The next server operating system you buy will be a virtual machine

The next server operating system you buy will be a virtual machine

Summary: The next major operating system incarnations will be available as ISOs and as virtual machines. Yes, this is a prediction on my part but it's a very good one.


I'm not a betting man but I'd put a lot of money on my prediction that the next major wave of server operating systems will be available as virtual machines (VMs), ready to run on your platform of choice.


I think that this is a reasonable (read, sure thing) bet that you'll be able to purchase and download ready-to-run VMs as well as ISOs from your favorite operating system vendors within two years.

If you visit VMware's Virtual Appliance Marketplace, you'll get an idea of what you're in for in days to come. There are hundreds of virtual appliances ready for you to download and run in your virtual environments.

True, due to licensing, most of them are Linux-based, but it won't be long until you're able to purchase and download Windows-based VMs — VMs tailored and tuned for a variety of purposes and applications. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if application vendors started delivering their applications on VMs too.

Can you just imagine it — browsing, purchasing, downloading, and running a new application or a whole new N-tier environment in minutes instead of weeks or months?

I have imagined it and it's a beautiful thing.

It's no secret that I love virtualization. To me, it's the best thing since the wheel. Or sliced bread. Or insert your favorite idiom here for how great virtualization is.

And some clever, better-financed-than-an-idea-guy-like-me, person will create an online marketplace that collects, maintains and processes a catalog of VMs for every need. I foresee a time when you'll page through an online catalog and pick your application, your operating system, your hardware requirements (CPU, disk, memory, network), and additional applications like building a custom system on Dell's website. Once complete, the online system will package your request into a portable zipped OVF file.

You'll click on the one-step pay option and the OVF will appear in your account area as a link ready for you to download and deploy — all fully licensed and ready to go to work.

If vendors get really clever, which I think they will, you'll be able to choose whole infrastructures. Yes, you can deploy them to hosted cloud accounts, to your own private data centers or to a hybrid private-public scenario. Just think about how handy this would be for creating disaster recovery (DR) setups. 

Yes, I know about Amazon's cloud and a few other automated vendor sites that do something similar to this but I've never seen one that was actually production-ready. Most of the ones I've seen are for testing or laboratory scenarios. And if you've ever tried to use Amazon's cloud app or deploy any virtual machines, it isn't for the faint of heart, the in a hurry, or even the reasonably patient. Yes, I could do a better job.

One particular example of a cool method of delivering pre-built VMs to a virtual environment that I've seen is with Proxmox VE. You can select from a list of VM templates that deploy in seconds to your virtual environment. Citrix XenServer has something similar to this as well. I know that you can create your own templates but, in my humble opinion, if you use a vendor's template, then you're getting a product that's more supportable — more supportable because they built it with optimizations, virtual machine tools, drivers, and to specifications that only they know about for their platform. I love vendor templates and I've never had a problem with one. Home-grown templates*, on the other hand, are a different story.

I think that, in the very near future, all operating systems, and certainly all server operating systems will be delivered in this cafeteria style or app store style fashion. I think the time has come to expedite delivery of applications and operating systems in VMs — especially those that require special configurations or specific handling.

From a support person perspective, it would relieve a lot of fingerpointing if I could just contact my vendor and say, "We have VMware 4.1 Enterprise Plus with patch level X running on AMD-based hosts and Windows VM #10014", please open a Sev 2 ticket for this issue. They know the environment. They know the VM. They know the problem. They know I'm waiting for a solution. I don't need any angst or any fingerpointing when I have a problem that's costing a client money.

The standardized, vendor-created, vendor-supported VM would solve a lot of problems. Think about how many variables there are to a system that's been installed by Geek #1, patched by Geek #2, supported by Geek #3, app developed by Geeks #4 through #10, and hardware and software from vendors A through Z.

And don't talk to me about vendor lock-in like it's a bad thing.

After many years in this business, I've come to realize that having a one-stop shop is a very comforting feeling. If you don't want a single vendor "controlling" your life, then perhaps software vendors should follow a strict protocol and go through a vetting (certification) process for their VMs. In other words, if you use VMware, for example, as your virtualization platform, then only use VMware-certified VMs in your environment. If you need a VM that isn't certified, put pressure on your vendor to get certified.

A VM store is a great idea. I'm betting that a lot of other people will think so too. And to the vendors out there who hadn't thought of this, you're welcome, now pay me.

*Sure, not all home-grown templates are bad but very few are really great.

