Brace yourself for desktop virtualization

Whether you like it or not, if you are at all involved with selecting the corporate desktop, you are going to have to deal with virtualization. Intel’s recent announcement of its vPRO and its attendant publicity campaign will make sure of that.

It’s not that virtualization isn’t valuable, but its status as buzzword of the moment and its use across areas as disparate as desktops, servers and storage has unfortunately made the word devoid of almost any meaning when used on its own.

Virtualization usually refers to creating an environment that appears one way to users but is something else altogether in physical reality. Storage vendors talk of virtual tape in which programs behave like they are performing input/output operations on a tape, but the data is actually being written to disk or some other physical media. For desktops and servers, the term typically refers to running multiple logical machines on a single physical desktop or server.

For all the hype the term is getting, virtualization is not new. IBM released its Virtual Machine/370 (VM/370) in August 1972 after having used it for internal operating system development for some years. Like today’s offerings, it lets you boot a real operating system that talks directly to the hardware and offers a virtualized view of the same hardware to one or more guest operating systems booted under it.

That is one of the ways that we can virtualize desktop machines today. Running a system such as VMWare essentially implements IBM’s concept on today’s desktop.

However, that is not what Intel’s vPRO is getting at. While I admit that it is not completely clear to me, it seems to be based on using Intel’s virtualization technology and, specifically, its dual-core CPUs to do in hardware what the VMWare solution implements in software.

Apparently, one of the CPUs will be used to run a system within the system that will be separate and secure from the main operating system. Early ads state that this service machine can be used for tasks such as installing software, upgrading licenses and running diagnostics — but is not limited to these functions.

It also will be an enabling environment for third-party vendors. At the announcement, a Symantec executive was on hand to pledge his company’s commitment to the endeavour.

Some financial analysts see vPRO as way to stop corporate customers from defecting from Intel-based desktops to those powered by Advanced Micro Devices. After years in the desert, AMD is doing well and making nontrivial inroads. The company stated in The Wall Street Journal that it is not worried about vPRO and it can offer most of the same features.

Start doing your virtualization homework now, as it seems almost certain that this year will see a major FUD war on the topic.

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