The future of virtualization: Don’t forget the so-called 'old'

 Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman tests out some of the functions of the IBM 360 computer.

 Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman tests out some of the functions of the IBM 360 computer.

Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Virtualization is currently a hot topic, along with "the future." But what do discussions of the future usually accomplish in tech?

This is an exciting moment for data virtualization. The options available for virtualization are expanding, and are providing advances in processing speed around big data and data integration. This is just one of many areas around virtualization getting attention…and usually with the words "new" and "future" close by. But if the technology that pioneered virtualization – mainframes – is mentioned at all, it is usually dismissed. Why? Usually, the motivation is to serve the interests of the people who are trying to sell their product.

Do you remember the classic sci-fi movie Logan's Run? In it, anyone who reaches the age of 30 meets his or her end in a public ceremony. Sometimes it feels like our industry has the same attitude towards existing software and hardware. This shortsighted approach does a disservice to technology, new and old. Let's look at the reasons why from the perspective of mainframes and virtualization.

American Founding Father Patrick Henry said, "I know of no way of judging the future but by the past." Let's do that. The history of virtualization takes us right to early mainframes. Between 1964 and 1968, IBM's CP series of operating systems created the first version of hypervisors. In 1972, the company introduced the capacity to run virtual machines within the mainframe environment. It took more than a decade of gains in processing power for distributed computing to become a feasible way to support virtualization. In the meantime, mainframes continued to lay the foundations for how virtualization operates today.

Let's pretend someone reads the above and says, "Fine, so mainframes invented virtualization. But the future of virtualization isn't going to come from those old machines, right?" This is one of those falsehoods that not only shortchange the mainframes, but also severely limits the computing options available for those who buy into the myth of mainframe obsolescence. Not only are mainframes still relevant in the realm of virtualization, they are innovating some of the most powerful and dynamic virtualization solutions.

One example is mainframe data virtualization: The Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) method of data management can't meet the needs of today's enterprise-class analytics by itself. In order to process massive amounts of data in real time, businesses need to do whatever they can to gain speed. How about moving the data, applications, and servers closer together? This is precisely what mainframe data virtualization does. By using virtual machines specially designed for individual tasks, yet still part of the mainframe, the central processor is able to continue handling tasks without introducing latency. And by storing data in the same physical space with applications, businesses can achieve remarkable times for analytics or numerous other tasks associated with Big Data. And by the way, some mainframes can handle 8,000 virtual machines simultaneously!

Transactional data innovation is another example. Mobile applications are only one of many growing areas that require huge amounts of transactions to be processed without delays and with the expectation of total accuracy. These transactional data operations are expanding in number and complexity, and the tech industry is furiously trying to develop new ways to handle the computing requirements. Some of the greatest advances in this area have come from mainframe developers. In coordination with virtual machines (VMs), ongoing innovations in middleware continue to reduce the time needed for processing data between VMs and improve throughput to incredible levels – heck, even futuristic levels.

By now I hope that the role of mainframes in shaping virtualization – past, present, and future – is clear. But the larger point I hope to demonstrate is that the tech industry has a "future" problem. When we focus on the future, it often means we neglect the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is usually more complex than a sound bite can convey. It would be in my self-interest to claim that mainframes are the only answer for virtualization. But the future has always been about different ideas competing, making each other stronger. That's what spurs innovation, including the innovations that have made mainframes a lasting and powerful force.

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