Oops. They Virtualized It Again.

There once was a day when Interop was wall-to-wall hardware. But times-are-a-changing as that hardware gives way to software and that software can be delivered as a pre-configured virtual machine-based appliance.
When I finally got around to hitting the publish button on my most recent Interop NYC preview story -- the one about network fax vendor Sagemcom that had virtualized what used to be hardware into software -- I couldn't help but wonder what other former hardware solutions were getting the cost stripped out of them by going totally virtual.

Interop NYC (register here) starts next week on Oct 18 and InformationWeek plans to be there in force covering the event in stories, still images, and video.

Of course, in Sagemcom's case, going completely virtual might not have been possible had it not been for the development of a Fax over IP standard. In the old days, networked-based fax servers still had to route fax transmissions coming from client PCs into the telephony domain; either the public switched telephone network (PSTN) or a T1 line. Like VoIP, FoIP makes it possible to eliminate the telephony domain altogether. Come to think of it, I wish my Lexmark multifunction device at home was on FoIP.

The point is that once IP became a viable transmission medium for faxes, network fax products could be reduced to software only solutions and once a solution goes software-only, the next obvious step is to virtualize it, and the next obvious step is to appliancize it. In other words, Sagemcom could just as easily sell its network fax solution (XMediusFax) as a prebundled, preconfigured software appliance that includes the application software and the operating system it runs on (Windows Server).

Sagecom could sell software appliances that are ready to run on virtual machines (VMs) from VMware, Microsoft, Citrix, and Red Hat. When customers take delivery (preferably through download), they just pick a target system that's already running their VM platform of choice, copy the files and fire up the appliance.

The point is that just the same way that the packet switching capabilities of TCP/IP were able to reduce building-sized telephone switches into pizza-box sized routers, virtualization is taking the elimination of hardware to a whole 'nother level leaving not the question of what will get virtualized and appliancized next, but rather, what won't?

For example, if asked what my expectations would be before visiting one of the many WAN optimization solution providers' booths at Interop, my answer would be simple: rack mounted gear with lots of cables poking out the back, blinking lights on the front, and undoubtedly, some units with lucite cases so that attendees could peer at the ASICs that did all the dirty work of compressing and optimizing traffic across private WANs or the Internet.

But if Certeon had a booth (it doesn't, but its co-founder Shawn Cooney is speaking at Interop), chances are you'd see nothing of the sort. More than likely, Shawn would reach into a fish bowl at his booth's reception desk (the fish bowls that usually contain the free schwag) and hand you a USB thumb drive. That's because what Certeon once sold only as hardware (a WAN optimizer called aCelera) is now available only as a virtualized software appliance.

In this business, unbundling your intellectual property from the silicon is practically suicide. After all, today's customers are the ones who are going to come back and buy the faster hardware next year, and the year after that, an so on. But as a virtualized appliance, all your customers have to do is move the virtual machine to a faster host -- one that in true consolidating-fashion, will make a bunch of other VMs run faster too. Competition apparently has this nasty way of forcing companies like Certeon to continue to innovate. Serve the customer's best interests (which these days is their budget), or become irrelevant. Survival of the fittest.

Evolution is working in your favor and that's what we at InformationWeek will be looking for as we hit the show floor at the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan's West Side next week. Maybe we'll see you there.

David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of He can be reached at [email protected] and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below).

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