Run What You Need on Whatever You Like

Peter Coffee: Software providers like Connectix let users buy hardware as hardware, not as a platform adoption.

Platform choice is a terrible reason for picking one computer over another. If theres one thing that a computer simulation should be able to mimic to perfection, its any Von Neumann system. The insanely powerful processors in both servers and personal systems today make the overhead of a virtual machine acceptable for many applications--we run Java, dont we?--and its nice to be able to kill a VM process instead of needing to shut down and restart hardware.

Thats why last weeks news of Microsoft acquiring key assets of Connectix Corp. is one of the most interesting things Ive heard, perhaps, in years.

Simulation is high on my list of good reasons for having computers, and a computer itself is one of the few things thats complicated enough to be worth simulating--but simple enough to simulate exactly. Perhaps the best reason, therefore, for building absurdly powerful processors is that they free us (at least, in theory) from the need to take sides in platform wars.

In principle, by now we should be able to choose a machine--whether a personal system or a server--for its construction quality, ergonomics, intelligent (or even attractive) design and overall value. We can then trust software providers like Connectix to make the machine run whatever applications we choose, using products like the latest (and definitely greatest) Version 6 of Virtual PC for Macintosh or Virtual Server for x86-based machine rooms.

Connectix has worthy competitors in virtual-machine technology, notably VMware Inc. with its line of both server and workstation products. Linux proponents may lean toward the VMware lineup, which includes a Linux-hosted Workstation product that can run anything from MS-DOS 6 through the forthcoming Windows Server 2003 as a guest; alternatively, Linux can be the guest OS on a Windows host using either VMware or Connectix offerings.

Even if one merely hosts Windows on Windows, the virtual machine environment adds management features (like undoing entire sessions) that make this more than just a good imitation of conventional operation.

I dont want to get all Roswellian (X-Filesian?) about Microsofts possible intentions for the Macintosh segment of the Connectix product line. Im writing this column on my new 12-inch PowerBook, perhaps the best-constructed system of its size that Ive ever handled (and well worth the delta over an iBook): When someone sends me a (sigh) Word document, Im glad to have the option of using either Word X (the native Mac OS X version) or a Windows version of Word in a virtual machine to open the file. Choice is good.

But if Microsoft limits my ability to take advantage of its powerful applications that Ive spent years learning to use, while also taking advantage of OS X on the days when I prefer to use it (instead of Windows 2000 on my big Vaio or Win98 on my little one), Ill find someone else to help me do my job.

In the meantime, I hope that companies like VMware get more attention now that Microsoft has effectively endorsed the virtual-machine strategy. As it says in the title of one of Pamela McCorducks books, the whole point of a computer is to be a universal machine. Only bleeding-edge users tried to do this on 16-bit PCs, which had to do the whole job in software thanks to their primitive processor architectures; 32-bit machines, though, delivered robust virtual sessions, and I have every hope that 64-bit PCs will continue that trend by running multiple 32-bit sessions.

Ill close with best wishes to the people at Connectix, the company that has long been one of my favorite proofs of the magic thats possible with clever software on unreasonably powerful hardware. It takes both to keep the miracles coming: the more wizards out there, the better.

Tell me if virtual machines can do your real work.

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