Virtual machine or fake machine?

In yesterday’s post I wrote a bit about the recently-announced Oracle Virtual Machine. But in the larger scheme, I have always been uncomfortable with the focus on VMWare-style virtual machines as the embodiement of “virtualization”. If a VMWare VM is a virtual machine does that mean a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is not a virtual machine? They are pretty different. When you get a fresh JVM, the first thing you do is not to install an OS on it. To help distinguish them, I think of the VMWare style as a “fake machine” and the JVM style as an “abstract machine”. A “fake machine” behaves as similarly as possible to a physical machine and that is a critical part of its value proposition: you can run all the applications that were developed for physical machines and they shouldn’t behave any differently while at the same time you get some added benefits in terms of saving images, moving images around, more efficiently using your hardware, etc. An “abstract machine”, on the other hand, provides value by defining and implementing a level of abstraction different from that of a physical machine: developing to this level provides you with increased productivity, portability, runtime management capabilities, etc. And then, in addition to these “fake machines” and “abstract machines”, there is the virtualization approach that makes many machines appear as one, often refered to as grid computing. That’s three candidates already for carrying the “virtualization” torch. You can also add Amazon-style storage/computing services (e.g. S3 and EC2) as an even more drastic level of virtualization.

The goal here is not to collect as many buzzwords as possible within one post, but to show how all these efforts represent different ways to attack similar issues of flexibility and scalability for IT. There is plenty of overlap as well. JSRs 121 and 284, for example, can be seen as paving the way for more easily moving JVMs around, WMWare-style. Something like Oracle Coherence lives at the junction of JVM-style “abstract machines” and grid computing to deliver data services. And as always, these technologies are backed by a management infrastructure that makes them usable in the way that best serves the applications running on top of the “virtualized” (by one of the definitions above) runtime infrastructure. There is a lot more to virtualization than VMWare or OVM.

[UPDATED 2007/03/17: Toutvirtual has a nice explanation of the preponderance of “hypervisor based platforms” (what I call “fake machines” above) due to, among other things, failures of operating systems (especially Windows).]

[UPDATED 2009/5/1: For some reason this entry is attracting a lot of comment spam, so I am disabling comments. Contact me if you’d like to comment.]

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