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Is The Desktop Ready For Virtualization?

A virtual world of virtualization is taking hold of the IT industry.

More than 40 years after IBM pioneered virtualization technology by partitioning mainframes, every major sector of the industry is jumping into the fray.

And as with many technologies that arrive as new versions of decades-old innovations, virtualization has hit an inflection point.

At a time of rising cooling costs in data centers, and with IT shops grappling with "server sprawl," many of them underutilized servers, virtualization helps them consolidate and cut costs.

All the major software, systems, and hardware vendors have virtualization in their wares: IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, Red Hat, Novell, VMWare, SAP and Citrix, to name just a few.

Now, Intel and AMD are spoiling for their next battle for market share: virtualization in chipsets for remote desktop management and security upgrades.

A bit too far ahead of the curve? Intel, for one, doesn't think so.

With the release of its latest chipsets in its Core2 Duo processors, Intel is pushing its built-in vPro technology as a mix of hardware and software on the chipsets that help IT staffs consolidate how they manage the far-flung desktops and laptops on their networks.

Charles King, a research analyst for Pund-IT Research, thinks Intel's vPro is interesting, but notes that it's a lonely world for the technology until commercial application vendors step up like security software provider Symantec.

Symantec is one of the first vendors with plans for a new desktop security system that would run on a virtual partition with vPro, he said.

"So the security would not rely on the health of a system in order to be healthy, but would run on its own sort of parallel system and keep things happy and bright. That's a really interesting idea," he told internetnews.com.

"But it would be interesting if other developers could come up with applications that could also run in a virtual partition."

Sweet spots in financial world?

Because Wall Street is legendary for its endless thirst for more computing power, Intel is looking at that sector for traction with its virtualization strategy.

Rick Jacobson, a product director with Intel, pointed to the fixed income derivates markets where desktop virtualization is gaining traction.

Because trading firms especially require more performance, datacenter efficiency, workload management and scalability to maximize these resources, a grid approach is a cheap way to answer that computing demand. And that sets up virtualization on the desktops.

"The goal of grid computing is to use virtualization to create a common pool of shared IT resources, allowing any application to utilize any resource and access any data at any time," he wrote in a recent white paper.

"Virtualization allows the integration of grid computing from many levels of virtualization across the IT spectrum -- from individual processors to the entire IT ecosystem, which includes third-party firms that supply IT application services on demand."

Gene Peters, director of information services for the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, said the Exchange is testing out virtualization in the back office systems right now. Depending on how virtualization performs there, he'll look to deploying more virtualization in data centers.

Why? It's all about server management. "It makes it easier to contain them," he added. "We put them up real quick, we just copy images over and –- poof -- we've got a new o/s and you just load it with whatever you need."

Analysts have noted that Intel's vPro is helping Intel gain an edge on rival AMD in desktop chips, especially for its ability to help IT managers remotely manage desktops, from re-booting to virtually visiting each machine.

AMD, with no commercial products out yet that deploy virtualization down to desktop management, is well aware of the leap.

Kevin Knox, vice president of AMD's commercial business, told internetnews.com that AMD is virtualization in the industry with partnerships.

"AMDs approach is about a manageable foundation. That's what we're hearing from our customers: They need a foundation and building blocks."

He said AMD's "Rev" technology does provide key features that allow virtualization to run more effectively at the chip level.

"So we're trying to offload some of the processing requirements out of the software and bring it to the chip level to allow virtualization to run more effectively."

It also helps explain why many players are partnering up with virtualization leaders such as VMWare and up-and-comers such as Xen, an open source virtualization services provider.

Software leads the virtual way

Most industry experts point to VMWare's products as one of the driving forces behind the uptake in virtualization for major server systems.

The company's mantra: software for enterprises is a complex mess. And it's taking up a bigger portion of an IT staff's time to care, tweak and update constantly. So the idea is to help ISVs preinstall the software, virtually and distribute those instances.

"What if we could enable ISVs to preinstall on a virtual machine and just distribute that," Srinivas Krishnamurti, director of product management at VMWare, told internetnews.com in August.

That's what it did with its VMTN Virtual Appliances Directory. It launched with six virtual appliances in 2006. A year later, it offers over 300.

But VMWare has plenty of company these days. No matter where you look in the IT ecosystem, virtualization is the buzzword.

Take Cisco's CEO, John Chambers. At a recent conference, he pointed to Cisco's move from a router-maker for networks to a provider of virtualization infrastructure.

For Cisco, that flows from the data center with software and systems that Cisco calls application-oriented networking (AON). From there, virtual management capabilities are pushed down to desktops.

And for King's money, Intel's vPro technology in its Dual Core 2 lines shows that virtualization on desktops is closer than the industry might think.

"I don't think it's the thing that every company's going to jump on right away," he added. But "not too long ago, people were saying, it's not a big deal, it'll never be important to me.

"With vPro, I think it a statement by Intel that virtualization is an increasingly critical issue and that they have basically put a plug in their chip to support certain kinds of virtualized processes," King said.

"But what started as edgy, mainframe technology, is now rolling all the way to the desktop. That's pretty cool, and more testimony to the growing importance of virtualization."