Call it the Year of Virtualization. I can’t read a magazine or walk down a corporate hallway without encountering conversations about VMware, Microsoft's Virtual Server, Xen, hypervisor, or some other virtual machine technology.
Administrators, developers, and power users are starting up new virtual workstations and servers with every new corporate breath. Multiple real servers can be consolidated into one larger, more powerful virtual server platform; just pack a single server with a lot of memory and a very fast CPU. Need another server? Just clone an existing one. Didn’t mean to install that software program and cause blue screens? Just revert to a previous snapshot.
As a long-time traveling presenter and lab teacher, I used to have to fly with two or three PCs. Now, I carry my entire Windows forest or Linux realm on a laptop. I can start up four or five servers in about two minutes. It's like ordering lunch: Two or three Windows servers, a few Linux servers, and a Solaris server to go, please.
Classroom shutdown is now a single power down. No cords to unplug. No server hardware to pack. Getting ready for the next class is a snap: revert and I’m ready to go. Today’s young computer teachers have no idea how hard it used to be.
But what's coming on the virtual forefront is even more revolutionary. I know of one company that's going to allow its employees to work from home using virtual images. The company will send the entire corporate image to the employee over a VPN connection, or at worst, on a single DVD.
This means the employee can run their own home computer in an insecure state, and the company doesn’t worry about it because the work image is locked down and reverted at each new restart. Documents and company databases are stored on a centralized storage server. The company’s firewall only allows one map drive connection into their physical environment; all other inbound ports are closed. That’s a pretty tight firewall.
Another Fortune 1000 company is getting ready to build company images on the fly. When the onsite employee logs in to their PXE-booted PC, a virtual image is pushed down to create the employee’s desktop. The user’s profile is pulled onto the image at the last second along with an application icon that launches a Citrix desktop. When the employee logs out, the entire image is forgotten, with the exception of the stored data.
Security experts and power users are using virtual machines to explore the riskier parts of the Internet without worry of host desktop modification. Banks and protection vendors are coming up with innovative solutions that involve sending virtual desktops to their online customers to prevent remote control bots from stealing PINs or fraudulently transferring bank balances.
Administrators and CSOs are considering all of these ideas to save money and increase security. Whether virtual solutions have the speed, flexibility, and security to become a win-all solution is yet to be seen. I remember hearing the same promises during the heyday of thin-client computing, and that technology largely failed.