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Building Virtual Empires

Large shifts are underway in data center networking, and they are all driven by virtualization

Ensim Corp. was an early example of this approach, but a wrong turn into the Web hosting market just in time for its evaporation seems to have set it back a few years. More recently, the little known Twingo

(now known as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) Secure Desktop post its acquisition) seems to have been on a related technical path.

Incumbent IT vendors with the most to lose are not completely ignorant of the threat posed to them if virtual machines succeed in abstracting their core assets. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) moved to acquire virtual machine technology of its own in the form of Connectix, while simultaneously seeking to throw FUD at non-Microsoft virtualization schemes. This is not a new strategy -- virtualization can be a wonderful thing for a vendor as long as it is the one doing the virtualizing. IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) demonstrated this long ago with z/VM on its mainframes, a powerful capability that has helped keep the platform thriving for decades.

Beyond Microsoft, other incumbents such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), IBM, and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) are perhaps less at risk today but also see the power at the virtual machine layer, leading to somewhat schizophrenic behavior. On the one hand, they move to enable virtual machine technology (witness Intel’s Vanderpool Technology and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD)’s Pacifica). But on the other hand, they quietly work to divide and weaken the virtual machine supply base (perhaps through support of new open-source alternatives such as Xen). From their perspective, virtualization is a good thing in that it expands their opportunity –- but only if the virtualizer is captive or weak. An emerging gorilla in the abstraction layer would pose quite a challenge.

Server consolidation and OS abstraction are not the only reasons to pursue partitioning. Security through virtualization is another important objective, and is emerging as a hotbed of innovation. Early activity appears promising, probably with the best yet to come. As the industry embraces virtual machines, additional opportunities arise to manage them more effectively and use them to solve various thorny systems management problems. We suspect several of these management-oriented schemes will bear fruit.

The second primary motivation for virtualization is aggregation. The theory here is that by abstracting physical elements, the semblance of a coherent whole can be asserted. Single System Image technology certainly falls into this camp, but less ambitious management and provisioning visions also qualify. Such a virtual system has the interesting properties of being more scaleable than any single physical system ever could be, while also being more cost-effective since it can be assembled from commodity elements. The whole argument depends on the competence of the virtualizer, of course. Some (maybe all?) of the intelligence of the predecessor high-end system is still needed, but in the new model it resides not in the physical “atomic” elements (storage, CPUs, bandwidth) but in the virtualizing abstractor. “Brain-sucking,” as our CEO friend from the first paragraph would say.

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