Virtualisation's 10 commandments of destruction

Like nuclear technology, virtualisation is being sold as safe yet powerful. But beware — do not ignore its disruptive potential

Virtualisation has been around for a long time, but it has only recently become an essential part of enterprise IT. With the addition of explicit virtualisation support in most recent processors, it has become cheap, reliable and powerful enough for everyday work — and companies such as VMware have effectively capitalised on its promise.

That lulls vendors and users into complacency, because VMware and friends have demonstrated those parts of virtualisation that are easy to understand and easy to use. Better manageability, greater efficiency and reduced capital expenditure are powerful arguments.

Yet those benefits are not everything virtualisation has to offer by any means: the technology has far greater capacity for disruption than that. So to jolt IT into different ways of thinking about what it can do with virtualisation, here are 10 different angles on what can happen when you go virtual — and what gets destroyed in the process.

1. Destroy lock-in

Your old data needs an old application, and the old application needs an old operating system. Compatibility is only maintained in newer systems from a single vendor: if you don't buy that, you lose your data.

But if you keep a virtual machine configured with the old system, you can run what you like.

2. Destroy incompatibility

Once you have a virtual machine running your software, then many of the dangers of hardware upgrades go away. As long as your virtual machine runs, all your applications will follow along without a murmur — and even if your virtual machine becomes incompatible with your new hardware, you can run it within a virtual machine of its own.

3. Destroy time

Right now, you can, if you wish, run a virtual computer from 50 years ago on your latest desktop. Not much electronics survives unscathed for half a century, but that virtual machine will run even better than the hardware could manage when brand new. If you can store data, you can hold back time.

4. Destroy space

A virtual machine takes up the space required in a storage device to hold a few million bits. That's a fraction of a square millimetre. You can have 100 different PC configurations — and a running version of just about every computer ever sold commercially — sitting on a thumb drive instead of in the large campus that would once have been required.

5. Destroy revenue

A lot of vendors link software licences to processors, sometimes for life. If your hardware changes, you have to re-licence on the vendor's terms. But if you're running that software on a virtual processor that cannot go wrong — and that will migrate happily to new generations of hardware, or even onto the cloud — then there's no reason for the license to ever change. And that means one big money opportunity for the vendors gone for ever...

6. Destroy security attackers

Much promised but still commercially absent, the self-healing power of virtual machines remains one of the biggest what-ifs in the business. Because a virtual machine turns hardware into software, you get the ability to easily stop it, scan it, and detect and reverse changes, without any of the software on that virtual machine being aware that anything's going on. Unauthorised changes designed to evade operating system or resident scanners just can't be hidden from virtual hardware.

7. Destroy security enforcers

The flip side of a virtual machine's inherent resistance to malware is that it will also shrug off DRM, encryption and other approaches to restricting access to data. No matter how robustly coded the software, there will come a point when the secured data has to be in plain to be useful — and at that point, stop the VM and examine memory. If an attacker gets that far, it's a security breach that can bypass practically everything. And that's saying nothing of the ease of stealing a virtual machine through a compromised network, for the attacker to deconstruct at their leisure.

8. Destroy physical threats

Physical machines are vulnerable to physical events, and they are expensive and difficult to replicate. If your house burns down with your laptop in it, then you've lost everything.

If your house burns down with your virtual machine in it, you have a copy on your keyfob, one at the office and one on an ISP halfway around the world.

9. Destroy peak performance

You get nothing for nothing, and virtualisation will always come at the cost of never quite being able to run at the same top speed as native software running directly on native hardware. Unlike other destructions, though, this is purely temporary: the same virtual machine will run on the next generation of hardware and the one after that, long after the original hardware is completely outclassed.

10. Destroy the status quo

Intel has made its billions through the x86 instruction set. Having its processor hardware be compatible with existing software is everything.

And Intel isn't always at the top of the game of making silicon run swiftly. There have been faster rivals — rivals brought down by lack of compatibility. But if the world is used to running virtual machines and a new technology — maybe not even silicon-based — turns up with a basic processing device that leapfrogs Intel, it can inherit the x86 world at a blow, through virtualisation.

We're not saying it will, just that it might. But with the stakes so high, that may be good enough.

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