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.
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.
At VMworld, Chief Technology Officer Stephen Herrod and Srinivas Krishnamurti, director of emerging markets, also demonstrated virtualization on a mobile phone. Specifically, they showed a mobile phone using Windows CE 6.0 run Google's Android operating system, too.
"Why not virtualize the phone itself?" Herrod asked. "It's really becoming more of a mobile personal computer."
Why bother? VMware has two arguments.
First is a mobile-phone version of the employee-owned IT vision, where a mobile phone could run corporate programs and access corporate resources in one mode and be used for personal tasks in the other. VMware touts two basic approaches--one in which the second operating system runs at the same time and one in which the phone could switch between the two modes.
The second is programming. Coders face a minefield of complexity when it comes to writing software that can work on many phones. Visa, which demonstrated a mobile application for checking credit card transactions running with VMware's mobile virtualization technology, expressed support for VMware's help in this domain.
The variety of "handset manufacturers, infrastructure, and telco restrictions...makes the mobile space--while exciting--very daunting," said Peter Ciurea, Visa's global head of product development. "Anything that opens the possibility of easy portability we're very excited about."
But here, too, VMware's ideas face complications. Offering a simplified foundation to programmers doesn't mean complexity vanishes--it just means VMware has to shoulder the burden through its software. And virtualization takes computing horsepower.
Of course, hardware steadily improves. Krishnamurti's demonstration used a phone with 256MB of memory, but he said in an interview VMware's technology works with 128MB, too.
VMware also showed Wyse Pocket Cloud software running on an iPhone in conjunction with VMware View to give a view of a Windows PC desktop--though the demonstration showed nothing more than panning around the desktop view.
So VMware won't have a simple time conquering clients, though it has a credible shot at it. Fortunately for the company, it's also got many other irons in the fire.
Many of these are closer to VMware's core server virtualization business. The company is gradually expanding from its initial phase of adoption, in which virtualization was used to increase server efficiency, to a more elaborate idea in which the technology leads to a more flexible data center.
For example, virtual machines can be moved off busy servers to idle ones during peak ours of activity, then they can be moved back and the idle ones can be shut down when demand slackens. Increasingly, that sort of optimization is an automated process governed by policies set up in advance.
VMware also is trying to stake a claim on another facet of cloud computing, in which companies can shift workload from their own data center's virtualization foundation to one housed at a remote data center operated by a third party. At VMworld, the company announced that AT&T, Savvis, Terremark, and Verizon Business all are offering that cloud service. VMware also said it's trying to standardize its cloud-foundation interfaces through a standards group called the Distributed Management Task Force.
All of this means VMware is competing more than ever with Microsoft. That's not just because Microsoft offers virtualization software, but because Microsoft is accustomed to being one of the primary software foundations of the computing industry.
VMware is usurping Microsoft's position with many of its products. It has relationships with those who make computer hardware for computers, storage, and networking, and it's building ever-stronger relationships with corporate IT administration staff. Windows and management tools for it hardly are being relegated to the sidelines, but VMware's approach can make them more peripheral.
The company has plenty of work to make its full vision a reality. But it's working from a position of some strength.