What is a VM image?

A VM (virtual machine) image, also known as a VM template, is a file that contains a virtual disk which has a bootable operating system installed on it. A VM image allows you to quickly create multiple virtual machines that are identical in terms of installed software, configurations, and data.

What is a VM image?

Benefits of Using VM Images

Using VM images provides several key benefits:

  • Rapid deployment – With a pre-configured VM image, you can swiftly spin up identical VMs without having to manually install and configure an OS and software on each one. This accelerates workload deployment.
  • Consistency and standardization – VM images allow you to standardize VM configurations across your environment. Every VM provisioned from the same image will have an identical configuration.
  • Pre-integration – Common integration tasks, dependencies, and configurations can be pre-installed and pre-configured in a VM image to simplify deployment.
  • Scalability – It’s easy to scale horizontally by spinning up many identical VMs from a single source image as demands grow.
  • Encapsulation and isolation – Applications and services can be encapsulated within their own dedicated VM images, keeping configurations isolated and transportable.

Types of VM Images

There are a few common types of VM images:

  • Cloud VM images – Most public cloud providers like AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud offer pre-configured VM images with common operating systems and software stacks for launching instances.
  • Hypervisor VM images – Hypervisor vendors provide VM images to create VMs locally on top of hypervisors like VMware ESXi and Microsoft Hyper-V.
  • Custom VM images – You can create customized VM images configured specifically for your applications and environments. These are especially common in DevOps workflows.

What’s in a VM Image?

A VM image contains all the elements needed to boot into a functional virtualized environment:

  • Guest operating system (OS) – Such as Windows, Linux, BSD etc. The OS is installed, configured, and customized within the virtual disk.
  • Applications – Any applications, binaries, libraries required are installed and pre-configured in the VM image.
  • Configurations – System, network, application, user-specific configuration files are baked into the image.
  • Utilities – Common tools, editors, agents, and utilities are pre-installed as needed.
  • Drivers – VirtIO, VMware Tools, or other optimized drivers for the virtual environment.
  • Licensing – Any licenses or activation keys are pre-installed if required.
  • Bootloader – A bootloader like GRUB or Syslinux to boot up the OS.
  • Partitioning – Partitioning scheme and layout customized for the image’s OS.
  • File System – Formatted with a file system like NTFS, EXT4, XFS etc.

All these components are contained within a virtual disk file that makes up the VM image. Additional files like configuration files, scripts or docs are sometimes bundled alongside it.

Creating a Custom VM Image

Creating a custom VM image tailored to your specific needs involves a few key steps:

  1. Install OS – On a dedicated VM or physical system, install, customize and configure the OS distribution needed.
  2. Install software – Implement all the applications, tools, utilities and drivers required within this OS environment.
  3. Configure system – Customize preferences, settings, users, permissions, services etc. based on your specs.
  4. Burn image – Once the OS installation and configuration is complete, burn it into a re-usable VM image file.
  5. Test and validate – Boot it on a test VM, validate all functions work, and make final tweaks.

Once finished, this image can then be used as the basis for provisioning multiple identical VMs in your computing environment or sharing it with others.

VM Image Management

As you scale production workloads using VM images, managing them becomes critical:

  • Storage – Have sufficient shared storage to store multiple large VM image files, often 10-30GB+ in size each.
  • Versioning – An update process to create new iterations as components like OSes and apps get upgraded.
  • Publishing – A catalog or repository to store finalized images so users/automation can access them on-demand for deployment.
  • Security – Apply secure access controls around publishing and usage of sensitive VM images based on organizational policy.
  • Lifecycle – Establish a lifecycle model to mark when images should get phased out and replaced altogether as platforms evolve.

Alternatives to VM Images

Though very useful, VM images may not always make sense. Some alternatives include:

  • Configuration management – Tools like Ansible, Chef, Puppet or Salt which also allow you to completely configure fresh OS instances.
  • Containerization – Containers like Docker allow you to bundle and transport applications without virtualizing hardware.
  • Infrastructure as Code – Solutions like HashiCorp’s Terraform let you script entire platforms so they can be provisioned repeatedly.

Key Takeaways

  • VM images pre-package software into easily distributable templates for fast, consistent VM deployments.
  • They encapsulate fully configured OS environments to standardize platforms across clouds and on-prem infrastructure.
  • VM image management is crucial as you scale your environment to keep configurations up to date.
  • Alternatives like configuration management and containerization exist for more granular control over provisioning environments.


VM images provide a convenient way of saving fully configured software stacks into a portable format for consistent distribution. They form the blueprint for creating identical virtual machines without needing to manually set up components each time. With the growth of multi-cloud and on-prem infrastructure leveraging virtualization, VM images continue to provide huge value in accelerating deployment and keeping configuration drift in check.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What file formats are used by VM images?
    Common VM image file formats include OVF, OVA, VMDK, VHD, VDI, QCOW2, AMI and RAW. The format may change based on the virtualization platform being used.

  2. Can I convert VM images between formats?
    Yes, utilities like qemu-img or powershell can convert images between multiple formats like VMDK, VHDX, QCOW2 etc. Some conversions may be lossy.

  3. Can I boot a VM image directly on hardware?
    Some VM images formats like RAW can be booted directly on hardware without requiring virtualization, while others require an existing hypervisor to run.

  4. Do VM images work the same way as ISO installers?
    No. ISO files only contain installer data for creating a fresh OS instance from scratch. VM images contain complete pre-configured systems.

  5. Can I use the same VM image concurrently on multiple VMs?
    Yes, most VM images formats like QCOW2 support concurrency out of the box, allowing multiple VMs to use one source image file.

  6. Should VM images be immutable?
    Ideally yes. VM images should be treated as immutable gold masters which remain untouched in production. Any changes get baked into a fresh image version.

  7. Is booting from VM images secure?
    It increases risk over booting from known, controlled hardware since images come from third-parties. Use trusted media, enable cryptographic checks like UEFI Secure Boot when available.

  8. What’s better – imaging or provisioning via script?
    Both approaches have tradeoffs. Images are faster to spin up and more consistent but can sprawl over time. Scripting offers more control but requires maintenance. Often both are used together.

  9. Do VMs created from the same image have identical IDs?
    No. New random hardware IDs, SIDs etc get generated on boot even for VMs spawned from identical base images. MAC addresses may stay static based on configuration.

  10. Can two different VM images have the same product key?
    No, attempting to activate the same product key on multiple operating system instances violates licensing – even if those instances came from unique VM images.

  11. Is it bad practice to snapshot production VM images?
    Yes, snapshots taken against VM images in active production use could lead to performance/stability issues. Treat images as master gold copies instead.

  12. What is the maximum size limit for VM images?
    VMDK/VHD is limited to 2TB. RAW images have no set file size limit, but very large images are harder to manage. AWS recently increased the maximum EBS root volume size to 64TB for AMIs.

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