There has been a trend emerging in computing for several years called Virtualization. Virtualization simply means that rather than running a single “computer” on a piece of hardware you can run multiple computers on one machine. Virtualization offers some interesting opportunities such as the ability to distribute and scale your applications in a cloud environment, the ability to test out different operating systems on your own laptop, and the ability to create information ‘appliances’ which have a specific scope, purpose, and interface.
There are many ways of going ‘virtual’ with computing. For example, in order to better understand server architecture, tech staff are running an application called VirtualBox on their laptops that allow them to run a virtual server on their WFU Thinkpad. On a larger scale, the library is using hosting companies such as ExLibris and Amazon cloud-computing to run persistent servers and key library services (our Voyager system for example is on a virtualized platform).
One of the fascinating aspects of virtualization is that it allows you to access technology resources on an as-needed basis. This allows us, for example, to reduce the storage and memory footprints on our local laptops by moving memory and cpu intensive operations to a cloud or other virtual environment and accessing them only when needed. Another key outcome of Virtualization is that it allows you to use a laptop and operating system of your choice while enabling you to get to those key Enterprise systems when needed.
There are, of course, drawbacks. Virtualization is more complex than standard computing and requires a more robust infrastructure (network bandwidth and server capacity). Further, Virtualization often requires network connectivity to access these resources. While this can be an issue in a lot of environments, universities (and libraries in particular) happen to already require network connectivity (and apparently coffee :)) because so many of our products and services include digital and internet-based elements.
There are some interesting projects out there which use Virtualization on a University wide scale. For example. RIT recently used virtual servers on Amazon to provide computer lab resources to students. The NCSU and UNC systems run a similar system based on different technology which allows students, faculty, and staff to provision computing resources on an as-needed basis. At UNC, this enabled small departmental computer labs to provide a virtual ‘lab-image’ which students could access from anywhere – not just using the 15 computer lab in the department. On our own campus, the computer science department uses virtualization to provide students with custom configured development environments including Linux, Solaris, and Mac OS X.
In the coming weeks the ZSR Library will be partnering with Computer Science to conduct a test of Virtualization for both public and staff computing. More information to come but for now we have three machines across from circulation doing the tough work of being thin.
If you are interested in seeing what a virtual machine looks like or want to try out a different operating system on your own laptop without messing up your current Windows setup come talk to a member of the tech team.