Computing for the Future – Virtualization, Cloud Computing, and Software As a Service

In the early 1900s no one would believe that with a few short years, the kerosene man (I say man in this case because the prevalence of women in this type of field during this time period was simply non-existent) was who filled their night lamps would become obsolete. These men and this entire industry suddenly disappeared with the advent of electricity as a service provided by centralized utilities. In the early 1990s this same sort of shift happened with online services, while CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy all had their loyal fan base, things quickly changed, and soon the age of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) was born. What we are witnessing today is tantamount to the same change – people are switching off their servers, trading in their workstations, and getting rid of their clunky desktops, all in response to new offerings online that allow them to do exactly the same things, only cheaper, faster, and without having to install complicated software packages. The three major technologies which are moving this forward are virtualization, cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS).

While most consumers may have heard of virtualization and cloud computing, the terminology and obscure nature of these technologies leads one to wonder what they mean. For the average consumer, virtualization and cloud computing are appear to be exactly the same thing.

Imagine for a moment, you are a manager of a large company and have some property to use. You could build a single office on it, but this would mean that, you could only have a very small company using that space. On the other hand, you could build a large building that has the potential to contain many “offices” simultaneously and room for expansion. You can use the building in whatever manner you choose; however, if you only have five employees, most of the space in the building is being wasted. If I was the manager in this company and saw that I was only using one floor of the building, I could either let the other floors sit vacant until I did need to use them, or, if I were enterprising, I could rent out those floors to other sublets. By renting out my time to other sublets, I get the most of my building space. Virtualization is just like this. I have a single piece of computer hardware on which I run several different “virtualized computers” at the same time. Each of these virtualized computers gives me the same benefit of a regular computer, the only difference is that I do not need multiple pieces of hardware to rent out the space.

Cloud computing takes virtualization to an entirely new level. Think about the manager of the building, and now assume that he has 3 buildings for rent. Since they have a lot of space available, they decide to rent out chunks of space for conventions and to karate instructors to operate their businesses. Since conventions and lessons do not take place all the time, they can schedule the building usage based on capacity. Now imagine that a very large convention comes into town. The manager can schedule space for this convention in one entire building (since it is very large) or spread the convention out across multiple buildings (because of other events going on). The 3 building analogy is the same as cloud computing – where your computing resource is available across multiple pieces of hardware. To the end user (the renter) they are getting their own private “virtualized computer” (space to hold the event); to the servers (the buildings), they are distributing their workload across several pieces of hardware at the same time (the events).

For most end users, the main technology impact will come in the form of Web 2.0, thin clients, and Software as a Service. The vast majority of users are currently using some form of thin client even as we speak. Many people have email accounts with Google and check their email through their web browser. Interactive websites such as Facebook allow them to maintain their connections to their social network. Online file sharing services (such as Dropbox) allow them to access their files anywhere. Finally, online applications such as Picsa and Google Docs allow users to perform most of their tasks normally done on their desktop computer, online from anywhere in the world. The concept of the thin client is a very small, low powered computer (such as a net book) which connects to a much more powerful computer through the network (such as a web browser accessing Google Docs).

Thin clients and software as a service will free users from being tied to their computers, and allow them to access their information anywhere they can find an internet connection. Just as electricity and the internet became centralized utilities and services everyone takes for granted, soon software programs will become the same. No longer will people spend thousands of dollars on computers which are rarely used and complicated software programs they barely touch – software as a service will become their new “telephone bill” and allow everyone the same access and ability as large organizations without all the upfront costs.

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