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Virtual's New Reality

Virtualization is one of computing's oldest tricks, originating in the 1960s as a way of creating multiple "virtual" systems on a big mainframe. Virtual machines--the specialized software that carries the workload--were an efficient way of getting maximum benefit from what was then a sizable investment in a company's data center. Now the approach is being revived on Windows and Linux servers, as cost-conscious IT departments look to maximize computer utilization and extend the life of aging apps. Today's virtual machines have a broader reach than ever before. They're showing up in PCs and storage systems, too, and soon will be able to take advantage of capabilities built into microprocessors.

Gannett will virtualize servers

Gannett will virtualize servers "approaching old age," Kuzmack says.

Photo by David Deal

Virtual machines are on the uptake because they make it possible to support different applications and operating systems on a single server, dynamically allocate resources where they're needed most, and reduce server head count in the process. They free companies from having to migrate existing applications every time a new operating system is deployed, extending the life of aging but important applications that represent a significant investment. Think Windows NT-based apps. Virtual machines also can be used to develop and test software before deployment and provide a less-expensive way of backing up computers in emergencies.

No wonder the technology is being applied in everything from server consolidation to the growing number of Windows 2003 upgrades to the increasing requirement for software testing to avoid hacks, worms, and other threats. In some cases, their use can have a ripple effect on how IT staffers are deployed. System administrators who specialize in an application or operating system may find themselves with responsibilities outside their niche as virtualization results in a mixing of technologies across a computing infrastructure.

Not everyone has made the jump yet. For one thing, virtualization software imposes a performance hit, chewing up processor cycles. For another, it adds a layer of complexity, making systems monitoring and management more difficult. And some vendors aren't helping matters by demanding that companies buy full-priced software licenses for each virtual machine on which their software runs.

Yet virtual machines are attracting attention, in part because most servers run at just 10% to 15% of capacity, and virtualization can boost utilization rates to 70% or higher. While just 16% of companies use virtual servers today, according to a Microsoft survey of customers, the market as a whole is gaining traction. The overall virtualization market--networking, storage, servers, processing, and management--had sales of $15.1 billion last year and is growing at an annual rate of more than 20%, market researcher IDC reports.

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