The story of virtualization

The journey from the early days of batch processing to these days of virtualized computing has been truly an exciting march of progress. The innovations and ideas have truly transformed the computing landscape as we know it which promises of still more breathtaking changes to come.

Batch processing: Programs written on the computers of those days used punch cards also known as Hollerith cards. A separate terminal would be used to edit and create the program which would result in a stack of punched card. The different stacks of user programs would be loaded into a card reader which would then queue the programs for processing by the computers of those days. Each program would be executed in sequential order.

Imagine if our days were structured sequentially where would need a particular task to complete fully before we start another one. That would be a true waste of time. While each task progresses we could focus on other tasks.

The inefficiencies of batch processing soon became obvious and led to the development of multi-tasked systems in which each user’s applications is granted a slice of the CPU cycles for use. The Operating System (OS) would cycle through the list of processes granting then a specific number of cycles to compute each time. Soon this development led to different operating systems including Windows, Unix, Linux and so on.

Multitasking: Mutitasking evolved because designers realized that the Central Processor Unit (CPU) cycles were wasted when programs waited for input/output to arrive or complete. Hence the computer’s operating system(OS) or the central nervous system would swap the user’s program out of the CPU and grant the CPU to other user applications. This way the CPU is utilized efficiently.

The pen analogy : For this analogy let us consider a fountain pen to be the CPU. While Joe is writing a document, he uses the fountain pen. Now, lets assume that Joe needs to print a document. While Joe saunters to pick up his printout, the fountain pen is given to Kartik who needs his tax report. Kartik soon gets tired and takes a coffee break. Now the pen is given to Jane who needs to fill up a form. When Jane completes her form the pen is handed over to Joe who just returned with his print out. The pen (CPU) is thus used efficiently among the many users.

While multi-tasking was a major breakthrough it did lead to an organization’s applications being developed in different OS flavors. Hence a large organization would be left with software silos each with its own unique OS. This was a problem when the organization wanted to consolidate all its relevant software under a common umbrella. For e.g. A telecom operator may have payroll applications that run on Windows, accounting on Linux and human resources on Unix. It thus became difficult for the organization to get a holistic view of what happened in the Finance department as a whole. Enter ‘virtualization’. Virtualization enables applications created for different OS’es to run over a layer known as the “hypervisor” that abstracts the raw hardware.

Virtualization: Virtualization in essence abstracts the raw hardware through a software application called the Hypervisor. The Hypervisor runs on a bare metal of the CPU. Applications that run over the Hypervisor can choose the operating systems of their choice namely Windows, Linux, Unix etc. The Hypervisor would effectively translate the different OS instructions to the machine instructions of the underlying processor

The car analogy: Imagine that you got into a car. Once inside the car you had a button which when pressed would convert the car either into a roaring Ferrari, Lamborghini or a smooth Mercedes, BMW. The dashboard, the seats, engine all magically transformed into the car of your dreams. This is exactly what virtualization tries to achieve.

Server Pooling: However, virtualization went further than just enabling applications created on different OS to run on a single server loaded with the hypervisor. Virtualization also enabled consolidation of server farms. Virtualization brings together the different elements of an enterprise namely the servers each with its memory, processors and different storage options (disk attached storage (DAS), fiber channel storage access network (FC SAN), Network Access Storage (NAS)) and networking elements. Virtualization consolidates the compute, storage and networking elements together and provides an illusion where appropriate compute, storage and network are provided to applications on demand. The applications are provided with virtual machines with the necessary computing, storage and network units as required. Virtualization also took care of providing high availability(HA), mobility and security to the applications besides enabling an illusion of shared resources. Besides if the any of the servers on which an application is executing goes down for any reason the application is migrated seamlessly to another server.

The train analogy: Assume that there was train with ‘n’ number of wagons. Commuters can get on and get off at any station. When they get on the train they are automatically allocated a seat, a berth and so on. The train keeps track of how occupied the train is and provides the appropriate seating dynamically. If the wheels of any wagon gets stuck the passenger is lifted and shifted,seamlessly, to another wagon while the stuck wagon is safely de-linked from the train.

Virtualization has many applications. It is the dominant technology that is used in the creation of public, private or a hybrid cloud thus creating providing an on-demand scalable computing environment. Virtualization is also used in consolidation of server farms enabling optimum usage of the servers.

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