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IT managers are testing PC virtualization waters

Analysts are predicting PC virtualization will be commonplace in corporations by 2009, but IT managers are already taking the plunge.

PC virtualization technology may offer a compromise for both IT managers and end users in the battle over locked-down workstations.

Up until now, users and IT managers have been in a tug of war over control of the desktop. Users want to be able to personalize their desktops with favorite applications while IT managers need to maintain standard configurations.

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Using new technology, IT managers now have the ability to create isolated environments, or virtual machines, with separate operating systems and applications on PCs. This creates a secure locked-down environment of corporate approved programs, but at the same time gives IT managers the ability to create a separate environment in which end users can have personal applications and settings.

Hardware virtualization technology to help accomplish this is falling into place, thanks to the likes of Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., whose newer processors are enhanced to handle calls from the virtualization layer.

As for software, Microsoft has already publicly discussed that for the next version of its Windows Server, code-named Longhorn, it will make available hypervisor software that lets multiple operating systems run simultaneously on a device and share the same hardware.

Microsoft will likely add a hypervisor to its next-generation Windows operating system Vista in 2008 or 2009, said Brian Gammage, an analyst for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "Once that happens, every new PC can be virtualized by default," said Gammage. "We have the hardware capability already," he said.

Also in beta right now is Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager, as part of its System Center suite. "The Virtual Machine Manager is a very important tool," said Anil Desai, an independent consultant in Austin, Texas. "Right now it's easy to set up a virtual server and scale out many virtual machines or servers. What [Microsoft] is shooting for with its Virtual Machine Manager is a way for IT managers to easily manage all of that," Desai said.

PC virtual machines put more operating systems on desktops

Some IT managers are using VMware Server and Microsoft Virtual Server on the server side, but they are also dabbling in desktop virtualization tools that allow users to run multiple operating system instances on their PCs.

These early implementations signal an upcoming wave of PC virtual machines making their way into IT shops.

At a Gartner data center conference in December, analyst Tom Bittman asked attendees in a server virtualization session if they thought PC virtual machines would be mainstream in corporations by 2009. Of the 193 responses he received, 41% said yes, 33% said maybe and 26% said no.

"What makes [PC virtualization] a popular topic is the ability for administrators to get away from managing the hardware," Bittman said. Imagine five or six years from now, businesses will supply or contract with an outside party to supply virtual machines, completely locked down," he said. "And the other virtual machines on the PC will be for personal use to avoid configuration conflict issues."

Web software developer BTI, headquartered in Manila with offices all over the world, has created a couple of virtual desktop templates during the past year to run tests on new software. The company uses both VMware and Microsoft virtualization technology.

Moving into 2007, the company is looking at using virtual desktops for mobile employees to ease deployment and enforce security, said Ronald S. Tumulak, IT manager of research and development at BTI.

"By providing pre-built desktop environments, it makes it easy for us to roll out fully configured and locked-down notebooks for our staff who travel a lot," Tumulak said. "At the same time, we put these virtual desktops inside encrypted folders, so losing a notebook minimizes the chances of our corporate data being discovered."

Also, if users manage to ruin their settings, they can easily download a copy of the environment and be up and running in a short time, he added.

BTI has many tech-savvy users who go to great lengths to bypass security policies in order to use their own applications or to access favorite sites, Tumulak said. "This leads to them wreaking havoc on our standard installs and makes it difficult to support never-ending requests when configuration files or drivers get fouled up."

With desktop virtualization, the BTI team can give end users two or more environments that can run simultaneously and are fully independent and exclusive of each other. "They can mess up their own desktops, and our help desk is not required to support them on this," Tumulak said.

At a deeper level, PC virtualization holds the promise of being able to end the interdependence among the different layers on the PC: the operating system, the hardware and the applications.

Gartner's Gammage calls this "decoupling," saying it will be the most significant change to hit the computing world since x86-bit computing was introduced 25 years ago.

"What typically creates such a mess [for IT managers] is managing all the different configurations between these layers," Gammage said. "This decouples that reliance, and the configuration conflicts are removed."

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