Intel has announced the arrival of the first desktop chips to include its hardware-based virtualization technology known as VT (codenamed Vanderpool). This could very well signal a new era in desktop/notebook computing and I would think long and hard before buying a new system that doesn't include this new and worthwhile technology.
While I am becoming Using a virtual machine for just one application is like driving on an empty road with airbags. increasingly more fond of thin client approaches to desktop computing -- particularly as new innovations that push on thin's shortcomings come to market like Dan Bricklin's WikiCalc -- I'm also realistic about how destkop computing isn't heading into extinction anytime soon. And when it comes to desktop computing, one technology that I've decided I can't do without (and that you shouldn't be without either) is VMWare's Workstation 5 virtual machine software. My fondness of VW5 was multiplied tenfold when the company recently made its virtual machine runtime available for free.
With virtual machines of the desktop sort that VW5 enables, PC users can literally carve their desktop and notebook systems into completely separate instances of Windows that run side-by-side with each other as though the other instances don't exist. In other words, if some process in one tries some sort of security exploit like a buffer overflow, it can't get to the others any more than a buffer overflow could affect another computer across the network. It can only get to whatever is running in that instance or "partition of Windows." The idea of partitioning systems in this way makes it possible to dedicate partitions to specific activities. For example, you can do all your Web browsing in one partition while you run your corporate applications in another and your personal applications like Quicken in a third and never the three shall meet. I'm a Firefox user. But for those Web sites that require Internet Explorer (which I'm always nervous about using), I just run it in a separate partition. Using a virtual machine for just one application is like driving on a completely empty road with airbags.
VMWare, a subsidiary of EMC (see why Ashlee Vance says EMC should Set VMware free) is one of a handful of options for desktop users who want to go virtual. There's also Microsoft's Virtual PC -- a technology that the Redmond, Wash.-based company plans to include in the enterprise edition of the next version of Windows (Windows Vista) and, to a lesser extent, an open source virtualization technology known as Xen that is just now working the kinks out of its support for Windows. There's also VMWare competitor SWSoft (recently introduced 64-bit support for x86-64 architectures), but the company has made it very clear to me that its interest is primarily in virtualizing servers.
So, why is the Intel announcement so significant? Until Intel started releasing its VT technology (it first debuted in the company's recently announced Paxville XEON server chips), companies like SWSoft, VMWare, and Microsoft had to do a lot of the virtual machine heavy lifting in their software. Without any hardware assistance the likes of which VT provides, it takes far more in the way of physical resources (processor, memory) to launch and run virtual machines than it does if those instantiations can be activated through hardware. While such technologies make it easier for competing virtual machine software solutions like Xen to get in the virtual machine game, Raghu Raghuram, VMware's senior director of strategy and marketing, told me earlier this year that his company welcomes innovations like VT because end users will get better performance and his company can focus its attention on adding value in higher layers of the virtualization stack such as management. VMWare is wasting no time in rolling out its support for Intel's VT technology. According to a press release on its Web site, VT support is being beta tested in version 5.5 of VMWare Workstation, which the company expects to release by the end of the year.