Related stories:

Topics: Virtualization, Cloud, Linux, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • Microsoft sort of does this now

    with Azure. Don't know if they will do it for "boxed software", as that would compete with the Azure value proposition.
  • Your title is nonsensical...

    Operating system is a software selection...

    virtual machine is a type of computing device...

    And an "operating system" is not a "virtual machine". An operating system may RUN on a virtual machine; but buying an operating system says nothing about how it is run.
    • Pre-configured

      The OS will be delivered as a pre-configured VM object that just needs to be copied to the servers / SAN and started, no installation procedure, just a finished VM, where you enter in your licence number, if that, and you are away.#

      We've been delivering our solutions as complete virtual machines for several years now. The customers tend to either buy a physical server with our software installed or they already have the infrastructrue, so they just receive a VM with a running solution on it - our main systems run under Linux, so there is no issue with server licences or CALs to activate.
  • Umm, really? 2010 called, they want their article back

    Not trying to be snarky, but do you mostly work with Windows? Maybe this is still future-think for Windows, but it's basically old hat for Linux/BSD. They're so well a part of the weltaunnschung that there are marketplaces all over, and the industry has moved on, to PaaS providers like Joyent, IBM's SmartCloud, Heroku, Rackspace, Red Hat's OpenShift, etc. etc. (and of course, Amazon, which does TONS of business in this realm).

    And if you think customizing and spinning up e.g. an Amazon VM is difficult - um, have you done it? It'd be hard for it to be simpler ...

    Let alone something like a Heroku ...

    Heck, we're even getting load balancers etc. as VMs nowadays, and virtual switches (separate, Linux-based ones, separate from e.g. the vSwitch in the VMware world) are picking up steam.

    Sorry, again, not going for snark - but this is really old hat (except maybe for Windows-centric shops - not sure on that).
    • Not even for Windows.

      "Maybe this is still future-think for Windows . . ."

      Meh, it's not. Between Hyper-V, Azure, and some third party products (mostly VMWare), this has been available for a while.
      • We are talikng about pre-configured VM images

        For example, there are VM images for Zimbra mail servers. Just download the image, boot it as a VM, enter a mail domain name and start adding email accounts. That's all there is to it. No OS install, no Zimbra install, just boot and use.

        I don't think there are any pre-configured MS Exchange VM images that can be downloaded and used, as the author states, "due to licensing issues".
        • Microsoft

          had that in limited form for a while. You could download trial VMWare VMs of XP, for example.

          It wouldn't be a big stretch for them to extend it to producing VMs that are pre-configured and just require the licence number to be entered when they start up.
        • There are images available in a Windows world.

          Microsoft and partners have VM images available that can be downloaded and used (including Exchange). This is common in a Windows environment. They're not free, they require a license.

          If free is the key, then that's not going to happen.
    • Cloud isn't the answer...

      for everything. But delivering finsihed VMs that just need starting is nothing new.

      And Microsoft did provide them for a while as well.

      We work in production line automation, which is run at the millisecond level. If the software can't provide an answer to the hardware on the shop floor inside 10ms, then the production line stops. You can't do that with a cloud solution. You need on-site servers specially configured to provide those answers quickly.

      We also have cloud solutions, but they still need onsite hardware to provide some of the services.

      Also, over here, companies like Microsoft, IBM, RedHat or Amazon are non-starters for any cloud based service, because they are based in America and subject to the Patriot Act, FISA and the NSA, which puts them at odds with local data protection laws and thus if you trust your data to one of these cloud services, you are opening yourself up to prosecution in the local jurisdiction, because of the way the US Government treats companies with a US presence, making them act illegally in the jurisdictions where their customers are.
      • Exactly.

        The cloud primarily appeals to bean counters waving downsizing banners. There are so many risks, both obvious and not-so-obvious that are associated with high levels of cloud dependency, that I've never understood how normally logical technical people can be taken in by the cloud hype.

        VM's (particularly locally hosted VMs) make far more sense than the cloud for most applications, because it's simply a better utilization of hardware resources and security is better controlled. This wouldn't apply to anything which needs to be highly interactive or for real time applications, but everything else is fair game.
  • huh?

    Might be a news in the Microsoft world, but has been the norm in UNIX for decades.

    Just today, got a call from a colleague who asked me whether the FreeBSD 10 installer includes automatic ZFS configuration... I answered "no idea, don't remember the last time I ever installed from media".

