The Economist : The Rise Of The Virtual Computer
Sunday, November 21, 2010
…..Virtualisation dates back to the age of mainframe computers. To make better use of them they were sometimes split into smaller “virtual machines”, each of which could run its own operating system and application. But the approach took off only in recent years, when VMWare, a software firm, applied it to servers, the powerful computers that populate today’s corporate data centres. VMWare and its main rivals, Citrix and Microsoft, have since developed all kinds of software tools to manage virtual machines—moving them between data centres, for example. The success of server virtualisation has inspired IT firms and their customers to do the same thing with other types of hardware, such as devices to store data. Software now pools their capacity and allocates “virtual disks” as needed. Going further, Dropbox, an online storage service, saves identical files only once. Even large files can take only seconds to upload if they already exist somewhere on one of these firms’ disks.
Many company computers can already work with applications that run on a central server. But start-ups are pushing the concept further. Desktone offers virtual desktops as an online service. NComputing, a maker of computer terminals, virtualises PCs so they can be shared by up to 30 users. It has already sold more than 2.5m devices, mostly to developing countries and schools. And technology from MokaFive can send an entire virtual machine—complete with operating systems, applications and data—over the network and install it on any PC. Eventually people may no longer need to carry laptops at all. Virtual computers, including data and applications, will follow them everywhere. In the long run, smartphones and other mobile devices may also become shells to be filled as needed. Open Kernel Labs, a start-up in which Citrix has a stake, already lets smartphones run applications, multimedia and radio functions on a single processor, cutting manufacturing costs. Software from Citrix turns the iPad, Apple’s tablet computer, into a terminal for applications that run in a corporate data centre.
How quickly will virtualisation advance? Gartner, a market-research firm, predicts that the overall market for virtualisation software will grow from $2.7 billion this year to $6.3 billion in 2014. There is certainly no lack of demand. Virtualisation lowers costs by enabling firms to make better use of their servers and buy fewer new ones. The technology also allows PCs to be maintained remotely, which is much cheaper. But improved reliability and security are even more of an attraction. Users of MokaFive, for instance, can relaunch their virtual machine should a computer virus infect it. And it can be shut down if a laptop is lost or stolen. Yet the technology also has to overcome a few hurdles. The virtualisation of servers is well understood, but for PCs and mobile devices the technique has yet to mature. In the longer run institutional barriers will prove more of a problem, argues Simon Crosby, Citrix’s chief technology officer. Virtualising IT systems, he says, is only the first step to automating their management. This is seen as a threat to existing workers and makes many IT departments hesitant to embrace the technology.
Still, analysts believe virtualisation will win out. Its impact will be felt through the industry. The technology not only makes IT systems more flexible, but allows firms to switch vendors more easily—which will weigh on the vendors’ profits. Big software firms such as Microsoft and Oracle may be hit hardest. But many hardware-makers may suffer as well, since their wares will become even more of a commodity than they are today…..Moreover, virtualisation makes it much easier to add new servers or storage devices. Alternatively, firms can simply rent extra capacity from operators of what are called “computing clouds”, such as Amazon Web Services. That outfit has built a network of data centres in which virtual machines and disks can be launched in seconds. As a result, IT systems will increasingly no longer be a capital expense, but an operational cost, like electricity. Yet the most noticeable change for computer users will be that more employees will be allowed to bring their own PC or smartphone to work, says Brian Madden of TechTarget, a consultancy. Companies can install a secure virtual heart on private machines, doing away with the need for a separate corporate device. A “bring your own computer” or “BYOC” movement has already emerged in America. Companies such as Citrix and Kraft Foods pay their employees a stipend, which they can use to buy any PC they want—even an Apple Mac. Such innovations may help to ease growing tensions between workers and IT departments. New privacy regulations and rampant cybercrime are pushing firms to tighten control of company PCs and smartphones. At the same time more and more “digital natives” enter the workforce. They have grown up with the freewheeling internet and do not suffer boring black corporate laptops gladly. Giving workers more freedom while helping firms keep control may prove to be the biggest benefit of virtualisation.