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USENIX Operating systems aren't so great. They lounge like bloated monarchs on a database server — getting far more credit than they're worth. Clutched in their sausage fingers are the keys to a kingdom far too vast to properly manage.

But Stanford professor Mendel Rosenblum believes virtualization may be the guillotine that cuts the OS reign down to size. Rosenblum, who is also a founder of VMware, called for heads to roll during his opening keynote at the USENIX conference in Santa Clara...Virtually roll, of course.

In the place of the modern database operating systems, he envisions a faster, leaner and more local solution to running applications using a virtual client

A traditional OS needs to be able to handle nearly any application a user throws at it. One box might need to be a dedicated email client, another a customer relations client — and the OS needs to be able to run both applications well on potentially different hardware. And here lies the flaw, Rosenblum says.

In a database, it's ultimately the application, not the OS, that does something useful for the user. So under the current OS development model, developers create a system that can support as many applications as possible — or at least get it on as many boxes as possible. Rosenblum believes attempting to cover too much ground has made modern operating systems an bloated mess of code.

"The more complexity you have the more likely there's some sort of back door — some place to get in," Rosenblum said.

And it doesn't stop at security. Rosenblum argues a jungle of code also creates troubles for OS reliability, manageability, performance and even innovation.

This is where Rosenblum believes virtualization can dash in and untie the database from the railroad tracks.

Virtualization is a layer of abstraction that separates physical hardware from the operating system. While traditionally an operating system is married to a particular computer, a virtual computer can run an operating system regardless of its host. A data base may pool its computational resources together and create several virtual machines independent of the hardware. Rather than viewing each box as a separate computer, a user would see it as a certain amount of CPU, memory and storage.

Each virtual machine can be dedicated to one task only. That means it doesn't need complex hardware management and broad application support. If a virtual machine is an email server only, the excess fat in the code used for other applications can be scraped away.

"You start to see where you are actually able to strip down the OS environment," said Rosenblum. "In fact, if you look at some applications, you see when you start to take out all the parts of an OS that the application doesn't need, the OS is pretty small compared to the application itself."

This would allow for specialized operating systems streamlined for a particular application. Rosenblum believes less code in an OS would lead to better resource and power management, easier troubleshooting, more reliability and less openings for an intruder to slip in.

It could also create an opportunity for OS creators to come back into the fold after being cast out to the frontier of web 2.0 development.

Rosenblum admits the industry may not be ready for his virtual coup yet. The hardware market has been to set standards for handling virtual clients. On top of that, current one-license-per-box agreements for OSes don't work well with a virtual system model.

The virtual revolutionaries will have to be satisfied tossing stones into the golden palace before they get their day. But the king's court may open the doors as they become more and more concerned over the cost and infrastructure required to maintain a modern database. ®

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