Face-off: Virtualization Takes Center Stage

Our columnists agree that virtual machines could make your life easier this year. But sparks fly when they talk about how.

It would be safe to say that Computerworld columnists Frank Hayes and Mark Hall don't always see eye to eye on IT issues. Today's topic of contention? Virtualization. Hayes says 2008 is the year to wrap our brains around the whole virtualization idea. Hall begs to differ. Virtual Stride

By Frank Hayes

OK, Mark, I'll say it: 2008 is the Year of Virtualization.

True, Computerworld's readers say that virtualization is one of the most overhyped, underdelivering technologies in IT today. And no wonder - it's almost impossible to figure out what it is. Are we talking about virtualizing servers? Storage? Networks? Desktops? Databases? Applications? Operating systems?

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Every one of those pieces of IT can be virtualized. They all should be. But they're all virtualized in different ways. As a result, "virtualization" has the kind of meaningless- buzzword appeal that used to belong to "object-oriented" and "downsizing" (which can still mean either moving applications off mainframes and onto smaller servers, or consolidating applications from many servers onto a few mainframes).

And it doesn't help that some IT vendors love slapping a hot buzzword on whatever technology they're selling. With a term as fuzzy as virtualization, it's no wonder it seems to be everywhere - and mean nothing.

Frank Hayes and Mark Hall

Frank Hayes and Mark Hall But the reason virtualization is so fuzzy is that it's not a technology. It's really just the idea that we don't want anything - users or hardware or software - connecting directly with anything else.

We only want them dealing with an abstraction - the "virtual" version of a server or memory architecture or database. That way, we can change what's on the other side of the virtualization curtain, adding computing resources or reconfiguring server farms or redirecting storage, without having to rebuild from scratch.

We're already hip-deep in virtualization. The concept has been around for decades, and IT products that use it are nothing new. Even in the most conservative of IT shops, we deploy VPNs, operating systems with virtual memory, and relational databases with virtual rows and columns.

Then why do we call it overhyped new tech? Because it was vendors that got on the virtual bandwagon years ago, not us. They're the ones that have been moving things around behind that virtual curtain. And not all vendors - just the ones it made business sense for, like CPU and data­base vendors.

Now it's our turn to go virtual. Not because it's easy or convenient - when was anything in IT ever easy or convenient? - but because it's the only way we can move fast enough to do what users need.

When they need more server power for applications, we have to be able to deliver it immediately. Otherwise, they lose business.

When they need more storage, they want us to re-architect our disk farms. By the time we're done, the opportunity is gone.

When they need more flexibility or security or capability, being able to move fast is a real advantage.

That's what virtualization can deliver.

If we can figure it out.

And we'll only figure it out one piece at a time.

That's why 2008 needs to be the Year of Virtualization. We have to start somewhere, and this is the year to choose where - and wrap our brains around the whole virtualization idea.

Maybe that means virtualizing servers, identifying how to set them up so that instead of just putting one application per server, we can parcel out processor power by the pound.

Or maybe it will mean virtualizing storage - figuring out how we can ramp up disk space as quickly as we can link new hardware.

More likely it'll be something as simple as redirecting "My Documents" on each Windows PC to store files on a server instead of the local disk drive. That makes backups easier, improves security and gets users back up and running faster when their machines crash. It's also the kind of sweet spot that makes virtualization pay off right away as we simultaneously master the concept.

That may not sound like much progress. But it's a first step - and 2008 is the year to take it.

Next: Mark Hall disagrees  

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