Virtual virtues

What you save on the swings might be lost on the licensing roundabouts writes Tracey Caldwell

Hardware and software are getting divorced or at least having an open relationship if the excitement around virtual environments anything to go by. For believers, the benefits of virtual environments are anything but intangible. For the uninitiated, if there are any left, virtualisation allows computers to run multiple operating systems simultaneously in different partitions called virtual machines. A single server can replace several and software tasks can be moved around from one server to another.

The possibilities seem endless for IT teams: running different operating systems on one machine, making backup copies while trying out different scenarios and installing patches, backing up employee PCs. Support teams meanwhile are shuddering in horror at the flipside of unregulated and constantly shifting software environments causing havoc with hardware and networking set-ups.

Sceptics might also think that hard disk manufacturers must be loving the explosion of interest in virtual environments but the Ethernet savvy can even run an entire virtual SAN. Collect green points too for switching off the power to multiple real world servers and running multiple virtual servers on one hardware platform.

Virtualisation company VMWare is hot property at the moment as parent company EMC issued 10% of VMWare as shares on the New York Stock exchange on Tuesday. The shares were reported to have shot up in value 76% in one day. Intel and Cisco have already grabbed a slice of the action with six figure injections of cash into VMWare announced in July.

In this virtual world Macs can become PCs and VMWare launched the VMFusion virtualisation product for Apple Macs at the beginning of August against the market leading Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac product which was promptly put into beta. VMWare is not the only player in the virtual world of course, with SWsoft’s Virtuozzo, Microsoft Virtual Server and open source Xen generating much real world interest.

Every silver lining must have its cloud though and there have been rumblings, mainly around the idea that the costs saved on the swings are lost on the licensing roundabouts. Security is an issue too with some commentators pointing to improved security through virtualisation while others throw their hands up in dismay at the thought of securing multiple free ranging operating systems.

Computer Weekly’s Cliff Saran has highlighted licensing issues in his blog, pointing out that some companies like Oracle and IBM don't recognise software partitions in their licensing, meaning licences have to be bought for each virtual server.

The licensing issue also threatened to get in the way where companies are buying into hosted software as a service. VMWare has just ticked that box by publishing a licence model for hosting companies to offer services based on the company’s virtualisation software. It will charge a monthly fee, as an alternative to the model that forces hosted service providers to pay the same rate for virtual servers, regardless of how many are operating at any one time.