Why Virtualization Is Important to You

July 2009

I’m mad at Conflickr right now. Thanks to this worm, I’m receiving more spam that ever before. You know the canon: Viagra, watches, expanded body parts, acai berries. I think if I’m ever confronted with an actual acai berry, I’ll gag. Who would buy from these jerks?

Over a number of months the bad guys infected a lot of computers with this worm, which installs software that then uses some of that computer’s processing power to act as a zombie that’s under the control of these bad guys and is used for whatever nefarious purpose that suits them.

As the beginning of this past April loomed, news reports were asking, “What will Conflickr be used for?” Experts were scared. They could tell by the computer code of this worm that this network of zombies would launch into action April 1. In fact, this worldwide network of zombies working in concert is actually a type of virtual supercomputer, called a botnet. And it could be used for anything, including wreaking havoc.

But April 1 came and went, and nothing bad happened. Then the volume of spam began to increase. On one hand, there was a collective sigh of relief. But on the other, damn that spam. I must be getting hundreds a day.

Actually, I’m not here to whine. There’s a lesson in this: increasingly computers are shedding their boundaries. In the case of the botnet, it’s a virtual supercomputer made of up zombies around the world.

It used to be that you had a computer on your desk, installed software, and used it for specific things, mainly as a fancy typewriter. Almost no personal computers were online when I began writing this column in 1994.

Now I don’t think I know anyone who uses a computer who isn’t online. Just think how limited it would be: no web browsing, no e-mail. Computers have shed their clear boundaries and are now connected.

Here’s the nub of it: when you’re using a web application such as Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, what’s actually happening has some similarities with the botnet, a sort of cooperative computing. Take Gmail. The software resides on Google’s servers. But when you access Gmail, the processing power is shared by Google’s server and your web browser, using technologies such as Java or Ajax that are built into your browser.

This is how most of Google’s web applications work: word processing, spreadsheet, calendar, contacts, web page creation, maps, photo editing, 3-D modeling, and more. And many websites as well.

The browser is becoming a sort of operating system that works in concert with websites and web applications. At a recent meeting with independent software developers, Google’s pitch was that “The browser is the desktop.”

Just as botnet is a virtual supercomputer that exists beyond the confines of an individual computer, so too is a service like Google offering a sort of virtual desktop. We’ve reached a point where you don’t really need to buy Microsoft Office or use a commercial operating system. You can do everything using web applications like Google’s suite on a computer that runs an open-source operating system and browser.

Increasingly you’ll be facing the choice of whether to buy software, install it, and keep it updated. Or simply use your web browser as a virtual desktop.

The advantages of a virtual desktop are many. You save money, you don’t have to mess with your computer as much, and your documents and applications are available from any computer. If your hard drive crashes, and you lose everything, nothing hurt. Everything is already out there on the cloud.

Similarly, you’re increasingly facing the choice of whether to use virtual data storage — or cloud computing. Your data is stored in a sort of virtual hard drive elsewhere in the world and is available to you on any computer or cell phone. There’s a proliferation of companies offering this, from Apple’s MobileMe to companies such as Soonr which even lets me use my iPhone to access and view all of my documents.

What about security? Everything gets encrypted before it leaves your computer. And these companies tend to spread your bits over a number of servers, so even if someone hacked their computer and broke the encryption, they’d still just see gibberish.

Your computer desktop and your data storage no longer exist solely within the confines of your computer. Web-based e-mail has led the way. It may time to change the way you think about your “computer” and realize that it’s not just that box on your desk anymore.

© 2009 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen