Oh for the simple life. It seems like only yesterday that IT was pretty straightforward - in terms of technology, at least. Now every component of the physical IT infrastructure faces "virtualisation", writes Bloor Research analyst Tony Lock.
This process began when the manufacturers of large mainframe servers started to offer the possibility of "virtual machines" within the core operating system. As far as each virtual machine was concerned, it was the only operating environment loaded on the server. The advantage was that it was simpler to run different software systems on the same machine, or to fool applications into operating as if they possessed the entire server platform.
Over time, the use of such virtual environments spread to other enterprise server platforms, notably corporate Unix. Recently, virtual machine software has spread to almost all mid-range platforms. Solutions such as VMware and Connectix bring virtual machine capabilities to Windows and Linux servers. Indeed, you can now buy virtual machine software to run on stand-alone PCs.
So sophisticated are the various virtual machine systems that it is possible to create virtual application containers housing virtual applications, all of which run on a single copy of the core operating system environment. This avoids the need to buy multiple OS licenses, with the associated hassle of administering and patching copies of the same OS.
Storage infrastructure is undergoing a similar evolution. Virtual file systems and virtual volume systems remove the need for servers to be directly connected to the spinning platters that house data. Storage virtualisation and visualisation technologies are likewise developing rapidly to provide tools capable of managing extremely complex storage environments effectively and cheaply.
There are still many areas where real life has yet to catch up with these rapid advances. Most organisations are not yet sufficiently experienced in virtualised systems to evaluate the potential impact of totally virtualised infrastructures. The same applies to the majority of vendors. Very few software authors have even begun to establish licensing models that make sense in virtual systems where applications could be utilising fractions of a hardware platform.
No-one knows where the ongoing divorce of IT systems usage from the physical infrastructure will ultimately lead. However, it appears that the rise of virtual systems is irresistible. This may prove a stepping stone on the road to ultimate "utility" computing; whereby most IT services are bought from suppliers, rather than hosted internally.
The time is coming when we will have to sit back and work out how virtual systems can be exploited effectively. Then the question will be where next? Virtual users, virtual managers and virtual salesmen?