We've had virtual reality, the alternate universe of virtual 'Second Life,' and we even had a Top 10 song about virtual insanity. But the only version of virtual that the IT professional really needs to be interested in the sort that ends in '-isation'.
In other words, virtualisation - the replacement of physical IT devices with equivalent functionality running on less hardware - is big business, and seems set to continue to be so.
'A typical consolidation project could see 100 systems cut down to 20 virtualised servers,' says Chris Flanagan, datacentre development manager for IT firm Fujitsu Services.
The trend started in the storage arena, has spread to servers, and is now increasingly looking like an attractive option for the desktop - step forward the clumsily named but wildly topical issue virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).
'VDI is the next step in replacing the "fat PC" on the desktop with much more efficient devices,' thinks Roy Illsley, senior research analyst with Informa's Butler research arm.
Instead of storage volume or application per device, which tends to lead to a proliferation of equipment not running at 100 per cent efficiency, goes the argument, it is much better to centralise this capacity on things like blade servers or racks, which can support a large number of 'virtual' copies instead. Before old George in the corner pipes up, yes the idea is as old as the hills, or even as ancient as himself - this is a long-standing mainframe technology. But it's its application in today's world that has got people excited.
Often it's for efficiency reasons, for others it's about saving good old pounds, dollars and euros. Tommy Armstrong, VMware's senior product marketing manager for desktop, claims users could see a 40 per cent reduction in total cost of ownership through virtualised desktops alone. 'Organisations want to run clusters of machines in smaller spaces and better size their IT infrastructure for better performance,' adds Colin Bannister, UK and Ireland director of strategy for software firm CA. Bannister claims 80 per cent of large financial services users alone have at least some virtualised IT now.
Virtualisation is also seen as a big boost towards 'green IT': a survey by blue-chip user group The Corporate IT Forum said 71 per cent of its members saw this approach as key to achieving more carbon-efficient IT. And while confusion about licencing copies of key software products this way has been an issue, it now seems virtualisation is an undoubted hot topic.
The current market leader in the virtualised space is a company called VMware, though it has growing competition: thin client specialist Citrix last year bought a firm called XenSource so it can play in this space; Microsoft has virtualisation technology as a big part of Windows Server 2008, and there are other players such as Parallels, as well as Sun Microsystems. The main VMware product was known as EXS but has since been rebranded as VI, which is now up to release 3.5.
In any case, at the moment VMware is very much the top dog - and hence a focus of much interest in certification in its products and approaches.
Unless a vendor neutral organisation like a CompTIA beings out a generic virtualisation exam, we are likely to see continuing interest in vendor qualifications like VMware, says Bill Walker, technical director at Xpertise.
And lots of people are already qualified in VMware. 'Worldwide there are already 13,000 VMware qualified people, of which about half are in Europe,' says Alasdair Carnegie, principal VMWare technologist at training firm, QA-IQ.
This is quite significant in contrast to some other important software architectures, such as Oracle (see article to appear in April's e-monthly IT Training) - and there are only around 15,000 fully qualified Cisco engineers on the market, claims VMware's Martin Niemer, European senior product marketing manager. The reason, he says, is that virtualisation is seen as a key thing to have going forward, so organisations want to get it right.
VMware traditionally offered just one qualification, the VMware Certified Professional (VCP). Niemer says this is still the 'benchmark' qualification, 'akin to the MCSE'. However, it is about to revamp its certification stack.
Late last year it announced a new high-end certification, VCDX (VMware Certified Design Expert). This is targeted for highly-experienced people working on large scale enterprise-wide virtualisation deployments, and, in Niemer's words, 'is not so much a follow on to the VCP as something much more advanced and meant for people working at very serious design levels'.
However, any candidates must already possess the VCP before taking the appropriate exams (now being developed by the company). The VCDX qualification should be in place by the third quarter, says the company.
Plus, announced at the supplier's recent (March) VMworld user conference in Cannes, there is to be a new entry-level certificate, of which details are very sketchy. For its own good reasons, doubtless, VMware is treating the subject of the new qualification as something of a state secret, other than it should be available by mid-year. But what is not a matter of controversy is that by the end of 2008 IT professionals will have a clear, three-stage qualifications process to be identified as experts in the VMware way of doing things.
'What the VCP and these other qualifications do is give employers the confidence that the individual holding them will be able to help them meet their business objectives,' says VMware's Niemer. More specifically, a VCP should be able to configure the network, introduce centralised applications, do resource management of CPUs and handle troubleshooting if need be - as Xpertise's Walker points out, at the moment the core deliverables for a VMware practitioner is getting the installation and configuration of the product bang to rights.
What does the IT training market think? 'We are seeing huge interest in VMware, especially around installation and configuration skills,' says Walker. 'People see expertise in the proper planning and managing of how to move to virtualisation as key.'
All in all, VMware does seem committed to the certification process: the company offers an education portal as a support resource for candidates, which will presumably soon be expanded to handle the new extra VC qualifications. So until its competitors catch up, the VCx process is the main virtualisation certification in town.