    I also don't remember to have connected physical installation media to my servers in the last few years. Just PXE or iSCSI boot the computer and install whatever OS from the network.

    Anyway, good you discovered virtual appliances. Can we expect some new articles on the subject?
  • It's a sign of a bad design.

    Servers in virtual machines are only needed when the job wasn't done right to begin with.
    • Or, like thousands of companies have discovered:

      Running X number of servers as VMs on 1 physical server costs 1/Xth as much as having X number of physical servers. Good luck with your efforts to compete without using virtual technology.
      • Just dealing with the way things are.

        Like those thousand of companies have discovered that switching to the vms means that they can take advantage of all the different environments.

        I am saying that a unified structure that takes in account of all tasks of the company is the Expert way to get things done - may be expensive but ultimately better as these kingdoms of scope limit cross talk.
        • Ironside aka server per app is never going to be effective

          It use to be that you kept things in isolated silos, but with server hardware vastly out pacing software progress. That is just not true anymore. It's just not feasible to slam 10 servers into a rack that 2 servers can manage, I say 2 cause 1 can manage it, but you want real time fail over clustering incase of hardware failure. With servers hitting 32 cores easily now, and ram up to around 200 gig. You can fit a lot onto 1 server. But it's not about foot print its the fact that email server needs to take up 10 gig during the day to have instant email for company, but at night it needs 1 gig of ram to process a handful of emails. On the flip side your accounting batch process needs 1 gig during the day, and 10 at night, so you can put two VMs on same server and only need to by one set of 12 gig ram, versus two sets of 12 gig ram. This frees up costs so you can properly deploy clustering for fail over, or live-live performance gains.

          It's less about different environments, it's about making your choosen stack run efficient and in most cases cause it's running cost efficient you can actually provide more power than you would otherwise.
          • You are thinking to old school and to much about the ways things are.

            I am talking about - when things are done correctly in my world; the email and accounting and all jobs are in one server - not multiples.

            This way when a Re/max agent sells a house the accounting is done automatically because the scope is there to allow it to happen easily.

            And having multiple VM running on the same hard ware ruins the overall effectiveness I can achieve with one server running on one machine.
    • Really?

      That's not a very intelligent comment, really, now is it? Look at the TCO savings you get...
  • Old news even with Microsoft

    So for past oh 4 years, been doing this in-house. We keep a clean OS, and a few set server builds for various components built out. All I do is make a copy of the VOF and VOB, and spin up a new server off it, in about 5 seconds. I get what you are thinking though, but kinda took it the wrong way in wording. It's more practical to say APPLICATIONS we will buy are liable to be prebuilt VMs. This makes more sense than OS. Cause OS is already been done by every player in the industry. But lets say I go to buy that ADP product well instead of them selling me downloads, talking me through installation, and all that fun things. They could have it say, how many users you have, how many terms a month, and whats your retention plan. After I fill those in, it goes poof here is your VM. You download it and put it on your stack and it has the OS, and ADP software ready to go. That I can see it's not the OS but the APP. On the flip side you missing out on the concept of that being a hard push or sell for application makers who rack up huge fees for installation assistance and implementations. Trying to swap those revenues into the main costs would be really challenging without huge spikes.
  • Already Done!

    You "predict" something that has already happened!! Check out the IBM or Oracle offerings. In Oracle's case, they have VM templates that run on what they call their engineered systems, so it's a whole package: hardware, host OS, and guest OSs with choice applications. Get with the program, my friend!
  • Appliances...

    It's exactly what companies like Network Appliance were offering in the 90's (and still do!) - instead of "we're running v 1.32 patch 7, on a Dell Poweredge with Adaptec 3120 RAID adapter with two bonded Intel X520 NICs" - it's a much simpler support scenario when you're using a hardware+software package.

    Virtualisation's no panacea, though. Is that VMware, or Xen, or Hyper-V, or Parallels ...? Which version? AMD or Intel? With or without IOMMU/VT-d? Not to mention that with the latter I/O virtualisation, your VMs still have access to - and depend on - the specific hardware anyway: it still matters just as much whether it's an Intel or Broadcom Ethernet card in there!

    Moreover, any appliance is still just one (virtual) box in a bigger system. Yes, your packaged mail server VM might be happy in its own virtual box - but when it's authenticating against your Windows AD tree, or passing mail through the Virusscan host, or backing up to that tape library? Really, you're just as exposed to those details as if you'd installed it as a regular application on a Windows server in the first place.