Desktop virtualization: end of the traditional operating system?

Quoting from Sci-Tech Today:

According to industry experts, the “operating system” as we know it is going to seem much less important in the near future.
Windows, for example, will not go away but it will no longer be considered the central experience of computing .

The recent release of Apple’s Tiger OS and the anticipation of Microsoft’s Longhorn remind us that, for all intents and purposes, the OS is the computer.

But that might all change in the coming years.

Enter Virtualization

Analysts say Intel did a little thing that helped to bump the OS universe off kilter, although the effects will be delayed.

The chipmaker funded an open-source project started at Cambridge University in the UK, which now is a Silicon Valley startup called XenSource . It makes a virtualization product called Xen hypervisor, which has only about 25,000 lines of code.

In conjunction with the Xen technology, Intel has begun to optimize its chip to run Xen hypervisor. What does it do? The short answer is that it allows a computer to realize its full capabilities, including all the operating systems it holds as well as functions that do not require an operating system.

“What Xen is, is a very thin layer of software that essentially presents to the operating system an idealized hardware abstraction,” said Simon Crosby, vice president of marketing for XenSource. The OS is no longer glued to the hardware but floats above it, talking to Xen as if it were the machine.

No Problem

The implications of such virtualization are enormous. For one, you would be able to run multiple operating systems on your desktop. Perhaps you have wanted to try the free version of Pro Tools that only runs on Windows 98 or would love to add a light Linux-based CAD program like CADvas to your system. No problem. The operating systems will not interfere with each other or the applications.

This general idea was originally intended for large computer systems, which employ partitioning to maximize the use of the machine’s hardware.

But your computer, armed with Intel’s hypervisor-enabled chips, would be able to do essentially the same thing, including doing tasks with which Windows and other operating systems are clumsy. In this paradigm, the OS could not be less important except as a tool to run the applications you need.

Get Me Browsing

“The first partition you might have is a TV partition that would come on, pretty much as soon as you turned the PC on,” said Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds. “There wouldn’t be very much code — it would load very quickly.” Boom. You are watching TV on your PC without having to run it through Windows.

“Now, if you wanted a really fast get-me-browsing Web browser, you’d have a partition for that, too,” Reynolds added, referring to the hypervisor’s capability of easily divvying up partitions. “You’d just load what you need and go.”

Reynolds says the revolution promised by Xen’s hypervisor software could be realized within five years. The era of a single operating system for each desktop might join the ranks of other computer nostalgia like DOS, monochromatic CRT displays or floppy discs.

“It’s a three year transition,” Reynolds acknowledged. “By 2010 everyone will expect hypervisor in their system.”