How Windows 8 could change everything

Clues abound that Hyper-V is a foundation technology for Windows 8, enabling Microsoft to dominate a new era of desktop virtualization

The old-fashioned PC paradigm has run out of gas. Conventional Windows systems are too hard to manage and pose too much of a security risk -- and sales are declining. For lack of a better alternative, you may need to live with Windows for the foreseeable future. But now that the sins of Vista and the antiquarian vulnerabilities of Windows XP have been corrected by Windows 7, what could possibly induce you to upgrade to Windows 8?

The answer may lie in the latest build of Windows 8, where Hyper-V 3.0 can be found in Control Panel (see Peter Bruzzese's post "Windows 8 and Hyper-V 3.0: Revolutionary benefits await admins"). Hyper-V is Microsoft's Type 1 hypervisor -- that is, a virtualization layer that runs on bare metal instead of as a guest of the operating system. Until now, Hyper-V has been available only as part of Windows Server. Making it the foundation underneath the next desktop version of Windows changes everything.

Why? Because that could yield the best possible solution for desktop virtualization. Today's prevalent model for desktop virtualization is VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure), where Windows clients run in virtual machines on a server in the data center. VDI delivers centralized management and security, but it also demands heavy-duty server hardware, sufficient network bandwidth, and a constant connection between server and "client" (typically a dumb terminal), which rules out mobility.

A client hypervisor, which is what we think Hyper-V's role may be in Windows 8, runs a virtual Windows desktop on the client rather than the server. This would give you the ability to run without a connection to the server, so users can take their Windows virtual machines with them on a laptop or tablet, and IT still enjoys all the manageability and security benefits of VDI. In this scenario, the server component can be much less powerful than a VDI server farm, since it's basically backing up files and end-user configurations rather than running desktop virtual machines.

Client computers could have multiple virtual machine personalities with little performance penalty, thanks to the thin Type 1 hypervisor. One basic division would be between a "business virtual machine" and a "personal virtual machine" running on the same client. The business virtual machine would be a supersecure environment without any of the personal stuff users download or run; changes to that business virtual machine would be synced to the server when users were online. If the client hardware was lost or stolen or the user's relationship with the company ended, the virtual machine could be killed by admins remotely.

In this multi-VM scenario, users could also run multiple Windows versions to support legacy applications, Linux versions supported by Hyper-V, or, as Peter Bruzzese speculates, even Windows Phone 7 apps. Users could even bring their Macs to work and, Apple willing, Hyper-V could slip right under Mac OS X, allowing the company's Windows virtual machine to run alongside.

One big advantage to IT is that it would no longer need to manage end-user hardware, just the business virtual machine downloaded to it. In other words, users could buy and maintain their own personal computing device, as long as it could run the business virtual machine. Firewall, software distribution, antivirus, other management agents, and, most importantly, encryption would run in the hypervisor. Virtual machines as well as terminal services and virtualized applications would be deployed from a server infrastructure that would be much more lightweight than a VDI server farm.

IT gets what it wants at a cost lower than that of VDI and with significantly less complexity. It's a great idea, and Microsoft, with Terminal Services, App-V, and MED-V management tools that can be leveraged with client-side Hyper-V, is the company with the absolute best chance to make it happen.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.