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Jan 28 2008   3:47PM GMT

What is virtual networking? Readers respond to “virtually everything.”

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Virtualization was top of the mind for IT administrators and media alike last year. 2008 is no different. Just review the much-discussed recent survey, IT priorities in 2008. If a technology can be remotely related to any virtual, you can bet that vendors will do so. “Virtual insanity” isn’t a 90s Jamiroquai tune.
Our job, as always, is to cut through the buzzwords to the meat of what any particular technology is, how it works, who is using it and why it’s important. Read our definitions for server virtualization, application virtualization, file virtualization, virtual machine and paravirtualization to get just a taste of our virtual offerings. We even added Second Life to the database, after it became clear that virtual worlds needed some explanation as well.

If you want the complete virtual file, head over to the complete virtualization taxonomy.

A couple of readers responded to a Word of the Day from last week, virtual networking. One asked for clarification, the other outright disputed the entry. Following is most of our definition for virtual networking, if you missed it (and if you did, make sure to sign up for the Word of the Day newsletter).

Virtual networking is a technology that facilitates the control of one or more remotely located computers or servers over the Internet. Data can be stored and retrieved, software can be run and peripherals can be operated through a Web browser as if the distant hardware were onsite.

Virtual networking facilitates consolidation of diverse services and devices on a single hardware platform called a virtual services switch. The centralization of control reduces the cost and complexity of operating and maintaining hardware and software compared with administering numerous separate devices in widely separated geographical locations. Maintenance personnel and administrators can install device drivers, perform tests and resolve problems on the remote machines from a single location.

It may be necessary to install virtual networking software on the remote computers or servers to take advantage of this technology. Several vendors, including Microsoft and VMware, offer virtual networking software. Some vendors offer comprehensive virtual networking services, allowing business network administrators to outsource labor and resources to the vendor. Virtual networking capability is a standard feature of Windows XP and Vista.

Here’s our reader’s request for clarification:

“Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought accessing something over the Internet is still a physical network. Yes, it isn’t a LAN, but I think it wouldn’t be appropriate to classify as “Virtual Networking”. It is a real network, physical connection, but under the cooperation of the original network (ie a company or home network) , telecommunications provider and possibly an intermediate ISP. It is still all physical and I would think “Virtual” would be an inappropriate classification/definition.” -Justin Snyder

Justin, thanks for writing in. In this sense, the term virtual is used in a more figurative than literal way. In general, virtual simply means the quality of effecting something without actually being that something. All of the various virtualization technologies are a variant of this concept. In server virtualization, one physical server is divided into multiple isolated virtual environments, each of which is masked from the users. Virtual tape makes it possible to save data as if it were being stored on tape although it’s actually be stored on hard disk or on another storage medium. A guest OS is an operating system installed in a virtual machine or disk partition in addition to the host or main OS. In each case, a software layer has been added in lieu of a physical connection.

Virtual networking is much the same. A virtual sevices switch allows the sysadmin to monitor or change configurations remotely — or virtually — instead of going to the location in person. Justin, you’re right — whenever you access something online, it does flow over physical devices at one point or another, even if it’s wireless — but the technologies that underpin much of that traffic are these days, often virtual.

Our other reader strongly disagreed with the idea of virtual networking on a more existential level:

This entry [virtual networking] is specious and should be deleted. Unix workstations and servers have had this capability for at least 15 years. And there is nothing virtual about it. It simply uses a little hardware and OS capability, accessed via the network. Since when did anything and everything involving the network become “virtual”? Is e-commerce going to be renamed “virtual shopping”?

Microsoft and VMware have done nothing more than catch up to 1990’s technology, slap a “virtual” label on it, and pretended as though they invented it. Give us a break. -Brian Herzog

Brian, I agree. Virtual has now been attached to so many products that the term is well on its way to being meaningless. You make a great point, with respect to the historical abilities of Unix gurus far and wide to effect changes through the command line, abilities only now being entrusted to mere mortals using Windows GUIs. That being said, even if Microsoft and VMware are adopting “old” technologies and incorporating them into their offerings, I think the process of networking using this kind of is fairly described as virtual. If I’m wrong, I’m sure I’ll hear more from you, our dear readers, on this count.

Thanks for writing in!

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