Wireless and The Cloud and Virtualization: Definitions Required

Just what is virtualization, anyway, and how does it relate to wireless and the cloud? Contrary to what I believe, the answer is apparently not all that obvious.

Unfortunately, some of the most interesting conversation and debate at conferences like Interop New York, where I was all last week, take place away from the formal venue and instead play out in the Speakers Room or in the hallways, among speakers at the event and anyone else foolish enough to be caught in the consequential whirlwind and/or crossfire. The Interop Advisory Board, of which I am very proud to be a member, includes some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people in IT. And this year the debate was thick, the passions high, with the conversation in some cases just barely this side of impugned lineage.

One such debate began when I was foolish enough to suggest that The Cloud is really a form of virtualization with respect to wireless. As might be guessed, there isn't universal agreement on exactly what The Cloud or virtualization might in fact be. Such lack of agreement on the basic, essential meaning of terms is often at the root of glorious arguments (remember Bill Clinton's infamous "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is"?), but that's OK if one has an open (or at least tolerant) mind and the opportunity to clarify.

I contend that virtualization is the science of simulating a physical resource with a software construct. Virtual machines, which, to be fair, usually involve a bit of specialized hardware support in the form of a few restricted machine instructions and a little architecture, are likely the oldest example here - simulating a computer on another computer to such a degree that software on the simulated machine, including the operating system, doesn't know the difference between real and simulated (virtual). Virtualization in this case is now used primarily to share the enormous processing power of today's microprocessors among applications that require less, via isolation at the OS level, increasing the value and efficiency of a given server by minimizing idle time. My first PC (literally, I had a key to the machine room and could operate the computer all by myself), by the way, was a US$7M IBM 360/67 mainframe running CP-67/CMS, one of the first to implement virtual memory, and which I spent many hours exploring the inner workings of.

Similarly, we have virtual memory, mapping main storage that doesn't really exist as such to secondary storage while giving the application the impression that it really does have all that RAM, again implemented in (systems) software with the help of a few specialized machine instructions. So, then, Cloud storage? Ditto - a (simulated) disk drive (or, perhaps, a file system or just sea of non-volatile storage) magically available at the end of a virtual wire. And ditto for servers and resources of all forms hosted in The Cloud. So, then, Cloud as virtual? I don't see the problem here. And I think it's important to keep an open mind on all this - we can't get locked into rigid definitions at this point as the evolution of what is likely the key enabling technology for mobility, with The Cloud is, and needing to remain for the time being, at least, a fluid construct. We are, after all, still exploring how to make the best use of this concept.

Speaking of virtual machines, an interesting conversation that I had at a Wall Street event in New York last week explored the opposite of virtualization - using multiple real processors in the service of a single large application, or what we usually call supercomputing (and my field of endeavor before wireless and mobile). Big Data and Big Analysis come to mind as key beneficiaries here, with both also of increasing importance today. Eventually, all enterprise IT functions will be implemented on supercomputers, with a social-networking front end enabling if not encouraging collaboration, enhanced data management, and compensating for the limitations of users access all of this through mobile devices.

And that's what all this has to do with wireless and mobility (no debate on the definition of these two here, thankfully)? Whether based on virtual machines or virtual memory or not, The Cloud, now essential to wireless, is essentially a big virtual resource for mobile users. Processing? Check. Applications? Check. Storage? Check. Synchronization and other intrinsic services? You get the idea. The challenge remains continuous connectivity, and for that we need to rely on the wireless carriers continuing to expand coverage and capacity.

And I'm proud to have once again helped Verizon in their efforts here. I've upgraded my personal arsenal with a Samsung Galaxy S III and an iPhone 5, the latter to be delivered sometime this month. My Galaxy I, remarkable in its day, is truly showing its age, and Verizon's new pricing plan actually saves me money if I don't exceed 2 GB of data per month. So perhaps I've not helped the cause all that much... Anyway, the iPhone 5 will be my primary phone, and that's because we're a Mac shop. I still think the Galaxy S III is the best phone I've ever used, though. I am also planning on adding a Windows 8 tablet for Lab (not production) use, and I also recently got a Nexus 7 tablet, which I will review shortly. For now, though, I absolutely love it.

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