Is the operating system dead? If any tech vendors were going to make that argument, you would expect VMware to be at the top of the list - especially now that Google is building its own operating system.
But while VMware claims operating systems such as Windows and Linux are becoming less important because of the virtualisation software VMware created, the company doesn't necessarily expect the OS to disappear any time soon.
VMware CEO Paul Maritz, a former Microsoft Windows executive, recently argued that operating systems are having their jobs stolen by virtualisation and open development frameworks.
Essentially, VMware believes that Windows and other operating systems are no longer necessary to directly manage hardware because of virtualisation, and the proliferation of cloud computing is lessening the importance of the operating system's interaction with applications. But the OS still has a long future because many applications depend upon it and are unlikely to be re-written anytime soon, Bogomil Balkansky, VMware's vice president of product marketing, said in an interview that expands upon Maritz's comments.
"If you look at what an OS does and what vSphere [VMware's virtualisation and management platform] does, clearly there is duplication in terms of managing the hardware," Balkansky says. Now, "it's the virtualisation layer that is the first layer that sits on top of the bare metal. You don't need that part of the operating system anymore that manages the hardware. That is one way the role of the operating system is diminished, because it no longer manages the hardware, at least for the virtualised servers."
The role of the operating system in providing interfaces to applications is also being diminished, both because of virtualisation and the proliferation of new web application development frameworks like Ruby on Rails, he says. New tools for writing applications are "abstracted at a higher level, where if you're a developer you often don't know what operating system is underneath anymore," Balkansky says.
Despite that, Balkansky says operating systems will last a "fairly long time," because "the cycles of rewriting and re-architecting applications is fairly long. Think about how often somebody like SAP comes up with a new architecture. It's not even once in a decade. For most major software applications to be re-architected in a different way, it's going to be some time for sure."
Balkansky's remarks were directed mainly at the server operating system, but VMware believes a similar upheaval will take place on the desktop. VMware has so far failed to deliver on its promised bare-metal desktop hypervisor. But VMware says it is still planning to release the product at some point, and that client hypervisors, along with the proliferation of software-as-a-service applications, will diminish the role of the desktop operating system in much the same way the server OS has been impacted by virtualisation.
"In our view, the desktop basically needs to be separated and abstracted from the underlying hardware device the way a virtual machine is abstracted from a [server]," Balkansky says. "Users increasingly want to access their applications and data from multiple types of devices."
VMware, Microsoft and other vendors such as Red Hat, all claim to provide the best software infrastructures for building cloud networks. Naturally, each vendor's sales pitch emphasises the areas in which they excel. Red Hat recently argued that, other than Microsoft, it is the only vendor that has all the software necessary to build a cloud and move applications from one cloud to another. Those pieces include not just the virtualisation platform, but also the operating system, management tools, middleware and application development frameworks.
VMware, of course, doesn't provide an operating system and thus downplays the role the OS will play in future cloud computing systems. Virtualization is the key technology enabling cloud computing, Balkansky says.
"Virtualization is the crucial enabling technology for cloud. It's not the operating system," he says. "If Windows and Linux was what it takes to build a cloud, we should have been living in a cloud 20 years ago, 30 years ago."
VMware has moved far beyond providing a simple virtualization platform in recent years. In addition to creating and managing virtual servers, vSphere aggregates hardware into logical resource pools that can be managed as one, and increasingly controls not just servers but also storage and networking.
VMware released vSphere 4.1 this week, aiming to improve performance and expand the size of the logical resource pools, a key part of building cloud networks. The expansive nature of vSphere and VMware's partnerships with cloud vendors sets the company apart, as does its ownership of the SpringSource Java development platform and integrations with Salesforce.com and Google App Engine, Balkansky claims.
"This whole notion of being able to enable a hybrid cloud and stretch the logical boundary of your internal data center to include third party infrastructure, being able to build and deploy an application in all of these different environments, but also move across these different environments, it's a unique value proposition from VMware," he says.