How server virtualization technology is upending operating systems

As operating system functions migrate to hypervisors in virtualized environments, the traditional OS has transformed into a function-specific software stack.

This tip offers insight into how server virtualization is changing the use of general-purpose operating systems in the enterprise.

Server virtualization has spurred a trend that not only challenges the prominent role of the general-purpose operating system, but threatens to alter the competitive landscape in a major way. This will be a mixed bag scenario for vendors, but could be great news for users.

In this three-part series, I'll describe the impact of server virtualization on operating systems, how general-purpose operating systems will have to change, and how these changes will affect IT managers and vendors of various stripes. First, I'll look at why hypervisors are upstaging operating systems. Then, I'll describe the how virtualization is beneficial to Linux and Unix adoption, but harmful to Windows. Finally, I'll cover the challenges posed by this major change in the IT landscape.

General-purpose operating systems (OSes) have long served as the core software platform on x86 servers, enabling everything from application availability to device support, as well as user access and manageability. The rapid adoption and compelling economics of server virtualization is now causing corporate and IT managers to question the traditional, central role of the operating system and to re-think how and where OSes will be deployed in their organizations over the next few years.

As the use of server virtualization continues to grow, general-purpose operating systems such as Windows and Linux will need to evolve to take on a new form and function. Many of the resource management functions traditionally handled by the OS will migrate to the hypervisor layer, while the user and application oriented features will be played by thinned-down operating systems residing inside virtual machines.

This fundamental shift will transform the traditional model of a single, monolithic OS residing on each server, into a new, function-specific software stack in which hypervisors and tailor-made operating systems each play a key role.

This new approach promises to bring end users considerable benefits, including greater freedom of choice, accelerating innovation, and lower costs.

Application providers will potentially benefit by having their software run in virtual appliances along with operating systems that are better tailored for their applications, though a number of packaging, testing and support challenges remain to be addressed before this can become a reality.

Clearly the greatest impact of this new paradigm will be on operating system vendors, such as Microsoft and Red Hat, which will also have a big influence on how rapidly and effectively the transformation takes place. While we believe that this new model will be very good for the industry, it will not happen without significant turmoil along the way.


Jeff Byrne is a senior analyst and consultant at Taneja Group, where he focuses primarily on the server virtualization market. Prior to joining Taneja Group, Jeff spent more than five years at VMware as vice president of marketing and later vice president of corporate strategy. Jeff's past experience includes marketing leadership roles at companies such as MIPS, HP and Novell.

This was first published in February 2008

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