part of software engineering is designing abstractions like these that allow users and other programmers to use powerful and complicated systems without having to know about the details of their implementation.

    • Virtualization: An important kind of abstraction is virtualization, which is the process of creating a desirable illusion.

      For example, many public libraries participate in inter-library collaborations that allow them to borrow books from each other. When I request a book, sometimes the book is on the shelf at my local library, but other times it has to be transferred from another collection. Either way, I get a notification when it is available for pickup. I don’t need to know where it came from, and I don’t need to know which books my library has. As a whole, the system creates the illusion that my library has every book in the world.

      The collection physically located at my local library might be small, but the collection available to me virtually includes every book in the inter-library collaboration.

      As another example, most computers are only connected to one network, but that network is connected to others, and so on. What we call the Internet is a collection of networks and a set of protocols that forward packets from one network to the next. From the point of view of a user or programmer, the system behaves as if every computer on the Internet is connected to every other computer. The number of physical connections is small, but the number of virtual connections is very large.

    The word “virtual” is often used in the context of a virtual machine, which is software that creates the illusion of a dedicated computer running a particular operating system, when in reality the virtual machine might be running, along with many other virtual machines, on a computer running a different operating system.

    In the context of virtualization, we sometimes call what is really happening “physical”, and what is virtually happening either “logical” or “abstract.”

    This page titled 2.1: Abstraction and virtualization is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Allen B. Downey (Green Tea Press) .

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