In recent years, the words "virtual" and "virtually" have come to mean almost nothing -- or virtually everything. There was a car ad on TV awhile back featuring a phony customer testimonial (I guess we could call it a "virtual" testimonial) in which the guy gushes his endorsement for a certain vehicle by saying, "I virtually live in my car -- to a degree." Now, I don't expect TV ads to be the equivalent of Thomas Aquinas or Shakespeare -- but what in the wide world of fluffery does that sentence mean? Or how often do you hear something like, "I'll virtually guarantee that this idea will work" or "My team's a virtual lock for the Super Bowl." Well, is it a guarantee, or isn't it? Will that team be in the championship, or won't it? What does the word "virtual" mean anymore? All I can tell you is that it's a virtual certainty that I don't know the answer.
But in the business-technology world, virtual servers and virtual machines and virtualization have become incredibly real as more businesses are finding them to be rich sources of flexibility, cost-savings, and simpler administration. Comparable to the aggressive push toward grid computing from IBM, Oracle, and others, virtualization at its core is an attempt to allow companies to make better use out of what they have -- and that's a value proposition high on the priority list of every CIO today.
Check out this quote from Andy Lees, Microsoft's VP of marketing for its server and tools business, when asked by my colleague Rick Whiting how the company can enforce the licensing plan to ensure that a customer paying for a four-processor license isn't running it on an eight-processor system: "The same way we do today. We trust customers to do it."
All of these virtualization innovations mentioned above are important because they give customers more options and more flexibility in aligning their infrastructure resources to keep up with those customers' customers, a group that is moving faster than ever before, and is more demanding than ever before. So three cheers for all the technology breakthroughs -- the ones that aren't just virtual but also real. But I think that the most valuable of all these innovations will be the ones that, like Microsoft's, are rooted not only in technology but also in the value and respect delivered to customers. Because there's nothing virtual about that.
To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans' forum on the Listening Post.