Now Supports Virtualization!
by Jeff James

Welcome to the inaugural post of NextTech, a new Windows IT Pro blog that reports on emerging trends and upcoming technologies that will impact the IT industry. Have any questions or comments about the blog? Drop me an email or add a comment or two to this blog post.

If you don't think virtualization is the biggest news in IT these days, just take a look at some recent headlines. According to a story over at The Mercury News, VMware's massive initial public offering made it "Silicon Valley's most successful IPO since Google." Ashlee Vance over at The Register wonders when VMware may eclipse parent company EMC, while yours truly presented a recap of that heady week in August that witnessed VMware's IPO, Citrix gobbling up XenSource and Intel busting out their burly Quad-core processors -- all news driven by the virtualization steamroller.

Now that virtualization has hit the mainstream business media, the writing is on the wall: virtualization is big news these days, and things are about to get even bigger. Remember when virtualization was a term only whispered in the computer room by white-coated IT admins? That's ancient history, old man. Like the pulsating green gloop in The Blob, virtualization has set its sights on world domination.

First used in development and test environments, virtualization jumped over to server consolidation. Live environments were next, and virtualization continues its inexorable march to desktop domination. Companies like MojoPac are bringing virtualization to the masses via a USB memory stick (want fries with that?), while chip designer SolarFlare is beavering away on reducing IO bottlenecks that have impeded virtual machine performance.

Startup Pano Logic has seized on virtualization to help them develop arguably the best example of a thin client yet: The Pano is essentially a chromed cube stuffed with connectors for a keyboard, mouse, Ethernet connection and other local ports. Users log into a virtualized version of their desktop, which happens to be running off a virtual server in the data center.

In one fell swoop the Pano could eliminate headaches caused by client-side SNAFUs. Stop me if you've heard about (or dealt with) any users like these before: That guy in purchasing that can't remember his password for longer than 48 hours, the fumble-fingered senior executive that tends to spill her $8 Nonfat Caramel Macchiato on every $4000 desktop PC she comes close to, or the marketing assistant named Scout that thinks World of Warcraft is an acceptable use of network bandwidth. Sound familiar? As long as the network and data center stays online 24/7 (which could be a big if), Pano could largely eliminate pesky client side admin duties like these.

Virtualization has grown by leaps and bounds, and begs the question: What's next? I'd wager that the following scenario may be a plausible one: What if Pano joins forces with a cable TV provider (like US Cable or Comcast) to offer a wholly hosted computing solution for the consumer market? People would pay a modest additional fee to rent the Pano device, just as they do for their cable box. Throw in online applications from Google and another $75 for a printer and a few gigs of local USB stick storage, and you've got a compelling alternative to the traditional desktop computer model for light-use computing tasks.

There's no doubt virtualization is a Big Deal, but I can't help but think that the juggernaut is beginning to stray a bit into the realm of hype and hyperbole. As the Senior Editor in charge of products for Windows IT Pro and SQL Server, I see a daily flood of news releases from vendors of all stripes. Not counting my daily allotment of releases discussing hazardous waste removal or new age horse breeding techniques, I tend to get at least a few dozen IT-related press releases from vendors a day. And a lot of them have the word "virtualization" screaming from the headlines. Granted, virtualization is big now, but every vendor on the planet seems to be eager to cash in on the hype. One of the strengths of virtualization it that is transparent to the software that is running on top of it. That said, the ability to run in a virtual environment isn't reason enough to write a press release about it!

During a recent conversation with a an executive from a virtualization product vendor, I suggested that a small number of IT shops may not be racing to fully embrace virtualization yet, possibly waiting to see how the market shakes out with the release of Windows Server 2008 (and Windows Server Virtualization). That executive seemed incredulous -- someone isn't using virtualization yet?

The Fortune 500 and a huge number of other companies are embracing virtualization for its well-documented benefits, but what about the thousands of SMBs that run off a single server and a few dozen clients? I'm sure many of those SMBs have hopped on the virtualization express, but I'd also bet my virtual machine that many are doing just fine without it. They'll move there eventually, no doubt, but I hope we won't try to cram virtualization down every throat we can find. I hate to throw a bit of cold water on the hype parade, but--like any other technology--virtualization has positives and negatives. Mostly positives, mind you, but nothing is perfect.

"Virtualization isn't a silver bullet--it isn't a magic thing that can spew out servers on demand without any problems," says Dwayne Melancon, VP of corporate and business development at Tripwire. "All of these new instances need to be planned and managed. Virtualization may drastically reduce the procurement cycle, but the planning and security has to be there. It has to be managed just like everything else."

While virtualization is unarguably the most significant IT development in years, I just question the frothy speculation around the edges. The technology is strong enough on its own merits, so I hope we don't confuse the issue with too much hype, hyperbole and half-truths.

Then again, the thought of completely virtualizing the user side of the equation has some merit. Remember all those user-related IT headaches I mentioned earlier? With virtualized users, just reset the VM and your problems are over, with a new set of virtual users that can hopefully remember their passwords and keep their coffee in their virtual cups.

So what do you think? Is virtualization the best thing since processed cheese in a can, or is the virtual hype machine on overdrive? Add a comment or drop me an email (jjames\[@\]windowsitpro.com) to let me know what you think.