While server consolidation made enormous gains in 2008, these advances are only the leading edge of changes that will come in the coming year through the virtualization of the enterprise.
Gartner says virtualization will be the No. 1 technology initiative in 2009, a year when more cost savings will be sought with tangible urgency because of the down economy.
IT administrators are likely to get a push from CFOs to realize more savings as fast as they can by moving to desktop virtualization. Virtualizing the desktop will lift off in 2009, but it's still not clear by what method it will be implemented.
Also, 2009 will be the year that management tools bring virtual machine sprawl and unrestrained VM life cycles under control -- IT will locate that invisible, running VM and shut it down. A special class of tools will grow up to handle the heterogeneous hypervisor environment, still a novelty at most enterprises, but sure to appear more frequently as Windows Server 2008 seeds data centers everywhere with free Hyper-V.
And cloud computing will bloom both inside and outside the enterprise in 2009. VMware's nomenclature for a "data center operating system" is just another way of saying the virtualization software layer can create and manage an internal cloud.
Desktop Virtualization On The Leading Edge
But desktop virtualization remains the most promising green field, ripe for huge cost savings.
It sounds simple. Just replace expensive hardware and software applications with a VM and forget about the need to repeatedly invest in upgrades. But virtual desktops are no easy problem to solve. Duplicating an exact copy of everyone's desktop on a data center server is expensive in itself, generating huge storage requirements.
VMware, Citrix, and other vendors are saying not to do that. Keep one master copy of the operating system used by the enterprise and create a golden image of it, from which every VM will be minted. Instead of 10,000 end-user operating systems on a central storage facility, you'll store just one.
Likewise for applications. Then you can create profiles of employee groups, with specifications of their various needs, and clone variations of the golden image to equip each group.
To make such an approach work, you will need a highly scalable connection broker, authentication, and provisioning servers that will bite into alleged savings. It may be that thousands of end users want to be provisioned between 8:55 a.m. and 9:05 a.m. Better not be slower than the foot-dragging Windows startup time or risk a user revolt. And once so equipped, how do users disconnect from the network and take their virtual desktop on the road?
In short, desktop virtualization is fraught with political as well as technical hazards that can make savings disappear.
There is not yet an easy solution, although VMware, Microsoft, and Citrix Systems all offer combinations of tools and virtual machines that address it in various ways.
There is, however, one simplistic way to solve the problem: virtualize end-user applications independent of a complete individual desktop and make those applications available upon demand -- software as a service -- or by being streamed to the end user, where they run on the device. Chances are a mobile user will initially want one application to work with; the desktop can be assembled dynamically from the pieces as needed.
Major Firms Investing In Virtualized Applications
Is anyone doing this today? Not yet in many enterprises, but surprisingly, VMware, Citrix, Microsoft, and Symantec all have invested heavily in the virtualized application approach. Microsoft bought Softricity, which lead the way in virtualizing Microsoft applications; it became Softgrid inside of Microsoft and is now named App-V.
VMware bought ThinStall in January 2008 and redubbed its ThinStall app virtualization software ThinApp.
Citrix Systems, the early specialist in virtualized applications with Presentation Server, now renamed XenApp, acquired Ardence, an app streaming startup, in January 2007. Streaming an application means sending its logic bits down the wire to the end-user machine, where it's loaded and run. Most desktop virtualization schemes have the application running on a central server.
Symantec, the security software vendor, purchased Alteris in March 2007, AppStream in April 2008, and nSuite Technologies in August 2008. All are suppliers of application virtualization software. Together, these purchases represent about $2 billion spent on app virtualization products over the last two years, a clue to how seriously the major vendors are taking the approach.
Advantages Of Desktop Virtualization
In one sense, application virtualization breaks up the idea of an end-user desktop as a piece of hardware running a defined set of applications. It reconstitutes it as software that dynamically reflects the user's needs at the moment.
App virtualization also has the inherent advantage of not requiring end users to be on the same device each time they log in; it's mobile and can follow users around -- on an application-by-application basis -- as long as they have access to the Internet.
Application virtualization will tend to keep data stored on a central server. Lost that laptop? With a virtualized app, crucial information doesn't necessarily disappear with it. Those who want to get started on desktop virtualization can shoot for immediate gains, virtualizing lesser-used applications like Microsoft Visio or Project before tackling the ubiquitous Office or Outlook e-mail.
Indeed, an unlikely candidate, Symantec, with its concentrated acquisition of app virtualization companies, may be jumping out to a head start over better established vendors in this arena. It's produced Symantec Virtualization Solution and Symantec Workplace Streaming, an application virtualization product set that allows the end users' applications to follow them around and run on different devices. Workplace Streaming was voted best app virtualization product at the Virtualization Conference and Expo 2008 West in San Jose, Calif., last December.
Symantec's Ken Berryman, VP of endpoint virtualization, said, "We deeply understand the security and privacy challenges of the endpoint" and will offer Endpoint Protection as a companion product to Workplace Streaming.
But he thinks the prospect of data that's "more transparent to the end users, less visible to IT managers" is a challenge that Symantec is positioned to address. "You have to leave a window ajar for a security product to peer in and see if the application is behaving in an abnormal way," such as collecting Social Security numbers unbidden by the user.
