Virtual Everything – (or…what I learned from Bitcoin)

At a recent family gathering, my eldest son held forth on Bitcoin.  I knew that he was trading in the medium, but I really didn’t understand much about it.  His propeller spins pretty fast so the conversation went over my head before very long. Still, I received a respectable grounding in this form of virtual money.  It caused me to ruminate on just how much virtualization touches our lives and work.

The virtual representation of things is not a recent phenomenon.  In fact, it has been going on for a very long time.  Bitcoin is a capital example (no pun intended).  While itself a recent invention, it is a virtual representation of the concept of currency, which has been around awhile.  Currency, in turn, is a representation of precious metal money, which itself is a representation of goods traded in barter.  In all cases, they are a medium of exchange representing a store of value that is recognizable, fungible, divisible, transportable, and transferable.  So the idea of abstracting something real for the purposes of making it more portable or usable has been around awhile.

I am a big fan of virtualization.  For years I have worked on virtual machines running inside of my laptop.  I have an entire suite of VMs running a variety of operating systems.  This affords me tremendous flexibility in meeting the needs of my various clients.  It helps bridge the gap between the user experience of the Mac and software that is not available on that platform.  It allows me to isolate a machine securely when I log on to a virtual private network.  It allows me quick recovery if one should crash (providing I have been performing my backups).

The virtual machine, though, is only one example of how technology has improved the reach and flexibility of what we do.  Consider the virtual meeting, which is both thriving and maturing.  It is so easy now to conduct a conference with a client or colleague across town or halfway around the world.  With voice and desktop sharing (e.g., GoToMeeting) or voice and video (e.g., Skype) it is easier than ever to stay in touch and collaborate long distance.  These technologies not only bring the work world closer together, but enable telecommuting (the virtual office) as well.

Then there is the virtual data center, just one aspect of so-called cloud computing.  The very concept of extending your corporate firewall out into cyberspace and wrapping it around a chunk of ether and calling it home is only a little more than a decade old.  Amazon pioneered the virtual data center, beginning in the early part of the last decade, when it realized that it was only using a small percentage of its server capacity, which was scaled to handle large spikes in activity.  And it isn’t just that a company’s data are sitting out on these virtual servers.  The virtual data center can scale automatically as activity ebbs and flows, spinning up or down virtual machines in a matter of minutes.  Most of the major technology vendors have gotten into the act now.

Data virtualization is yet another example.  In this case, it is a middle tier in a data architecture that uses high-performance software, highly optimized algorithms and tabular or hierarchical schemas to create a federated mechanism for delivering data from source systems to front end BI or analytic solutions without the need for physical tables.  Data virtualization delivers higher quality data to the enterprise, allows quicker solution delivery, and reduces development and maintenance costs.

There is more, but these examples demonstrate how much the concept of virtualization is part of the fabric of so much of what we do.  So what’s the point here?  Is all of this virtualization a good thing?

I say yes.  Virtualization is a terrific thing.  All of these technologies allow us greater flexibility in how we live and work, along with broader options for solving problems.  We can collaborate long distance.  We are not limited by how many physical computers we can afford to buy.  Virtual stores enhance our shopping experiences through customer reviews, expanded choices, suggestive selling, and the ability to view competitive pricing almost instantly.  We can scale and federate and structure our information to order, driving huge efficiencies and savings.

So where is the down side?  Are there no inherent dangers to all of this virtual reality? I say no.  That is, there is no down side that is unique to virtualization.  We face the same problems and risks as we do right here in reality.  Let us use Bitcoin as an example.  Among the advantages of this virtual currency is that it is immune to inflation and not under the control of any sovereign government.  But it carries the same risks as owning stock or a laptop computer.  Back in early April, Bitcoin value plunged during heavy trading because one of the key markets suffered an outage.  That was followed by further volatility due to a variety of other real world reasons.  So in reality, while Bitcoin offers certain flexibilities and benefits unique to that form of virtualization, it is subject to most of the same forces of reality as everything else.

Another example is security.  For a long time, one of the main arguments against a company putting its data assets in the cloud was that there was no guarantee that they would be as secure as they were inside the corporate firewall.  But most have come to learn that the virtual data center is no less secure (nor more secure) than the physical data center.  It is the same set of problems but with different variables.

In the end, the issue is more a function of how we deal with reality than how we deal with virtualization.  It begins with risk assessment.  How likely is the technology (or the reality) upon which the virtualization is based to fail, and how long can I afford to be without it?  For example, I could live without Skype or GoToMeeting for a couple of days if my laptop failed because there are other forms of communication still available to me and both programs are easy to reinstall and configure in a worst case scenario.  But what about my virtual machines?  They are integral to my work and I would be hard-pressed to be without certain ones for even a day.  Moreover, the very thought of having to rebuild one of them from scratch makes me blanch.  For that reason, they are all assiduously backed up – two copies – and I have a backup laptop where I can run them.

Which brings us back to the Bitcoin analogy once more.  You would no more put all of your cash into Bitcoin than you would into Apple stock, or any other single monetary vehicle.  Diversity in this case (like redundancy in the case of data) reduces risk.  Understanding where you are most risk-averse allows you to prioritize your risk management.

These are good habits to foster anyway, but particularly in light of the fact that new forms of virtualization are being invented almost every day.  Not long ago I read a short piece about Augmented Reality, of which Google Glass is an early example.  Perhaps this will be the next big step in virtualization.  I am not certain that I see the usefulness of it yet, but when I do I will no doubt harness it eagerly. In the meantime, I will take my lessons learned from Bitcoin to manage my own little plot of reality.

What do you think the next big step in virtualization will be?  Do you see a practical use for enhanced reality?

For those of you who don’t know much about Bitcoin and find the Wikipedia article tough going, here is an excellent introduction.

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