Putting a new spin on virtualization

Running virtual copies of software and operating systems could change the way we view the PC as a host platform.

By breaking the cuffs between hardware and software, virtualization could potentially upset the use of the PC as a host platform.

Virtualization software, such as those from VMware and Altiris, sit on desktops and run applications and operating systems regardless of the underlying systems configuration.

According to analyst firm Gartner, virtualization has the greatest potential to fix the woes of technology managers faced with managing a typical heterogeneous IT environment which includes multiple operating systems (OS), hardware and software applications. Last year, the research firm released a report stating that by decoupling the software, such as operating systems and desktop applications from the hardware, virtualization technology allows IT administrators to achieve "homogeneous bliss".

The report added that a virtual environment, being a mix of software and data, makes it easy to move a virtual desktop environment (also called a virtual machine) from one PC to another. The virtual desktop can be backed up on disk, duplicated, or transmitted across the Net.

Gartner also noted in the report that the benefits for users are potentially huge, with enterprise software packages becoming easier to deploy, manage and secure. The impact on the PC industry could be just as significant as it could mean removing all scope for product differentiation and forcing vendors to compete on service and price.

In the longer term, Gartner said, virtualization will also drive significant changes in the way the industry regards personal computing. The research firm believes that "the decoupling of hardware and enterprise software will enable changes in the way companies and individuals regard their PCs".

"As virtualization technology evolves, the requirements for the underlying hardware to look like a PC will likely recede, allowing a greater variety of devices to be used as host platforms," the research firm stated in its report.

Gartner also believes that the new standard for client computing will be a virtual platform based on software, not hardware. PC virtualization has been used in niche applications for a number of years, but with greater industry support, the technology could potentially move into the mainstream, Gartner said.

The outlook appears bright for virtualization software. According to Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software at IDC's enterprise computing group, the virtualization market was worth US$19.2 billion in 2004, and is forecast to top US$30 billion by the end of 2008. This market includes virtual access software, virtual application environment software, virtual processing software, virtual storage software, provisioning and management software, and security solutions for a virtual environment.

Virtualization is creeping into new areas, such as the software applications space, and industry experts predict other potential benefits.

As a sign of things to come, Altiris' Software Virtualization Solution (SVS) already allows businesses to provide and remove software for desktop users almost instantaneously, as a virtualized layer. In addition, multiple versions of the same software can be used on a desktop PC. Management of the actual software is done on a centralized server, which means administrators do not have to physically reach for employee desktops to add or remove programs.

According to Andrew Souter, director of systems engineers at Altiris Asia-Pacific and Japan, Altiris' SVS also prevents any software conflicts with other software and hardware in an employee's PC, because virtualized applications operate independently.

Souter added that applications that are run virtually do not suffer from performance bottlenecks, since no data is transferred between user PCs and the central server. Besides, the applications still run locally on user desktops, albeit in a virtual fashion. "The only overhead is a 100k memory footprint [used by Altiris SVS client software]."

Bill Washburn, a systems administrator at an American university, noted in an Altiris statement: "We've rolled out SVS to help significantly improve application reliability, drive down application support costs and better serve the constantly evolving software requirements of our faculty and students." Washburn is tasked with managing approximately 80 applications running on more than 1000 computers used by about 7000 students and faculty.

He added: "We operate on a tight budget and have limited resources to address application management. SVS allows us to immediately fill application requests and be comfortable that we won't break existing apps or create new problems. For instance, we are currently running two different versions of NetBeans on certain systems, with no conflicts, to accommodate the needs of various departments and students."

Licensing issues
Software virtualization throws up questions related to licensing, especially with regard to Microsoft's licensing and support policies.

In Microsoft's volume licensing, customers can install a second copy of Windows on a PC at no extra charge, while other licensing programs require users to buy the second OS separately at potentially higher retail prices. Also, a Windows license is tied to the first physical machine on which the OS is installed, which means virtual machines cannot be moved between users.

Gartner pointed out in its report that Microsoft usually does not support virtual machine installations of Windows, which creates less incentive for businesses to deploy virtual machines. Given the potential benefits that virtualization could offer with migrations to Windows Vista, Microsoft should address these issues, said the analyst firm.

Souter, however, contended that licensing should not be a problem, as long as companies have site licenses that allow them to use the application as many times as they want.

So far, Microsoft has thrown virtualization its support, specifically in its licenses for the upcoming Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition, which will allow businesses to run up to four virtual instances on one physical server at no additional cost. By doing so, Microsoft is extending the savings that customers can realize through server consolidation on the Windows Server platform. Licenses for the Datacenter Edition of the version of Windows Longhorn Server will give businesses the right to run an unlimited number of virtual instances on one physical server.

Additionally, companies can also move active instances from one licensed server box to another without limitation, as long as the physical server is licensed for the Windows Server System product.

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