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Unfolding the layers of virtualization

Forget the obsession with operating systems. IDC says the complex layers of virtualization will determine the effectiveness of future IT infrastructures.

Maybe your Windows 2000 upgrade is still unfinished and you're staring at a bunch of NT servers. If that's the case, you may not care too much about what will be in Longhorn, Microsoft's next version of Windows.

The software maker recently said that to be able to ship Longhorn in 2006, it may scale back some of its plans for new Windows components that were originally announced at the Professional Developers Conference last year.

But IT executives would be better served if they focused on any one of several other trends in the market that are only marginally affected by the operating system, said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., consulting firm.

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"It is seldom wise to make an OS the focus of the planning process," Kusnetzky said. "Better to look at how applications should be accessed and decide what applications should do for people.

"When I hear about a disaster in the industry, where someone didn't finish a project, it usually started out with the OS, and someone looking for things to do with the OS."

Virtualization holds promise

Kusnetzky said system software is increasingly not the primary value in IT infrastructure. Rather, more attention must be paid to the value that will be found in the layers of virtualization software.

Kusnetzky describes the layers like this: First, there is the software that runs between the application and the end user, which lets the end user run an application on any device. Examples of this "translation layer" of software come from companies such as Citrix Systems Inc. (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), Tarantella Inc. (Santa Cruz, Calif.), Graph On Corp. (Morgan Hill, Calif.) and others.

Beneath this layer there is a virtual application environment that may do a number of communication functions, such as workload balancing, sending parts of the applications to various computing devices, etc. This category includes application server software -- products such as Lotus Domino, and technologies that use Java.

Another layer handles virtual processing. This software can make a single machine look like many or many machines look like a single one. These products, which take care of parallel processing, load balancing and workload management, come from companies such as VMWare, which is now part of EMC Corp., of Hopkinton, Mass., IBM and Hewlett-Packard Corp.

Another layer of virtual software tackles storage replication. "This lets you separate processing from where the storage is," Kusnetzky said. "You don't care where storage is. It looks like a cloud you access."

Value is in the provisioning layer

There is a layer of server provisioning and management software that starts everything up and shuts it all down. And there is security software to keep everything protected and controls all access.

"That's where the value in system software is being seen, and not in the OS," he said. "More and more, the OS is viewed as a commodity."

In 1997, operating systems accounted for about 90% of software spending. By 2003, OS spending was about 60%, and virtualization software was pegged at 40%. Through 2008, IDC predicts the virtualization layer to account for 60% of spending and the OS to be about 40%.

The OS suppliers are fighting a trend, and to counter that trend they are throwing more elements into the OS package, and they are not increasing the price, Kusnetzky said. For example, Microsoft has added clustering software, virtual access software, server provisioning and management functions, security and messaging to Windows. The Unix and Linux camps are doing the same, he said.

So, while the individual point features of any future version of Windows may make for interesting conversation between IT administrators, no one really knows what it will mean -- or if it will matter -- in two years.

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