Virtualization Edges Toward PCs

AMD and Intel pave the way with technology for desktops and notebooks, but it's still in concept phase.

Virtualization is becoming commonplace in the data center as companies seek to wring more out of their servers. But its 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—the technology can partition a computer to run multiple different types of software simultaneously—by building their respective virtualization technologies into desktop and notebook processors.

Intel got started by adding its Intel Virtualization Technology to its chips late last year—the chip maker activated the virtualization capabilities of its Xeon server processors earlier this month—and AMD will offer its AMD Virtualization Technology across all its high-end PC and server processors at midyear.

Proponents of the technology envision it in everyday use as IT departments create partitions for their companies corporate software packages. 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.

At the moment, client-side virtualization "is pretty much a concept right now," said Raghu Raghuram, vice president of data center and desktop platform products for virtualization software vendor VMware, of Palo Alto, Calif., during an interview at a recent virtualization conference hosted by analyst firm IDC.

But that hasnt stopped companies such as Lenovo Group, which this week took the wraps off a new suite of ThinkCentre M52 desktops fitted with chips that include Intel Virtualization Technology. Lenovo also aims to offer a tool that uses virtualization to create a management partition on its PCs as part of its ThinkVantage suite of tools for businesses next May, a company spokesperson said.

Intel and AMD said they expect other PC makers to follow Lenovo.

When virtualization does arrive on the client side, many of the first applications will apply it to PC management tools for corporations, agree executives from AMD and Intel.

"Management is the next frontier" for desktop virtualization, said Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD, in Austin, Texas.

One desktop virtualization scenario could involve using separate partitions for company software and PC management and security tools, similar to Lenovos plans. Others might include bringing unmanaged network devices under control, such as in offshoring environments.

Mobility could be enhanced allowing users to place a PC image onto a USB storage device and take it with them 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 users are housed on back-end servers.

IBM, for one, 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 with VMware, Citrix Systems and PC blade pioneer ClearCube, IBM is looking to use its BladeCenter blade servers to house the desktop environments of multiple workers who 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 users on a single blade, an IBM spokesperson said.

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 investments company 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 further 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."

Bringing virtualization to the desktop

Whats there now

  • Hardware support Processors to come with built-in virtualization hardware, which offload some virtualization duties from software
  • Some software VMwares Workstation and ACE apply virtualization to desktops; however, they focus on software development and remote or guest access, respectively

Whats needed

  • More PCs Manufacturers must offer more systems with virtualization-equipped processors
  • More software Software devel- opers must release new applica- tions with expanded features that can tap virtualization-equipped chips
  • Operating system support Virtualization-oriented operating systems will help make partitioning PCs easier. Microsoft, for one, has pledged to embed virtualization features in Windows Vista in the future