Posey's Tips & Tricks

Will the Hypervisor Be the New OS?

Brien lays out his argument on why you will soon start to see features of a traditional operating system shifting to the hypervisor.

If someone were to ask me what I thought that the most important trend in IT over the last 10 years was, I would have to say virtualization. Cloud computing is an important trend too, but I think that in terms of importance, virtualization overshadows cloud computing.

The reason why I am bringing this up is because I believe that we are about to see another major shift occur in server virtualization. I think that in the next several years you will see server operating systems become smaller and more purpose-minded, while many of the features that have traditionally been found in the server operating system will be moved to the hypervisor.

Obviously this is a radical statement. Furthermore, it implies that in a few years all servers will be virtualized (because they will have to rely on the hypervisor for certain features that are found in the OS today). Even so, there is quite a bit of evidence leading me to make this prediction.

Prediction 1: The Operating System Will Get Smaller
There are two main parts to my prediction. The first part is that the server operating systems will get smaller. This is already starting to happen to some extent. Probably the best evidence of this is that Windows Server 2012 is designed so that a default installation does not include the server GUI. For the first time, PowerShell is Microsoft's preferred method for managing Windows Server.

The absence of a GUI obviously shrinks the size of the operating system, but it also helps the OS to operate more efficiently when it is run within a virtual machine because less overhead means that fewer hardware resources are consumed.

Windows Server 2012 also offers a volume level deduplication feature. This feature is also geared toward virtual datacenters because deduplication can allow multiple virtual machines to fit within less physical storage space.

The main point that I am trying to make is that there is no denying that Windows Server 2012 was designed with virtualization in mind. Sure, Windows Server 2012 can be deployed as a standalone server operating system running on physical hardware, but the OS is optimized for the virtual datacenter.

Prediction 2: Operating System Features Will Be Moved to the Hypervisor
The second part of my prediction is that features that are traditionally found in the operating system will be moved to the hypervisor. To find supporting evidence for this prediction it is necessary to dig a little bit deeper.

From a Microsoft standpoint, there isn't a lot of evidence to support this prediction just yet. Hyper-V 3.0 includes hundreds of new features, but it would be a stretch to suggest that some of the new features are designed to replace operating system-level features. At best, some of the new Hyper-V features augment OS features. For example, Hyper-V 3.0 supports NIC teaming. NIC teaming involves combining multiple physical network adapters into a single logical network adapter that is fault-tolerant and that offers higher bandwidth than is possible with a single physical NIC. Even though this is a Hyper-V feature, virtualized operating systems can take advantage of the underlying NIC teaming even though they cannot see the individual NICs that make up the team.

The most compelling evidence of OS features being moved to the hypervisor comes from VMware. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to fly out to VMware's corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. and get a preview of the soon-to-be-released VMware 5.1.

Starting with version 5.1, VMware's vision is to focus on virtual datacenters rather than simply on virtual servers. What this means is that the VMware will be able to manage things like virtual networks, virtualized storage, etc. In order to achieve this vision, VMware had to enhance their software to include a lot of new capabilities.

Even though I never heard anyone from VMware say that VMware was destined to become an operating system replacement, I really think that is probably their long term goal. While I was in California, I got the chance to work through several labs and many of those labs involved performing hypervisor-level configurations of things that would traditionally be found within a server operating system. Having seen this I have to say that there is very little standing in the way of VMware creating their own lightweight server OS. Even if VMware doesn't go that direction however, I think that we will see both VMware and Microsoft moving a lot of the core OS functionality out of the operating system and into the hypervisor.

This approach just makes sense. Centralizing core functionality in the hypervisor would mean less redundancy within VMs, greater VM efficiency and arguably better security (since critical features no longer exist within the OS).

Of course I'm not a psychic, so my predictions could be way off, but I don't think so. Even though I haven't seen VMware or Microsoft's long-term roadmaps, there is a lot of evidence pointing to lighter weight server operating systems and heavier weight hypervisors.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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