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Virtualization and the cloud: Tech, talk to converge

At IT conferences this summer, sessions focused on virtualization technologies are garnering more interest than those on cloud computing. What does this mean?

James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--The claim has been made in the last couple of weeks that cloud computing has reached the top of analyst firms' famous hype cycle and is a top-of-mind issue for most IT organizations.

That's a bit misleading, as the interest in cloud computing is often taken out of context, and when you bring virtualization into the picture, that interest seems to remain exploratory rather than strategic.

Amazing innovation is happening in both public- and private-cloud offerings, and the overwhelmingly positive response to cloud computing--in particular to Amazon's top-notch Elastic Compute Cloud, Simple Storage Service, and related offerings, as well as Google Apps and the first generation of software-as-a-service superstars, such as Salesforce.com.

But the critical truth--that interest in virtualization technologies currently outweighs interest in the cloud-computing model--has been evident at trade shows I've attended over the the last several months targeting subjects ranging from networking to next-generation data centers to cloud computing itself, and it has hit home here at VMworld this week. The bottom line is that virtualization is where the money is this summer; cloud computing isn't.

Technology trends follow the patterns described by the science of complex adaptive systems. There is constant change and mutation, and there is a feedback loop that encourages stronger innovations to survive and grow while killing weaker ones, yet somehow, the system maintains a working balance that doesn't get too chaotic to manage or too ordered to allow innovation.

As with any complex adaptive system, traits that eventually come to dominate the system tend to start small: a single mutation, or the introduction of a small number of invasive foreign entities, for example. In the case of the "invasive" cloud computing model, the "DNA" is strong.

Amazon Web Services proves that you can get your infrastructure over the Internet. Salesforce.com proves you can run your business relationships through a browser. Both public and private clouds introduce flexibility and efficiency into IT services.

Cloud-computing bellwethers
Cloud computing is definitely in your future, in one form or another. It probably already plays a strong role in your day-to-day computing experience. That said, when you measure audiences at technology trade shows such as Cisco Live and Interop, you see where the real interest of the everyday IT professional is. At VMworld, the audiences at virtualization-related sessions have been consistently larger than those at cloud-centric sessions.

Recent cloud-only conferences have remained quite small--typically in the tens or hundreds of participants--in comparison to their brethren, and cloud-focused sessions at larger shows have been attended by fewer people their virtualization peers. Several of my cloud-focused colleagues have even noted that some shows end up with the same vendors pitching to each other over and over again.

Without a doubt, this is simply an indication of the current stage in which we find ourselves in the long evolution from internal data centers to cloud-centric operations. The ratio of interest will change (or, more appropriately, converge). But if you want to get into the head of most IT tech geeks today, you need to address the subject of virtualization first, then acknowledge cloud computing as a future target.

The best evidence I can personally attest to are the breakout sessions and panels in which I've participated. I have been giving two basic talks this summer, one focused on cloud computing's future ("Achieving the Intercloud"), and one about the journey from virtualization to cloud computing. Without a doubt, sessions with the term "virtualization" in the title have seen the best attendance, whether measured by room capacity or interaction after the talk.

Transitions ahead
What does that mean to the average cloud enthusiast? Well, for one thing, it remains important to see cloud computing as a transition--an operations model that requires addressing technology and cultural issues before widespread adoption. The good news here? Current trends in virtualization, automation, and early cloud offerings are forcing most of those issues to be faced head-on.

It also highlights how much work is ahead of us in helping those responsible for application operations see the value in cloud environments. This education will be greatly accelerated this year, thanks to the amazing work that customers large and small are doing, especially in public clouds. However, it will also require technologies that address the concerns that many have about moving virtualized workloads into someone else's infrastructure.

I'm betting that at this time next year (or the following year, at the latest), most of the convergence of virtualization and cloud interest will have happened, with the exception of the continued interest that service providers and enterprise data center operators will have in the physical infrastructure and management systems needed to provide cloud services.

It will be harder and harder to tell the difference between a talk discussing how to manage an application running in a virtual machine and one discussing how to manage a cloud workload. Many management vendors will demonstrate tools that manage virtualization (such as VMware vSphere) and public cloud services (especially Amazon's EC2 and S3) at the same time, with the same interfaces. Long lines will be form for topics that will have little to do with who owns the infrastructure or how it is paid.

At that point, the decoupling of physical infrastructure management and virtual workload management will nearly be complete--and the cloud-computing DNA will really begin to take over.