As I write this, VMworld is drawing to a close, having been an exceptional success. The fourth annual expo for VMware and its partners in virtualization saw healthy gains both in attendance and the number of exhibitors—up 57 percent and 79 percent, respectively, since last year.
As I reflect on the recent explosion in popularity of virtualization—a decades-old technology—my thoughts turn to a humorous quote I heard from Sun Microsystems Storage CTO Jeff Bonwick during a video presentation on Suns Zettabyte File System: "Why would you want to come to some Linux startup and work on problems that Sun solved in 1985, when you could come to Sun and work on problems that IBM solved in 1970?"
If IBM and Sun solved the basic problems that VMware and other x86-based virtualization providers are hard at work on today, why is there so much excitement and activity surrounding VMware and pals?
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The answer is scalability, and not just the sort of upward scalability that giant Sun or IBM servers can boast. Rather, what VMware and its ilk bring to the table that virtualizations pioneers did not is a computing model that scales down and up.
The secret of VMwares success isnt that a single machine can be made to host tens of discrete guest servers, but that the sort of servers that single machine can host could run individually atop low-cost hardware and under broadly accessible software platforms. In other words, x86 virtualization means never having to say goodbye to your Windows 2000 print server.
A facility for reaching down to the entry level of computing was the route through which Microsoft and Windows rose to power in the first place. By focusing on the machines that could sit on every business desktop and in every home, Microsoft made available an operating system and application platform to every person (more or less) who wanted one, and the company rode those assembled bits of mind share to market prominence.
Downward scalability is also the reason that Linus Torvalds wrote Linux as a Unix operating system that would run on his x86 hardware at home, and its the pliability with which Linux and, more broadly, open-source software in general makes itself available. Is it maximally efficient for the burgeoning virtualization industry to burn cycles addressing issues that others arguably solved decades ago? Maybe not, but considering the technological decentralization and diversity that the work of VMware and others make possible, its safe to say that x86 virtualization is solving its fair share of new problems as well.
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