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June 8, 2011 / BrianOFlan

Blow-your-mind concept: Virtualization

If you had to explain virtualization to someone for the first time, how would you do it?

There I was at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  They have an intricate doll house composed of countless tiny but expensive artifacts.  It was one of my wife’s favorite exhibits:  In this whole huge museum, one tiny little house full of tiny little things.

On another floor they have a huge room full of one giant model railroad.  The railroad winds around multiple cities-in-miniature, including Seattle and Chicago.  Because we were in Chicago and there was the little model of Chicago with little model buildings, I wondered if I could reach down and lift up the roof of the miniature Museum of Science and Industry like a lid.  Then I could look inside with a microscope and see if the miniature museum contains a scale model of the model railroad, with an even more miniature museum in it.  Like a dream within a dream.

That’s a good way to start sneaking ideas about virtualization into everyday situations.  Suppose we won a lot of money and so we bought a house so big that it contained separate houses for each member of the family.  That way there’s no fighting or blaming each other when we lose things.  What if someone had a doll house inside their house within the family’s uber-house?

Or what if we had a computer that was really powerful but mostly sat around all day bored because only a few people could use at once?  It can only be configured one way at a time and maybe it takes a long time to switch configurations.  What if you could walk into that computer’s mind, like some kind of Matrix-meets-Tron?

What a strange world the inside of a computer might be.  You’d probably have magic powers.  You could build several computers out of thin air (or out of computer mind juice).  Then you could set up each of those computers-within-a-computer with a different configuration.

People using the real computer could decide whether or not to use it directly or to use one of its sub-computers.  Now more people are happy because they can use all kinds of configurations.  You’re happy you don’t have to re-configure the one giant computer all the time.  Plus, the computer is happy to finally use a better portion of its over-sized brain.

What’s really going to bake your noodle later on is what happens if you went inside the real computer, made some sub-computers and then went inside one of the sub-computers to create another layer of computers-in-a-computer.  Sub-sub-computers?  Or what if they went inside you and made some sub-people who were way better at configuring different kinds of computers and sub-computers?

Well, a sub-computer could be called a virtual computer or a virtual machine, VM for short, since it’s not a real computer but rather a computer simulation of a computer.  It can do almost everything a real computer can.  It’s virtually a computer.  The layer of computer simulation that handles sub-computers is what many call virtualization, a word that never satisfies spell-checkers.

VMware and Citrix are two top companies making this virtualization real.  Install a free program and then configure your own VM the way you want.  If you like it, save a copy.  Tired of installing more and more software programs on your personal computer?  Install them on a VM instead.  If it gets cluttered and slows down, make a new, fresh VM from a clean template.  Create a whole virtual network of interconnected virtual machines, all behaving like separate machines but all running within the confines of one single, actual machine.  Set up a few big, real computers and run virtual computers across them:  If one of the real computers dies, the virtual computers wake up on the surviving real computers and keep working.  Need multiple environments in your multi-tiered development process?  Fire up dozens of VMs in minutes:  Configure development, integration, staging and test strings before putting it into production.

Alas, the one thing you can’t (or shouldn’t?) really do with virtualization yet is create unlimited layers of sub-virtualization.  So much for sub-sub-computers.  Someday we may overcome this so-called Spinny-Top Confusion.

So today I set up an initial virtualization environment on a medium-sized (16p x 48GB) server.  Tomorrow I explain it to the team.

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