Over the last few years, virtualization has become a main topic of IT. Even though it isn’t a new concept, there have been many changes which affect IT in various areas, from data center design and operations to software delivery and future business models.

One of the most interesting aspects of this trend is that virtualization really isn’t new. In the mainframe world, virtualization has been common for at least thirty years. But right now, it’s all about virtualizing PC-based servers and desktops. Even within this space, certain virtualization products have been around for several years, with increasing acceptance and relevance. Many companies work with virtualized systems in their data centers today. And at least some of the products on the markets have reached an acceptable level of reliability and manageability, the latter being the biggest threat for virtualization on the server side.

Anyhow, there has been much news over the last two or three years in virtualization, starting with the acquisition of Citrix by Xensource and German virtualization specialist Innotek by Sun. Microsoft particularly put much more effort in its virtualization initiatives than previously. Server virtualization, desktop and application virtualization have  also gained momentum in recent years. However, there is the still open question about the dependencies between cloud strategies and virtualization.

For CIOs, virtualization leads to the situation where decisions have to be made in an emerging environment wherein new announcements are being made by vendors on a very regular basis. Certainly with respect to virtualization however, the market is far from maturity. Significant changes should be expected in the vendor space as well as technical improvements in the next few years.

Virtualization and the Desktop

In the desktop space, either complete “virtual desktop systems” or “plus applications” can be delivered as virtual instances. The range of these options is fairly broad, ranging from fully managed desktops in Terminal/Presentation Server environments to separate virtual desktops per user still hosted on the server, over-the-wire delivery of virtual machines to desktops and virtual applications within “physical” or virtual machines.

These options aren’t independent of the server virtualization strategy nor from the entire System Lifecycle Management approach, including management and delivery of operating systems and applications as well as configuration management.

In many larger organizations, any of the options, from a fully deployed desktop to purely server-based approaches, might be appropriate for specific groups of users – and not adequate for other groups. Deployment of virtual machines to the desktop provides a high degree of security but requires significant bandwidth. Application virtualization might add to Terminal Server strategies in strictly managed environments, providing better performance, as well as to software delivery approaches in less managed environments, providing some well managed applications to the desktops.

Overall, we expect a very strong growth in client-oriented virtualization approaches. That will also require significant improvements in today’s System Lifecycle Management solutions, especially with focus on application delivery into virtual machines and configuration management. We don’t expect a clear winner amongst the different approaches but expect to observe the coexistence of multiple different approaches not only in the market but in the majority of the larger organizations as well.

Virtualization and the Cloud

The highest level of uncertainty in building virtualization strategies currently exists where the topics of virtualization and cloud strategies overlap. There is a significant overlap, proven by recent announcements of cloud strategies by vendors like Citrix.

Some of the most interesting areas where we expect virtualization and the cloud to integrate are the delivery of virtualized applications to desktops, fully deployed desktops and specific application environments, rented server space for running virtual machines, and business process being deployed as virtual machines.

All these areas require new approaches for management and control which are largely missing today. Thus it will be a long road towards virtualization out of the cloud. Some of the most interesting changes will even require new client operating systems, with Microsoft’s “Midori” project becoming an important element within these strategies.

Providing applications as virtualized applications is one of the most logical approaches for cloud services. Applications can easily be delivered directly by the vendor, system integrators or others. They are likely to behave well within their virtualized application environment. The obstacle of deploying specific types of applications could be significantly reduced. That is attractive as well in corporate environments as to end users who are often incapable of dealing with software installations. Besides this, pay-per-use business models might become a reality with this approach. And it might be an approach for more secure online businesses.

The deployment of entire desktops from the cloud might come into fruition with further growth in available bandwidths. More interestingly, at least from a Kuppinger Cole perspective, is a future where specific application environments will be provided, starting from highly secure virtual machines for online banking to gaming environments, perfectly tailored to the specific needs of their respective purposes.

The most obvious area for growth in the virtualization arena, is around cloud services providing server capacities for running virtual machines, either for fully outsourced data centers or for environments that require more capacities only from time to time.

What we also expect are virtualized environments provided by specialists as well as application vendors to run business applications and processes in virtual machines, either in cloud data centers or delivered from the cloud into internal data centers.

There may even be more approaches and business models, bringing the concept of virtualization and the cloud together. IT has to consider these changes.

Virtualization Standards

One of today’s issues is the lack of virtualization standards. There are some discussions around building such standards but currently there are at least two strong groups of vendors. One is EMC with its VMware subsidiary, the other is dominated by vendors like Citrix and Microsoft with their Hypervisor-based offerings and their interoperability strategies. We expect that Citrix, Microsoft, and others building on the Xen technologies will improve their market positioning significantly even while today VMware-based strategies are more common.

The threat of dealing with different virtual machines will become a threat to companies soon, either because they have to decide on their virtualization environment or because they will have to provide different types of pre-configured virtual machines. Thus, the pressure for standardization will increase, hopefully leading to quicker results.

Virtualization Strategies

In the meantime, building a virtualization strategy is like building on sand. Today there is no stable foundation for a long-term virtualization strategy. There are many offerings for tactical solutions of current problems. Strategic investments beyond server virtualization in data centers are at high risk because significant changes are expected there. In the data center, it is mainly the decision between either the single vendor VMware or otherwise a group of vendors with Citrix, Microsoft, Novell as well as others. That group is building on compatible technologies.

For application virtualization, a good approach at this point in time might be to stay with vendors and strategies of choice and to try to expand these, e.g. by adding application virtualization to Terminal/Presentation server environments when required.

Kuppinger Cole expects, depending on the impact of the current economic crisis, more stability in the virtualization and cloud markets within 12 to 24 months. But even then more interesting approaches will be on the horizon, mainly virtualized application environments for specific purposes.