Microsoft's virtual spin

The software giant loves virtualisation so much it's slapped the term on everything, for virtually no reason

Virtualisation was high on the list of important technologies at the Microsoft Windows Server 2008 launch yesterday — and not just one or two sorts of virtualisation. By the time the show was over, seven distinct flavours were on display. Some of them looked oddly familiar.

You might have thought that, over all these years, you've been using Terminal Services for thin-client computing, but you'd be wrong: it's presentation virtualisation. And did you know that when you booted your PC over the network and loaded your environment from a server, that was profile virtualisation? By the end of the launch, we were expecting Microsoft Office to be relabelled Microsoft Virtual Office Environment. That's not physical paper on the Word screen, after all.

Microsoft now says that every layer on the stack, from physical to application, can be virtualised. Long-time students of software architecture could be forgiven for thinking that this was the entire point of software stacks: each layer exists to hide the details of the mechanisms beneath it, letting the layers above interact in a standard way without having to know how they work.

This isn't the first time that a technical term has been hijacked by marketing departments. RISC/CISC, relational databases, open systems: each term comes with its own history of a good idea being forced into increasingly ill-fitting roles, as competitors try to take over a success story by redefinition.

The advantages to the successful hijacker are manifold. Not only do you get all the buzz from the original but you can claim that your offering is richer, more complete and more useful. The fact that you're not selling the same thing need not matter: the other guy looks bad. Moreover, by renaming your old technology with the new buzzword, you've magically shipped millions already. Nice trick.

Ironically, the one truly new, truly virtualising technology that Microsoft has in Windows Server 2008, Hyper-V, is doubly virtual: it's only virtually ready, shipping as a beta component with "don't use in anger" warnings slapped all over it.

We'll leave it to Microsoft's competitors to defend their turf. Virtualisation is indeed a fundamental aspect of all computing but little is to be gained except confusion by allowing the term to be used to sell everything that sits on top of something else. Windows Server 2008 is shaping up to be a solid, useful, long-lived product that will succeed on its own merits: it's a shame that Microsoft couldn't resist the temptation to slather a bit too much marketing make-up onto an already good-looking beast.

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