Computer-in-a-computer idea gains ground

Software giant Microsoft and start-up VMware are bringing closer to reality a technology for running multiple instances of an operating system on a single computer.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Software giant Microsoft and start-up VMware are bringing closer to mainstream use a technology for running multiple instances of an operating system on a single Intel-based computer.

The technology, called virtualization, is a layer of software that isolates programs from the hardware they run on. In the near term, Microsoft hopes to use the idea to support customers with newer computers that must run older programs. But VMware is further along in a strategy to make its software a key part of the utility computing concept popular in the industry.

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Microsoft announced Monday that it has finished development of a new version of Virtual PC for Windows. The software, dubbed Virtual PC 2004, will be available to Microsoft's volume license customers and on retail shelves later this year, the company said.

Also on Monday, VMware plans to release new management software that it revealed details about in July under the name Control Center. The software now is called VirtualCenter, said Michael Mullany, vice president of marketing.

VMware has also released a software development kit, which enables companies such as IBM or HP to more easily integrate the VMware software into their utility computing technology. BMC Software, Computer Associates International, Veritas Software, Hewlett-Packard and IBM are using the kit for that integration task, VMware said.

VMware's main software line now is designed for servers--networked machines for data storage and processing. Microsoft's Virtual Server product, though, isn't expected until early 2004, and for now, the software giant is focused on PCs.

Virtualization born again
Virtualization, an old concept, is experiencing a new surge of attention from companies such as IBM, HP, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems that are working on ways to link multiple servers and storage systems into pools of computing power under the utility computing method.

By allowing administrators, or even automated management software, to move computing jobs easily from one hardware system to another, virtualization makes it easier to upgrade hardware, allocate more computing horsepower to a given job, adjust to equipment failure or make other changes.

Virtualization is the foundation for the idea of partitioning a server into several independent machines. Partitioning first gained widespread use in mainframes, with Unix servers now catching up and the idea now arriving on widely used machines that are built with Intel's Xeon server processor. Microsoft and VMware are taking software-based approaches to virtualization and partitioning, but Intel itself hopes to improve the hardware support with a technology code-named Vanderpool, expected in 2008.

The software from VMware and Microsoft dovetail with the utility computing vision, Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said. "The less connection to physical reality, the more virtualized you can be. VMware and Virtual Server are part of that."

And VMware is doing well, he added. "They've got to be about the most successful small company in IT right now," Haff said.

VMware's management software lets administrators control how virtual machine software runs on numerous computers. With the addition of software called VMotion, it lets one virtual machine be wrapped up and moved to another computer.

The management software costs $5,000, plus $300 per processor on the servers it controls. The VMotion package costs an extra $700 per processor.

Microsoft acquired Virtual PC and other virtual machine technology in February from Connectix for an undisclosed price.

With its new Virtual PC product, Microsoft is lowering the suggested price from $229 to $129, while adding a few new features such as support for up to four network adapters per virtual machine and support for up to 4GB of memory, which helps more operating systems run at the same time and can boost performance. The price does not include the cost of whatever operating system is being run under Virtual PC.

For Microsoft, Virtual PC represents a way to try to convince companies that have not upgraded their PCs to Windows XP to do so. The software can help companies that have avoided upgrading because they run older software that doesn't work in Microsoft's latest operating system.

"This does provide them a way to migrate to Win XP professional," said Carla Huffman, a Microsoft product manager for Virtual PC.

Virtual PC doesn't preclude Linux
Although Microsoft is pitching Virtual PC primarily as a way to run several versions of Windows on one machine, or even the old OS/2, the software also will run various versions of Linux. Microsoft said it will refer Linux-related problems to the Linux vendor but that if the problem appears to be a bug in Virtual PC, it will work with the Linux company to resolve the issue.

Virtual PC is seen by Microsoft as a good tool for developers and information technology managers who want to test new software in a way that is safer. In fact, the company distributed a test copy of Virtual PC for Windows 2004 to developers at its recent Professional Developers Conference in hopes they might use the software to try out the preview version of Longhorn, the next version of Windows that is still in its early stages of development.

"It's a great way to try out Longhorn," Huffman said, noting that one of the key features of Virtual PC is its ability to isolate problems on the virtual machine from the host, meaning that if Longhorn crashes while running under Virtual PC, it doesn't bring down an entire PC.