The State of Virtualization

David Tan

Last week, VMware held its large annual VMworld 2010 conference in San Francisco. It was an opportunity to talk about upcoming products and technologies, and show off some of the great things it's doing. It also seems like a logical time to take a quick step back and look at virtualization-where it is, where it's going, and what it means to us every day.

The widespread use of virtualization as a server platform has skyrocketed in the last 24 months, for a few obvious reasons. First, the technology has gotten mature, and with the competition among very big players (VMware, Microsoft and Citrix), it has also gotten increasingly affordable. Second, virtualization has been positioned as the enablement platform for cloud computing. Of course, you can build a cloud infrastructure for applications and services on a traditional hardware-based network, but the cost and complexity would be prohibitive. Instead, leveraging a virtual server platform means the cloud is available to businesses of all shapes and sizes. I guess the only question is whether virtualization enabled the cloud, or the cloud pushed virtualization.

Regardless, the simple fact is that they go hand-in-hand. From a server standpoint, the power, performance, and price-point of virtualization technology will continue to improve as the arms race between the Big Three continues to escalate. But that is not where the battle will be fought or won moving forward. Much like any great conflict, the battle will be won on the front lines. In this case, the front line is the desktop, and the battle for desktop virtualization is starting to become really interesting.

There are a lot of factors pushing desktop virtualization technologies. It's ironic that nowadays your average business computer user has a much more powerful computer at home than they do in the office. As such, they try to do many of the same things on their office computer they would do at home, and those machines are not really made for it, and support people don't want to have to deal with that. Slashing IT budgets has put an incredible strain on companies to efficiently support their users, and traditional computing methods just aren't working. The solution to this has been some form of thin-client computer platform where all the applications run on the server like a traditional Citrix or Remote Desktop scenario.

The problem with this is that it's too restrictive to the users and relatively expensive to implement. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has picked up where traditional server-based computing lets off and greatly improved the paradigm for desktop virtualization. By allowing users to run actual desktops-albeit virtual images living on a centralized server-users have the flexibility to work the way they need to work, while IT can still properly manage and support the network. Face it, the days where everyone has a black and white job description and a finite list of responsibilities are gone forever. Users can't be placed into simple silos and their computer systems need to be flexible enough to work for them. Implementing desktop virtualization over server-based computing makes that possible.

Unfortunately, it's not all that simple. There are still challenges. VDI relies on robust centralized infrastructure, as well as connectivity. The way people work now doesn't always allow for that.  Whether it's users who work from home or offices in remote locations, you can't always rely on the communication infrastructure to work for you. Plus, users still want to be able to use their computer for non-business-related activities, and no matter how much you try to lock them down, some will continue to find a way. So what's the answer to this?

The next wave of virtualization will be a combination of what we have now, brought down to the desktop level. Client hypervisors give you the ability to run multiple computer images on a personal computer. This is the ultimate solution for users looking to have the freedom to use their machine however they want, but also for IT departments not wanting to support anything and everything. By running multiple images locally, IT can supply a corporate computer image with all the settings and applications a user needs to do their job. Plus, since it runs locally, the reliance on communications and a large centralized server infrastructure is mitigated. At the same time, the user can run one of many personal desktops on their machine that they can use for anything from Facebook to iTunes with no risk of affecting the corporate network. It truly is a win-win.

I think widespread use of the client-side hypervisor model is still a little ways off. Hardware and software vendors need to catch up a bit first. But I think next year at this time when we talk about VMworld and the state of virtualization, we will be much further down that road.

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