Even with its strengths, Symantec is far behind VMware, Citrix, and Microsoft when it comes to virtualizing the general-purpose desktop. "We recognize that we'll need a complete set of management tools," Berryman agreed. It's designing desktop virtualization as a system that connects all end points, regardless of device, "to a common security system and common management application," he said.
So look for users to experiment with desktop application virtualization in 2009. Symantec is bringing fresh insight to the problem, and don't forget the sleeper, Sun Microsystems, which has expertise in thin clients and how to speed up application service delivery to end users. Unlike server virtualization, which VMware, Citrix, and Microsoft are likely to dominate, desktop virtualization is a wide-open horse race with abundant choices.
Cutting Loose The Virtual Desktop
Both VMware and Citrix are adding a new wrinkle to their approaches. In addition to keeping hypervisors spinning out virtualized desktops from central servers, they're adding a desktop version of their hypervisor to allow users to continue computing once they've disconnected from the network.
Citrix calls its approach Project Independence, and VMware is calling its method vClient Initiative. They have much in common, and in the second half of 2009 both will try to cut the virtual desktop loose from its network tether, while continuing to let it serve the mobile end user. Once reconnected, VMware asserts administrative control through its View management software, requiring the virtual desktop to accept any security updates, synchronize its data with central databases, and upgrade applications as needed. Likewise, Citrix will require its desktop hypervisor to report in and sync up with a XenServer host.
The dual hypervisor approach may finally give IT administrators a way to administer desktop changes and impose policies in a much more automated fashion, while letting end users roam.
Virtualization management tools will be on the agenda of the big vendors, and perhaps more importantly, a number of skilled small vendors also. Managing virtual machines through their complete life cycle remains an elusive goal at this early stage, and a number of parties mean to address that.
In September, the Distributed Management Task Force launched its Virtualization Management, or VMan, initiative to "deliver much needed open industry standards to the management of virtualized environments," said Winston Bumpus, president of the standards body, in an interview. VMan provides a neutral way of monitoring running virtual machines and seeks to connect the dots between a VM and its underlying hardware, regardless of which brand of VM it may be, Bumpus said.
The DMTF's work makes it more likely that IT managers will be able see a variety of virtual machines through one management console. Its biggest stride to date has been to release Open Virtualization Format, which allows the hypervisor of one vendor to recognize and reformat a VM from another vendor. So far, there's no universal standard by which all running virtual machines might be formatted. Instead, each vendor offers the capability to migrate a rival's VM out of its own environment and into the governing hypervisor's.
Tools For Cross-Hypervisor Management
Consequently, complex virtual environments require careful shopping for tools from the few startups that have been willing to tackle cross-hypervisor management. They include DynamicOps, a spin-off of Credit Suisse; Embotics; Fortisphere; VMLogix; and the Vizioncore unit of Quest Software. These small vendors can often manage Citrix XenServer as well as VMware's ESX server, and a few throw in Microsoft's Hyper-V as well.
The management tool field is still filled with specialized players, which sometimes can do some surprising things. ASG Software Solutions, the former Allen Systems Group, brings old-line mainframe virtual machine experience to the x86 virtualized server as well. ASG Sysload can peer inside a VM on the mainframe running Linux and see how much CPU, memory, and other resources its application is using. Likewise, in 2008, it brought out a version of Sysload that could peer into a VMware ESX Server VM and see what resources it's using.
"Most monitoring tools look at what's deployed but they can't look inside the guest and see what's running and the assets being utilized," said Ed Hallock, senior director of infrastructure and operations. As more and more virtual machines are deployed, performance issues will come to the fore, the same as with heavily loaded physical servers.
ASG is looking at supporting Hyper-V as well but has no timeframe within which it plans to do so.
Virtualization In Cloud Computing
Another front that will rapidly advance in 2009 is the role of virtualization in cloud computing. Whether an internal or external cloud, the way clouds work is to manipulate VMs in some kind of standardized, predictable environment that easily scales up to the level sought by the user.
Customers import their workloads to the cloud as pre-packaged sets of applications and operating systems, ready to run in the cloud's preferred VM format. In the case of Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud, that's Amazon Machine Image or a version of open source Xen.
While VMware is using the catchphrase "data center operating system" for an upcoming set of virtualization management products. It could just as well call it the cloud operating system. In addition to virtual infrastructure management, VMware is providing APIs and service infrastructure on which to base a set of cloud computing services. BT, Rackspace, Savvis, Sungard, Terremark, T-Systems, and Verizon Business make use of its vCloud APIs and service management offerings as the basis for their own cloud services, said Dan Chu, VMware's VP of emerging products.
VMware this year is moving toward giving enterprises, through the virtualization layer, an ability to federate their own internal clouds with external clouds, said Chu. It will give hosts in a cloud the ability to run an enterprise's applications in a virtual machine without modification and apply a set of policies, such as a limit on application response time to customers.
Virtualization as the manager of the cloud is coming as a set of VMware vCloud products at an undisclosed date in 2009, Chu said. In effect, the more thoroughly the data center becomes virtualized, the more flexibly it can be managed. You might call it an agile software infrastructure or you might rename it the enterprise cloud.
In 2009, virtualization will have an impact far beyond server consolidation. It will start changing the relationship between IT managers and end users, allowing faster service and more automated administration. It should give both more flexible resources for getting their jobs done -- at a lower cost.