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Virtualization Coming of Age

The activity surrounding VMWare lately is an encouraging sign of things to come. Virtualization, soon to reach the hardware level with Intel's Vanderpool technology (if not already, according to the rumor mill) has come a long way in the past decade. The Java Virtual Machine, sometimes criticized due to slow performance and compatibility issues in the early days - especially with respect to MS-only extensions to the MS VM - has evolved to be a powerful server platform with decent performance. On the smaller end of the scalability issue, J2ME allows bytecode that's been compiled and tested on any platform to run on common mobile phones, giving rise to a wide range of mobile applications.

Macintosh had the Virtual PC product, which allowed X86 operating systems like Linux and Windows to run in a virtualized hardware environment under Mac OS. Rather than running bytecode compiled to target a standardized cross-platform environment (the JVM), Virtual PC emulated a complete computer inside a software process. Entire operating systems could share the hardware resources with the host, Mac OS. Virtual PC was eventually acquired by Microsoft, and it's unclear what will happen to it now that Mac hardware will be running on Intel CPUs, although a  powerful concept could arise right from Apple if they take advantage of Vanderpool technology in the upcoming Mac OS releases, or perhaps as another product. A hypervisor could allow simultaneously running Windows Vista or Linux alongside Mac OSX. I'm not sure Apple has a lot of incentive to do this (their vertical offering of hardware + software tied together has served them well), so perhaps someone else will do the implementation. 

Now, VMWare has released a free Player for VMs, and are acting as a catalyst for a community of VM developers. Based on hosting Linux or BSD operating systems, the freely-distributable VMs out there encompass specialized system images ranging in function from the browsing appliance, to content management systems, to dedicated firewall systems. If they succeed, VMWare could inspire developers to come up with all kinds of free system images. There was already a small but growing group of people interested in building complete operating systems that could fit on USB keys or MP3 players. Now, with VMWare technology available, this capability is easier than before and can run anywhere you can access a PC. Bring a scaled-down OS with you wherever you go, Keep your data safer than just sitting down at someone else's workstation and using their tools.

Or, for testing software, or try before you buy, you can distribute an image that won't have side-effects on your host OS. In a sort of evolution of the Java Sandbox security model, you can define what hardware and other host resources the guest VM can and cannot access, quickly and easily through GUI configuration tools.

Despite my optimistic title for this post, the virtual machine technology development is still just beginning,  There is a long way to go, and it remains to be seen if VM technology will ever be adopted more widely then in devleopment or server management circles. The reason I'm optimistic at this stage is that the free (as in beer) availability of VM host technology is beginning to spur innovation and collaboration. Eventually, a real killer app could emerge. But what has to occur along side the innovation and experimentation is a simplification of sorts. Make using virtualization as simple as burning a CD in iTunes. Recall how few people knew how to burn music CDs just a few years ago, and compare that to how many do this on a daily basis now that the interface (iTunes or otherwise) has reduced the process to utter simplicity. Virtualization is a concept that I'm not entirely sure will be able to make this transformation, but with the growing popularity of VMWare Player and the new, free (as in beer) VMWare Server apps perhaps we will see it emerge in some surprising and delightful way,

Posted on February 16, 2006 | Permalink | Tag this post with del.icio.us | This Post Now Lives Here


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