Get ready for virtualization to affect you, too

VMware CTO Stephen Herrod

VMware CTO Stephen Herrod

(Credit: Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET)
SAN FRANCISCO–If the average person has heard of virtualization at all, the idea probably left little impression beyond something to do with running corporate data centers packed with computing hardware.

But the era in which virtualization directly affects ordinary folks, too, is on its way.

The company in the forefront of the technology, an EMC subsidiary called VMware, drew 12,488 people to its VMworld conference here this week, and one theme of the show was the growing push to move the technology beyond the server realm. Initially that means PCs, but the company demonstrated its technology on mobile phones, too.

What is virtualization? Simply put, it lets a single computer run multiple operating systems at the same time in compartments called virtual machines. Each instance of an operating system runs on a virtualization layer rather than on the actual computer hardware. The company in charge of that foundational layer has tremendous power in the computing industry.

VMware has competition from Citrix, Red Hat, Microsoft, and others, but for now its head start, corporate alliances, and solid technology give it a lead in the market. Most of VMware’s business comes from virtualizing servers, which lets companies replace a host of largely idle machines with one that’s running full tilt, but the company is working to expand into many new markets.

Employee-owned IT
Before it met its present success in the server market, VMware got its start on PCs. Virtualization proved useful, for example, for developers who wanted to switch rapidly among different versions of an operating system to test their software or different versions of a browser to test their Web pages. VMware also can help people run Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X on the same machine–but again, that’s not a mainstream need.

But as VMware sees it–and I think there’s some merit to this belief–virtualization could become more widely used as a way to smooth the differences between people’s own computer preferences and their employers’ needs.

In the “employee-owned IT” vision, virtualization could let people put a corporate-managed virtual machine on an personal computer. The corporate partition would run only company-approved applications and could connect to the company network; the personal half could run the chaos of other programs that cause corporate IT folks to grind their teeth.

VMware has a technology–formerly called Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and now sporting the more palatable name of VMware View–that also could fit into this idea. With it, the brains of a PC actually run on a central server, with a person’s local machine serving as a mechanism to show the display and capture mouse clicks and keystrokes. So an employee’s corporate PC could actually be housed at the corporate and piped over the Net to wherever the employee happens to be.

VMware’s View demonstration featured graphics acceleration using Microsoft’s DirectX 3D graphics and full-motion video–albeit a with some jerkiness. Hardware support in newer Intel and AMD processors also speeds virtualization performance.

VMware View is latest twist on a technology called thin client computing. That approach has found a solid niche in some large businesses but that never has caught on widely. In my opinion, though, the greater challenge comes from an entirely different way of attaining the same centralized goals: cloud computing.

Cloud computing, in which applications run over the Web in Web browsers rather than natively on PCs, provides another way to provide access to corporate resources. It can’t do everything, but it’s gradually maturing as a way to run software. And it has the advantage of requiring only a modern browser rather than VMware’s software.