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8/9/2007
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VMware Predicts Death To Operating Systems

Mendel Rosenblum envisions a world run by virtualization appliances where software makers wouldn't need a bulky or complex OS.

In the view of Mendel Rosenblum, chief scientist and co-founder of virtualization vendor VMware, today's modern operating system is destined for the dustbin, a scenario unlikely to please Microsoft or any of the Linux vendors.

Rosenblum's keynote on Thursday wrapped up the LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco, preaching the virtues of virtualization, which he believes will eventually make today's complex, some would say bloated, operating systems obsolete. "It's just going to go away," Rosenblum said.

Not surprisingly, Rosenblum favors a world in which a virtualization layer is tied directly to the microprocessor and other related hardware of a computer. Running on top of this layer would be virtual machines, or mini-operating systems, that would be designed to run specific applications. Merging the OS and software would create a module that would be more reliable and secure, easier to manage and offer higher performance.

The reason is in the simplicity of the architecture, Rosenblum said. Operating systems, particularly Windows, have become behemoths comprising millions of lines of code expected to share resources among multiple applications. Such complexity degrades performance and makes the software less reliable and harder to manage.

"If you have something this complex, it's also really hard to innovate," Rosenblum said. "This is the position that Microsoft is in, even with its team of engineers, which is huge. It's hard to do anything."

The better architecture is to build software for what Rosenblum called a virtualization appliance. Software makers could package within a virtual machine only those components needed to run a particular application. "I can start simplifying these things," Rosenblum said. "I can take out parts of the OS I don't need for this application, and build an OS that's highly optimized for the application."

The self-contained module would inherently have higher performance and would be less complex in terms of security, since any flaws would be the problem of the ISV, he said. There would be no separate operating system to point to as the culprit.

VMware offers a variety of virtual machine management services such as dynamic balancing and resource allocation and centralized backup software. More services are coming, Rosenblum said. A new feature in beta that's available on VMware software for workstations is technology that would record the execution of a server on a virtual machine for replay later. The technology is still at the very early stages. "Our motto has always been to release it first, and let the most adventurous play with it," Rosenblum said.

While it may look like VMware is building its own OS, Rosenblum insisted that isn't the case. "We don't support applications directly," he said. Linux would be the best option for building software-specific VMs because its open-source licensing terms are more flexible than those of proprietary OS vendors. Essentially, there are no royalties to pay with Linux, and users can mold the software to fit their purposes.

Rosenblum sees a future in which virtualization companies like VMware are battling with OS builders like Microsoft in partnering with hardware vendors to create the best environment for their products. "If I was in their shoes, I would try to hang on to the hardware as much as I can," Rosenblum said during a question and answer session that followed his speech. "There's going to be a big battle over who is going to own this layer. The battle is going to be who's going to do the hypervisor that everybody uses."

The hypervisor is the system program that provides the virtual machine environment. The term came from the IBM mainframe world. IBM was the first to introduce the concept of a virtual machine. "I give IBM credit for inventing this, but they also in some sense killed it (by turning toward operating systems)," Rosenblum said.

On the hardware side, Dell Chief Technology Officer Kevin Kettler said Tuesday at LinuxWorld that the computer maker was experimenting with a hypervisor that would ship with its servers in order to provide customers with a high-performing virtualization environment out of the box.

Similarly, chipmakers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices ship microprocessors with embedded virtualization technology, which both companies have targeted as a key area for future development.

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