Client-side virtualization goes bare metal

Bare-metal hypervisors for client systems show great promise for the enterprise

I've been running Type 2 hypervisor apps for years, and whether it's VMware Workstation, Virtual PC, or Parallels, each has proved vital in allowing me to test and run a wider array of applications and OSes off my client machines. But what of the notion of running a bare-metal hypervisor on the client? What benefits might that bring?

As it turns out, quite a few -- some of which could point the way toward a new future in client-side computing.

[ Found out how to avoid the "Myths IT believes about client virtualization" | Keep up with the latest virtualization news with InfoWorld's virtualization newsletter and visit the InfoWorld Virtualization Topic Center for news, blogs, essentials, and information about InfoWorld virtualization events. ]

The most obvious upside of bare-metal hypervisors is that they abstract the client OS from the underlying hardware. In the process, these so-called Type 1 hypervisors would allow a single Windows disk image to run across a variety of devices without worrying about the HAL (hardware abstraction layer) that typically separates the OS from the bare metal.

Moreover, when combined with a solid methodology for pushing virtual images down to clients easily, bare-metal client hypervisors could eliminate the stress of maintaining a thin-client environment, where continuous connectivity to the server is required.

Security would also be greatly enhanced. Imagine two OS instances running side by side -- one a locked-down enterprise version and the other configured for personal use -- and you can quickly see how handy bare-metal hypervisors could be on corporate laptops. Factor in encryption, and the virtual system could be rendered inaccessible (sort of like a VM BitLocker) in the event that the laptop is lost. Or, as is the case with today's mobile devices, it could be remote-wiped automatically when reported stolen.

As might expect, a number of companies are at work in this promising space, including Neocleus, Citrix (in conjunction with Intel as part of Project Independence), Xen, and VMware (also in collaboraiton with Intel). But it was relative newcomer Virtual Computer, with its NxTop, that opened my eyes to the powerful promise of bare-metal client hypervisors.

As the folks at Virtual Computer explained, constructing the hypervisor is only half the battle -- one that should not, however, be overlooked, as the client side is much more diverse than the server side, making client hypervisor design increasingly complex. Moreover, client hypervisors must be able to provide quality video graphics, pass through USB and devices to the virtual system seamlessly, and especially if the device is a laptop, understand the power savings and CPU technology in place. But beyond the hypervisor, management is just as important. Being able to create, deploy, update, redeploy, and remove VMs from your clients will be an essential part of client-side virtualization management.

nxtop-Win7_thumb.jpg

One of the great promises of virtual clients is being able to upgrade those systems incredibly fast and easy. Keep in mind the Windows 7 deployment coming up for many companies. Imagine end-users at those companies running XP or Vista as virtual clients on a NxTop platform. As an admin, you could then configure your Windows 7 system (shown in the screen shot), make a perfect image for deployment, and with one click, send that image out to all your client systems. The user's profile and preferences would be carried over to the new instance automatically. For a time, the virtual systems could be configured to allow users to work with both OSes until they are comfortable with Windows 7, at which point you could (with a click) remove the legacy OS.

[ For more on the future of virtualization, see "Application virtualization is where the client future really is" and read the InfoWorld Test Center reviews of Thinstall app virtualiztion and Citrix XenApp 5. ]

Despite Windows 7's girth (2GB to 3GB), the image takes only 10 minutes to copy over an internal system. And if a person was out on the road and lost their laptop, they could have a replacement system with everything they need in a few hours, depending on the speed of their connection -- all without worrying about their lost system being open to compromise, as the VM could be encrypted and/or wiped if opened.

The current set of traditional PC management tools will evolve as solutions such as NxTop become more prevalent in the world of one-to-many image management. If time is money, then reducing the time spent managing PCs will certainly reduce costs going forward. To see a TCO tool that wll help companies compare costs for their own company, you are welcome to use this free calculator.

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