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Web trends alter role of the Windows OS

The trend toward Web-based apps and hypervisors of all kinds has changed the role of the operating system. How far will it go?

The trend toward Web-based applications, server and client hypervisors and netbooks is changing the traditional roles of server and desktop operating systems.

For starters, desktop virtualization has displaced the importance of desktop operating systems (OSes) over to server operating systems.

The latest Web-centric PCs, Netbooks, have triggered faster movement toward a light-weight operating system (or JeOS -- just enough OS), with new OSes such as Google Chrome OS or Ubuntu's Netbook Remix. And next year, Citrix Systems and VMware will launch client hypervisors, which will reduce reliance on desktop OSes in a big way.

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Thin client hypervisors will be installed on PCs instead of a traditional fat OS, creating a situation where fully functioning desktop operating systems are unnecessary, said desktop virtualization user Rick J. Scherer, a systems administrator for the San Diego Data Processing Corp., a nonprofit IT organization that handles all of San Diego's IT needs.

"Client hypervisors emulate thin clients to access your VDI. There is still a form of OS on the client, but server OSes will be more relied on, as will the server hypervisors," Scherer said. "So now, everything is being moved into the data center."

While server OSes are needed to manage individual boxes, companies are using server hypervisors such as vSphere – which VMware calls the "Virtual Datacenter Operating System" (VDC-OS) – to manage entire data centers (servers, storage and networking).

This means traditional OSes play a lesser role in terms of compute management, said Todd Knapp, CEO of Providence, R.I.-based virtualization consultancy firm Envision Technology Advisors LLC.

But, server OSes still play a critical role; "they just aren't as critical in terms of data center management because the OS and apps can be abstracted," Knapp said.

The Web-app effect sways some numbers

In addition to virtualization, there is a trend toward using Web-based applications, which let users circumvent their locally installed OS and access apps via their Web browser.

Google claims that more than two million businesses already use Google Apps for email, calendars, documents, spreadsheets and presentations -- the types of apps traditionally tied to Windows.

And though the Web-app trend may impact Microsoft's desktop OS business, the company also offers products in Web apps. Microsoft recently expanded its online services offering to new areas of the world and dropped prices on its hosted Business Productivity Online Standard Suite, and reports having about one million BPOS customers.

Using Web apps makes perfect sense for some IT shops, said one developer and programmer with a large hospital in Rhode Island. "I migrated a company over from local, single-user software to a Web-based system. For their particular needs, doing it over the Web was not only possible [and] feasible, but dramatically increased functionality, interoperability and flexibility," he said.

But qualms about security and the dependability of the cloud and other issues will keep many shops from moving entirely to Web services. This is especially true in industries where compliance rules govern privacy and security, and high availability and speed are critical, the developer said.

Web-based applications are also beholden to Internet connection requirements, and bandwidth limitations affect how many Web-based applications companies can use, said Tony Wilburn, a senior systems engineer with Arlington-Va.-based IT services provider Betis Group Inc.

"What if I am checking email online while my Twitter client is updating every couple of minutes while I am writing a Word document online while streaming iTunes direct from Apple. …And let's throw in a VoIP call and one or two movies being streamed from an online source," Wilburn said. "If that is happening in a 40-story office building with several thousand employees, can they handle the bandwidth? Many companies already block video and audio streaming to save bandwidth. What happens when every app they use is Web hosted?"

Coexistence is a given

Envision Technology Advisor's Knapp said Web apps and traditional OSes will have to coexist.

"A world of nothing but Software-as-a-Service is not a good world," Knapp said. "If you are a sales guy and every application you use is on the Web, you are screwed if you are on a plane or somewhere without Internet access. I am seeing a convergence of local apps and online apps, and it only works if you can synchronize the two."

Plus, OS-dependent applications will always exist."I can put my email, my Office products and my contact management in a cloud, and I can access everything with a browser…, but what about my Visio that I use to draw up detailed infrastructure plans? ...Do I want all of my human resources data floating in the cloud? What about a hospital that has over 100 applications?" Wilburn said.

"Years from now, perhaps all these apps will be Java or Spring [Framework] or some such and will not need an OS, but I don't see it happening anytime soon," he said. "Even a lot of so-called Web-based applications still require Internet Explorer."

So Microsoft probably isn't too worried about losing its Windows market share. "Every computer needs an OS, even if we are talking about Google Chrome [OS] and netbooks," said Mark Minasi, a popular Windows expert, speaker and author. Without an operating system, "how do you install something that requires an ActiveX control? You need Internet Explorer. …You will always need an OS."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer

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