Let's kick 'virtual' to the curb

As virtual servers become omnipresent, we should embrace the passing of the term

At some point, novel and forward-thinking concepts and practices become standard and commonplace, and the terms associated with them go by the wayside. Where special terminology had been in use to differentiate the old from the new, the new becomes the old, and the specific qualifiers drop from the conversation. When was the last time you heard someone ask for unleaded gas? There's no longer a need to qualify the concept because unleaded is the new regular.

So should it be with server virtualization. During the Great Virtualization Pilgrimage of the last five years, the number of virtual servers has exploded, whereas the number of physical servers not running virtualization hypervisors has fallen. In most infrastructures I've seen in the past year or so, virtual servers vastly outnumber their physical counterparts, including the very physical hosts that give them life. Maybe it's finally time to begin the process of flushing the "virtual" qualifier when discussing projects and apps.

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Why bother? To avoid confusing the nontechnical, for one. Most people understand what a server is in gross terms. As with an automatic transmission in a car, they get the idea it does something, and you interact with it, but the underlying functions might as well be ancient Greek.

However, when you start discussing a virtual server, that understanding begins to teeter. Visions of futuristic Hollywood virtual reality nonsense begin to cloud the issue, and sometimes even concern over the viability of this "virtual" server because it doesn't really exist since it's virtual, right?

In any case, it's vastly simpler to dispense with the notion of virtual servers in nontechnical overview discussions and just label them servers. In fact, it's generally OK to forgo the qualifiers even in technical discussion. In many places, it's just assumed that virtual servers will be deployed rather than physical servers, unless the project has a clear and documented need for physical hardware. That coin has been flipped for the vast majority of working IT shops.

There are other reasons to celebrate the passing of "virtual." The past year or two has seen a softening of the most egregious software vendor cop-out in recent memory: that their product won't work on a virtual server. This drove me mad for years. When discussing a bug or a problem with some vendor's product, it was of the utmost importance to obscure the fact that we were working with a virtual server, not a physical box. In many cases, this involved going through the VM and removing tell-tale signs that the server was virtualized by uninstalling VMware tools or at least hiding the icon and fervently hoping that a remote session with a support tech didn't require bringing up the device manager that would show all the emulated devices.

This charade was stupid but necessary. If something slipped into the conversation that might indicate the server was a VM, it would serve as an instant trigger for support to back out of the problem and claim the software wasn't working because it was on a virtual server. Never mind that it had been working fine for a year before this and nothing else had changed. Nope, it's a VM, and we can't help you.

"Aggravating" isn't strong enough a term to convey those situations, especially when one memorable problem that the vendor insisted was due to the virtualized nature of the server turned out to be an errant internal debug flag set in an update that caused a process to lose its mind after running for more than 24 hours. But no, that wouldn't have happened on a physical box.

My, how the tide has turned, with many vendors now preferring to distribute their products as VM images and eagerly displaying compatibility with many virtualization solutions, and talking all about cloud stuff like they invented it. At this point, with rare exceptions for extremely heavy computational workloads and specialized products that require oddities, such as high-end GPUs, a software vendor who doesn't support virtual servers will get laughed out of most meetings. It's just not done like that anymore.

So let's junk the modifier and move forward with our servers -- just servers. They're faster, more agile, more reliable, and more capable than ever before, whether they're riding on bare metal or the back of a hypervisor. The virtual server is the new server. And that's a great thing for IT.

This story, "Let's kick 'virtual' to the curb," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blogat InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.