Desktop virtualization pioneer runs into early bugs

Our offices are part of the brave new world of virtualization

For the past six months, our offices have been part of the brave new world of virtualization. Not of servers, storage or networks but of the next-generation desktop. The rationale for the original decision to virtualize the desktop was to offer the staff operating-system and application flexibility while maintaining governance, manageability and control of the corporate environment.

In hindsight, our intent was correct, but our timing -- to say the least -- was a little off.

If one were to look up the definition of desktop virtualization in Wikipedia, one would assume I am addressing a server-centric or thin-client-computing model where we host and centrally manage desktop virtual-machines in the data center while giving users a full PC desktop experience. Wrong!

That is the classic form of desktop virtualization, with all of the issues and baggage associated with the mainframe era. While appropriate for constrained application environments, such as call centers or office or accounting administration, this virtualization approach is not viable in a creative or research environment.

Today, multiprocessor desktops are becoming the norm rather than the exception. This is the execution environment for the next-generation desktop. Numerous approaches exist today, and more will become available in the near future. After some degree of technical analysis and experimentation, we chose an Intel-based Apple Power Mac with multiple displays, and ample processors, memory and storage. This desktop hardware environment would run Apple's OS X operating system as core software and VMware Fusion as the virtualization application.

The users then could choose any other operating system executing as a virtual machine under Fusion to run their legacy or new applications. This gave users access to more than 60 PC operating systems -- including Microsoft Windows Vista/XP/2000, Linux and Sun Solaris -- that would execute as distinct virtual machines within a single hardware environment. The intent was to have the complete flexibility to share applications, files, images and video; to drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste text; and manipulate or resize desktop screens between virtual machines and OS X on the Apple Mac and other LAN-connected virtual desktops.

As with all leading edge computer or communications installations, not everything went perfectly as documented or envisioned in the planning process. The initial installations were done with Fusion 1.0 -- yes, the first public release of the product. Timing is everything. The execution environment is outstanding, with minimal problems running several virtual machines and operating systems. We decided to take on further risk by installing Windows Vista alongside OS X. To our surprise, we have had only one major crash of Windows Vista since it was first installed.

Fusion's abstraction layer seems to have given additional stability to Windows Vista. As advertised, manipulating files, desktop content and so forth from virtual machine to virtual machine is transparent and slick. Opening multiple, simultaneous Internet-browser sessions in any virtual machine desktop is possible in conjunction with multiple operating-system-specific applications.

Content can be copied and pasted, merged, edited and so forth irrespective of medium -- voice, data, image or video. The next-generation desktop will be the norm after 2010, not the exception.

If it all works so well, why in two years, not now?

The problems are all within the operating environment. In theory, a virtual-machine environment should share all physical peripherals and those peripherals should be accessible through standard operating-system driver software. This unfortunately was not the case in Fusion's initial (1.0) or current (1.1.3) version. Dedicated IP addresses are required for each virtual machine to allow bridging of network peripherals.

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