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Virtualization: Changing the OS game, or not?

Every morning, I sign onto my corporate email account and start plowing through emails. This morning, our media group had been alerted to an interesting blog post on The Linux Foundation blog. It’s a transcript of an interview with Linus Torvalds, developer of the Linux kernel.

Torvalds’ opinion on virtualization caught my interest:

Jim Zemlin: Let’s talk to conclude about the future. Where do you see Linux – and I know you don’t think too far ahead about this, but I’m going to prod you to say five years from now.

Is the world Windows and Linux? Does the operating system become irrelevant because everything’s in a browser? Is everything through a mobile device? Is there a new form factor that comes out of mobile tab? Where do you see things going?

Linus Torvalds: I actually think technology in the details may be improving hugely, but if you look at what the big picture is, things don’t really change that quickly. We don’t drive flying cars. And five years from now we still won’t be driving flying cars and I don’t think the desktop market or the OS market in general is going to move very much at all.

I think you will have hugely better hardware and I suspect things will be about the same speed because the software will have grown and you’ll have more bling to just slow the hardware down and it will hopefully be a lot more portable and that may be one reason why performance may not be that much better just because you can’t afford to have a battery pack that is that big.

But I don’t think the OS market will really change.

Jim Zemlin: Virtualization. Game-changer? Not that big of a deal?

Linus Torvalds: Not that big of a deal.

Jim Zemlin: Why do you say that?

Linus Torvalds: It’s been around for probably 50 years. I forget when IBM started offering virtualization on their big hardware. Maybe not 50 years, but it’s been all around for decades and it’s very interesting in niche markets – I think the people who expected to change things radically are just fooling themselves.

I’d say that the real change comes from new uses, completely new uses of computers and that might just happen because computers get pushed down and become cheaper and that might change the whole picture of operating systems.

But also, I’d actually expect that new form factor is in new input and output devices. If we actually end up getting projection displays on cell phones, that might actually change how people start thinking of hardware and that, in turn, might change how we interact and how we use operating systems. But virtualization will not be it.

Apparently, Torvalds has the exact opposite opinion from one of our writers. Jeff Byrne, senior analyst and consultant at Taneja Group, recently wrote about exactly how virtualization is going to change the operating system game.

Byrne writes:

As its uses continue to grow, server virtualization will pose a major threat to the strategic position that the general-purpose operating system has long held in the x86 software stack. In this situation, Microsoft in particular has a lot to lose. So do Linux and Unix vendors, but these OSes do have advantages in a virtualization setting.

He goes on to suggest that Linux and Unix OSes will likely have increased adoption rates as virtualization puts a large dent in the one-operating-system-to-one-server modus operandi, and because Windows users are becoming frustrated with licensing costs, technical issues in new releases that commonly aren’t resolved until the second or third release, and security vulnerabilities.

IT pros, I’m turning it over to you. Let the debate begin. Has your shop seen increased Linux or Unix adoption with virtualization? Do you think virtualization will change the OS market?

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Wow it may seem arrogant to contradict Linus, I would have to say that he is comparing apples and oranges. Virtualization on the big-iron is not the same at all x86 server virtualization, there are many reasons for this, but one that is so immediately apparent is the initial acquisition cost of an x86 server versus a mainframe. Saying x86 server virtualization won't make a huge difference because it has failed to so in another form is akin to saying that the DVD format was destined to fail because LaserDiscs did. The idea is the same, but the implementation and associated costs are completely different. All in all, I respectfully and humbly disagree with Linus on this (and that is not my usual tact WRT Linus' arguments). I think that his argument is based on a weak assumption. That said, he may be right in the end. In another 10 years I'll post a follow-up on this blog with the answer : )
I think this is definitely an interesting topic. One of the biggest advantages of virtualization is a layer of abstratction taht effectively decouples workloads (applications, services, and OS's) from the underlying hardware platform. Had current operating systems been designed to "share" the hardware and to run isolated from the others, we really wouldn't need the idea of virtualization (you could argue, of course, that the same would be true if the entire world ran the same OS). What hasn't changed is that we really do need the services that operating systems provide. We need a network layer, we need a user interface, and we need security. We need hardware management and the ability to support efficient memory and CPU utilization. Add to that common use cases such as web, file and print. Clearly, this functionaltiy has to be delivered somehow. So how will all of this change the role of the OS? It's hard to predict, but I think the general trend will be one that equalizes the playing field. Perhaps we'll see standards emerge that allow common services to run on any platform or OS. That would pressure larger, monolithic OS "stacks" to become more modular. Of course, we've heard (and have seen fail) many such promises. Java on the desktop comes to mind. The end goal for most environments is to avoid complexity and to treat hardware resources as a seemless pool of capacity. For the foresseable future, that will be delivered through "standard" oeprating systems.
I think virtualization will actually accelerate the operating system. I know that in my recent jump into the virtualization space, my number of operating systems as well as quantity of installed systems (including virtual) has increased by about 10%. The hardware footprint, however, has decreased. I think virtualization is a killer to the hardware sector for the departmental or application server role. Even for the small business, I think the free tools will accelerate so that even they can cash in from the savings perspective on virtualization. Virtualization to me provides an isolation environment as needed for the service model. And that doesn't remove the OS footprint in my situation.
Once everyone realizes and truly grasps that putting 14 OS's on one piece of hardware causes 14 points of failure with hardware that is only partially redudant one realizes that we are merly making an OS (Virtual)the same as an application sitting on top of anyones computer. IF your laptop crashed hard.. you get how many application failures.. Virtualization is not so much about innovation as it is pure and utter hip shotting by CIO's that think Virtuality means saving money.. At what? Expense of the customer? Its a niche and as a selling point to clueless IT depts that get hooked up on every bandwagon.. Ive seen it Ive watched it destroy and never improve the bottom line. IM still waiting though Im sure that somehow Titanium virtualization will save us all.. Its no different than having MS word on my machine woops the main memory went out on the Master Computer woops there goes 36 depts down... ohh no big deal (SLA'S go to hell)Virtualization its not about pushing us ahead its about a political game. technology wise there is no true innovation.
I respect the view of Mr. Linus Torvalds, he is a great programmer and who work with your kernel systems may respect this guy. But, the history show some phrases of other great men providing the future, like: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, Founder of DEC, 1977. I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" Thomas Watson, president of administration consul of IBM, 1943 Bill Gates in 1981 said: "640K of memory should be enough for anybody"