CFOs with a few miles on them no doubt remember the days of fretting about computing standards. Back then, the big question for finance chiefs was where to place their bets. Macs or PCs? Unix or OS/2? Thin client or fat client?
For most purchasers of corporate computers, those weighty decisions largely disappeared with the ascent of Windows, Microsoft's now ubiquitous operating system. But in truth, the earlier question about desktop standards was never properly settled. An ideal solution would have been to offer users choices, rather than forcing them to pick one OS over another. Indeed, in a perfect IT world, Apple's System 7 and Windows NT would have coexisted on the same machine.
Years later, that perfect world may finally be arriving. Intel is slated to release a new chip set (called IVT) by the end of the year that embeds so-called virtualization technology into a personal computer. Rival AMD will follow with its own virtualized chip set, dubbed Pacifica, in 2006. The idea: create servers and desktop PCs that run multiple operating systems (or more precisely, two or more virtual computers within one computer, hence virtualization). With such a machine, business users will be able to run Outlook and StarOffice, MySQL and DB2 — all on the same desktop.
This is big news, which explains why a recent report at IT research firm Gartner called virtualization "the most disruptive technology the PC has faced in a decade." For corporate users, the uncoupling of hardware from software promises sizable benefits. Virtualization will enable IT administrators to create secure corporate "images" (or application environments) for users to employ. A controller, for example, could work on a secure version of Excel while also searching the Internet — without fear that a virus might infect the application or its associated files.
Maximize What You've Got
But that's not the best part. Experts say virtualization will finally enable businesses to max out their investments in processing hardware. How? Well, currently, companies purchase servers to host a single application. Not surprisingly, business customers often get stuck with more processing power than they need. Forrester Research analyst Simon Yates estimates that businesses generally end up using somewhere between 8 and 20 percent of the server capacity they have purchased.
With virtualized hardware, however, businesses will be able to put those unused horses to work. "It's server consolidation," notes Yates.
Companies can achieve some of these benefits now via software virtualization. Such applications have been around for at least 10 years and are very popular among the slide-rule set (the leading program, ACE, comes from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc.). Jeffrey Zalusky, founding partner of Chrysalis, an IT risk-management and compliance consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., uses VMware to help him test security software. Zalusky has configured multiple virtual machines as an offensive environment that attacks a virtual "victim" machine. All this thrusting and parrying actually occurs on one computer.
Other companies are using the software to create de facto firewalls. Eric Beasley, senior network administrator at Baker Hill Corp., a Carmel, Ind., technology company, recently purchased a 50-user license for ACE, at about $110 per user. Beasley uses the program to set up guest operating systems within notebook computers. A guest OS on the machine hosts customer data, and both the data and operating system are encrypted.
Thus, an employee is free to use a laptop to perform other office tasks and access the Internet — without exposing the vulnerable data in the virtual machine. Says Beasley: "Many people are coming into the realization that perimeter defense — traditional firewalls — are not going to be enough going forward."
Software virtualization will not be enough, either. While useful, the apps tend to slow system performance — up to 30 percent, Beasley reckons. Virtualized hardware does not suffer from similar speed problems. The technology will be a bit laggardly getting here, however. While Intel is slated to ship its IVT chip set before year's end, Microsoft isn't expected to fully support hardware virtualization until 2008. And Beasley said first-generation machines will likely come with kinks. "If I were a CFO," he advises, "I'd wait for the second generation of systems."
Hey, they've waited this long.
Elaine Appleton Grant writes frequently about technology.