The Second Look May Be the One That Matters

Coffee: Virtual machines, Java and Internet security are all still evolving technologies.

People whove never looked at a technology are usually open to the possibility that it might have something to offer. The biggest challenge is getting back on the radar of those who looked at Release 1.0, found it seriously wanting and have moved on to other possibilities.

My recent letter on virtual machines, for example, generated many comments, especially from those who chided me for painting too rosy a picture: These readers felt, primarily, that performance issues are more of a problem than I suggested, almost always based on their experience with products at least one or two releases in the past.

I consciously avoided stopwatch-style benchmarks, I freely admit, for two reasons. First, I can make a benchmark say anything I want by picking the right combination of task and system configuration. Second, although I find that additional performance is easier to buy than almost any other IT resource, I also find that wall-clock time is better reduced by working smarter than by churning bits faster.

For example, "I use VMware 3.1 to run a Win2K session on my Thinkpad 560e which runs Suse Linux 8.1," wrote one IT pro: "By doing this I can run our corporate VPN software, which is licensed for only Windows clients, and run the proper version of Outlook to keep our Exchange environment happy. I can also run the various network management tools: some run under Linux, and some run under Windows."

A consultant wrote, "I use VMware to run various Windows OSs on my SuSE 7.2 Linux system. I do most of my accounting and some of my graphics work in an emulated Windows XP environment. When clients need support I can switch to that environment or a similar one to facilitate our discussions."

Several readers described the virtual networks that they can set up on a single physical machine, often just a high-end laptop, to do network-based development and testing even while on an airport layover: "I build software that runs on Linux servers but is served to Windows clients. To develop and test in this environment, I run Linux native on my development machine and Windows under VMware on it concurrently. Thus I have both Linux and Windows sessions available at the click of a button. It works very well for the development/testing that I need to do," was one typical comment.

I didnt cherry-pick the reader letters in search of VMware users, or Linux users running Windows as a guest: What you see above is pretty representative of what I got. And all of these VMware users will want to look into the VMware Workstation 4 release that the company announces today for release next month. Developers will find that both user- and kernel-level debuggers can now be used in virtual sessions; multi-session users will benefit from improved sound and streaming-video performance; all types of user will find it more convenient to move data between sessions with drag-and-drop simplicity, or to create shared folders that are seen by both host and guests.

The other virtual machine out there, of course, is the Java Virtual Machine, the other technology that too many people think theyve examined and found reason to dismiss. Its worth another look. Whatever you think you know about Javas limitations, Version 1.4 may well have directly addressed your concerns.

Highlights of Java 1.4 include XML parsing and transformation APIs, including "pluggable" parsers; security enhancements, including support for certificate chains and for Kerberos-based communication between applications; and input/output enhancements of interest to developers of both single-function systems (for example, exclusive-mode graphics for high-performance full-screen applications) and desktop-style applications (theres new support for drag-and-drop data exchange).

Suns own Java site only notes the availability of Java 1.4 for Windows, Linux and Solaris, but Apples Mac OS X--perhaps the most-used single-user Unix on the planet, at this point, and making rapid gains on the server as well--also has Java 1.4.1 available for download. Having failed to come up with its own compelling mainstream-desktop solutions, I sometimes wonder if Sun has a particular blind spot when it comes to Apple: For my own part, I know that when I mention OS X, I find people associating me with the "cult of the Mac," as some call it, but thats increasingly inaccurate. The Unix foundations of OS X are drawing the attention of network administrators, computer science educators and other influential users.

OS X also gets several mentions in the third edition of "Practical Unix & Internet Security," just released by OReilly & Associates Inc.; I especially like this books treatment of how to handle security incidents, which are going to occur no matter how careful you are.

Its a changing environment, and looking around--even looking again at things youve already examined--is the only way to avoid unpleasant surprise.

Tell me what youve looked at lately.