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Server virtualization in the data center

Server virtualization moved into the mainstream data center faster than anyone imagined. This guide offers a pragmatic and comprehensive look at this year's breakout technology.

What is server virtualization?

Virtualization is software that allows a piece of hardware to run multiple operating system images at once. The technology got its start on mainframes decades ago, allowing Big Iron to avoid wasting expensive processing power.

In 1998, EMC subsidiary VMware Inc. got into the virtualization business, and jumped from startup to powerhouse in just a few years by taking virtualization to the x86 platform -- the fastest growing segment of the server market.

The standard for x86 servers was to run one application on one server. And that was OK, when servers were cheap to buy and cheap to run. But then things started to get messy as more and more servers were added to meet application demand. Data center managers were facing serious utilization issues, spending millions on wasted server space.

But with virtualization, that could all change. Instead of running one application on a machine, people could run several applications, all isolated into virtual operating system images that wouldn't affect each other.

VMware cornered the market for x86 servers, and almost everyone agrees they are the de facto leader on the platform. But others are closing in.

Though Microsoft Windows has only offered Virtual Server since 2004, competitors and analysts agree that Microsoft is a big player in any space it chooses to be in because of its huge customer base. Other vendors are investing heavily in Xen, a hypervisor from the open source community. And there are a host of other offerings including Virtuozzo from SWsoft, Solaris containers from Sun Microsystems, and more.

IT pros are using virtualized resources for testing and development resources; carving off parts of servers already in use rather than buying new ones to try new things. Others are reducing the number of servers by increasing machine utilization.

Experts said the next step for virtualization technology is management -- treating the server farm as a virtual pool of computing resources, enabling companies to move virtual machines around or tie them together into large machine images.

The whole topic of systems management could evolve into management of virtual systems in the future.

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