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The future's in virtualisation

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Woody Allen once famously said, "80 per cent of success is showing up". And often, showing up means you're in the right place at the right time to take advantage of new opportunities.

Nowadays, for instance, we take the talking heads that deliver the news to us on TV and radio for granted. But it wasn't always so. In fact, it's possible to precisely date the birth of broadcast journalism to 13 March 1938.

The day before, Hitler's troops had entered Austria. At the time, a journalist named William Shirer was working for CBS in London when he found out that the Home Office wanted him and his boss - the then-unknown Edward R Murrow - to offer a series of live radio reports from Vienna about the Nazi invasion. The two men performed the jobs with panache and skill, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time: I'm at LinuxWorld in San Francisco this week, and it's as interesting, stimulating, and fun as you might imagine. There's a lot going on here, and much of it relates to security.

In fact, it sometimes seems like I'm hearing reactions to, and support for, many of the columns I've written in this very space over the years. In particular, one topic strongly stood out for me, but from a new angle that deserves examination.

VMWare & virtualisation

I recently wrote about virtualisation, claiming that soon virtualisation will be expected by end users as a regular part of the operating system. Even if they don't understand how it works, users will sure understand that it does work to make their lives easier, safer, and more productive.

I've seen further evidence at LinuxWorld that backs up my assertion. VMWare, Virtuozzo, Xen, and other virtualisation technologies have been in evidence here in San Francisco, and their offerings are looking more robust than ever.

However, when I wrote my earlier column, I left out one aspect of virtualisation that is just as important, if not more so, than the benefits on the client end that I discussed. I'm referring, of course, to the server.

Here's my advice: VMWare is the company to watch. It's easily the most mature company in this space, and its products just work. Now that VMWare Player and VMWare Server are free, there's absolutely no reason for security pros not to download the software and try these products out (Editor's note: they still don't yet support Mac OS X - try Parallels). But simply downloading VMWare Server, for instance, isn't enough. You need a host OS to run inside your fresh installation of VMWare Server, or you've essentially got a car without an engine.

You could install Windows, of course, but really...what fun is that? And who wants to mess with all the hassles of Windows that we know so well? And finally, this is LinuxWorld, dammit, so we're just going to pretend that Windows never came up.

Side note: When I approached the FreeBSD booth, my first question was, "So, what's FreeBSD doing here at LinuxWorld?" Without losing a beat, the FreeBSD guy responded, "Actually, in an alternate universe, I'm attending BSDWorld and there's one Linux booth. However, my transporter malfunctioned 'cause it was running Linux, and so here I am." Best nerd one-liner I've heard at the show.

VMWare made an announcement at the show that solves the problem of what security pros should try out with their copies of VMWare Server. To understand the import of the announcement, let's briefly review how VMWare works.

After installing VMWare, you could install Debian GNU/Linux, for instance, and then customise, tweak, and configure everything to your liking. If you were feeling particularly ambitious, you could then take the resulting VMWare image file and post it so that anyone else on the Net could access, download, and use your VMWare image (see why this wouldn't really work with Windows?).

VMWare calls those images "virtual appliances," and you can see the mega-list on its website. You'll find everything from pre-packaged installs of Fedora Core, Kubuntu, and Freespire - all desktop focused - to virtual appliances designed with more of a classic "focus on one task and do it well" approach.

In other words, more like a hardware appliance that you'd buy and drop onto your network, except that in this case the appliance is one of your existing boxes running VMWare and a pre-packaged (free) image.

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