Virtualization is becoming commonplace in the data center arena, as companies seek to wring more out of their servers. But broad use on the desktop is a year or two away at best, experts say.
Chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have begun paving the way to client-side virtualization—technology that can partition a computer to run multiple different types of software simultaneously—by building their respective virtualization technologies into desktop and notebook processors.
Intel began building its Intel Virtualization Technology into chips in late 2005, and activated the virtualization capabilities of its Xeon server processors earlier in February.
AMD, of Sunnyvale, Calif., will offer its AMD Virtualization Technology, formerly known as Pacifica, across all of its PC and server processors at midyear.
But the real push wont come until software makers begin releasing applications that can take advantage of virtualization on a desktop or a notebook. Thats still a year or two away, by most accounts.
Virtualization in a desktop environment “is pretty much [only] a concept right now,” Raghu Raghuram, vice president of data center and desktop platform products for virtualization software vendor VMware, of Palo Alto, Calif., said during an interview at a recent virtualization conference hosted by analyst firm IDC.
“Thats a trend you might see down the road. Were interested in anything virtualization,” Raghuram said, adding that VMware has “good partnerships” with both Intel and AMD.
When virtualization does arrive on the client side, many of the first applications will apply it to PC management tools for corporations, executives from AMD and Intel agreed.
“Management is the next frontier” for desktop virtualization, said Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD in Austin, Texas. “Were starting to see some management applications come from the server” to apply virtualization techniques to clients, she said.
One desktop virtualization scenario could involve using separate partitions for company software and PC management and security tools. Others might include bringing unmanaged network devices under control, such as in offshoring environments.
“About a third of all devices on a corporate network are [currently] unmanaged,” Raghuram said.
Another use for virtualization of the desktop is to enhance mobility: A user could place a PC image onto a USB storage device and take it along to be uploaded into another PC when needed. “Mobility is a huge benefit of desktop [virtualization],” Raghuram said.
Thus far, some of the early work has focused on bringing virtualization to thin clients and PC blades, server-based settings where resources for multiple end users are housed on back-end servers.
IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., is using the technology in its Virtualized Hosted Client Infrastructure in an effort to allow companies to put blade servers to work supporting multiple employees.
Working in conjunction with VMware, Citrix and PC blade pioneer ClearCube, IBM plans to use its BladeCenter blade servers to house the desktop environments of multiple workers, who will access those environments via devices placed on their desks.
VMwares software will be used to virtualize the blades, enabling businesses to host as many as 10 to 15 end users on a single blade, IBM said.
Hewlett-Packards Consolidated Client Infrastructure initiative, in which HP is offering both thin client and PC blade devices, also uses virtualization-like principles in enabling multiple users to access a single server, said Nick van der Zweep, director of virtualization and Integrity server software for HP, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
Meanwhile, VMwares Workstation and ACE applications can enable businesses to use virtualization for specific desktop purposes, such as managing remote users or guest desktop systems.
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Proponents of the technology envision virtualization in everyday use as IT departments create partitions for their company corporate software packages, separating it from other applications, and establish partitions specifically for management software.
Lenovo Group, of Purchase, N.Y., has already demonstrated a PC using virtualization to run a management partition that monitored a PCs health and helped it recover from a virus attack.
The company aims to begin shipping a similar application as part of its ThinkVantage suite of management and recovery tools for businesses next May, a company spokesperson said.
All this talk of applying virtualization to client PCs appears to have some businesses thinking about the concept, but few have begun testing it out yet.
Oak Associates, an investment firm in Akron, Ohio, uses VMware to virtualize its Dell servers. However, Chief Technology Officer Scott Hill said putting virtualization to work on desktops is a concept thats farther down the road.
“I can see the advantage of it, putting [Windows] XP on a virtual machine, and using a thin client or something for remote access,” Hill said. “But on a one-to-one ratio, I dont think it hits the price-performance [ratio] yet. Ive considered it, but I havent gone that way yet.”
But by making sure their hardware supports virtualization in clients, AMD and Intel aim to encourage more software development and thus make virtualization more worthwhile for companies to investigate.
On-chip virtualization technology helps reduce a lot of the complexity of virtualization software as well as speed its performance by offloading some of the work done in software called a hypervisor to their hardware, the chip makers say.
Intel released its first Pentium 4 desktop chips with Virtualization Technology enabled last October and since then has added several more processors that include Intel Virtualization Technology, such as its dual-core Pentium D 900 family for desktops and Core processors for notebooks.
Not all of the systems that contain those chips, particularly notebooks, have been advertised as such by their manufacturers, due to the dearth of software.
Lenovo, which offered customers a pilot program with desktops based on the first Virtualization-equipped Pentium 4s, will buck that trend on Feb. 20, when it aims to take the wraps off of a new suite of ThinkCentre M52 desktops and tout the inclusion of Virtualization Technology, a company spokesperson said.
Chip makers predict that, over time, more PC makers will join in and highlight virtualization in their machines. To that end, Intel said, it has been working with VMware, Microsoft and XenSource to ensure that their software supports the Intel Virtualization Technology on both PCs and servers.
“Weve got lots of different usage models in mind that will help virtualization on the client become very mainstream over the next several years,” Chad Taggard, director of advanced technologies marketing for Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., said during the companys desktop chip launch last October. “We think by 2007 or 2008 this will be a mainstream capability.”
AMDs Lewis also predicted that client-side virtualization will begin to sort itself out by 2007. Although “it wont go big-time until an operating system comes out with [a plan for] virtual worlds established,” she said, referring to a promise by Microsoft, which has pledged to add virtualization capabilities, including a hypervisor, to Longhorn, now known as Windows Vista.
Ultimately, Lewis said, she envisions PCs coming virtualized from the factory, meaning theyre pre-configured with numerous partitions that simply look like different windows. Users, she said, would toggle between them just as they switch between on-screen windows today.
Editors Note: This story was updated to correct Raghu Raghurams title.
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