What’s the future for physical appliances? Are we getting so accustomed to virtual appliances that we can forget all those long hours of shifting boxes into a server room?

The subject came up in the middle of an interesting chat with Paul Brennan and David Day of Zeus about the way that virtual products are replacing the plethora of boxes.

Clearly, Zeus, which has carved a niche as a software-only traffic shaping/management company has a particular axe to grind here but the conversation did get me thinking about the ways that physical appliances are gradually being eased out.

I was reminiscing about my times working on IT magazines when product testing labs generally consisted of a suite of rooms to house the equipment and of course, we’re seeing how consolidation of servers and onset of virtualisation has shrunk data centres.

Why do companies still want physical devices? In the same way that data centre managers hug their servers, do companies feel the need to get physical boxes and how long will they persist with them? Citrix's Damian Saunders says that there are certain applications that warrant the need for tin - which is true - but doesn't explain the way that certain vendors still feel the need to hawk hardware.

There's a simple reason why vendors want to do it - the margins for physical devices are well above those that can be obtained for software-only products, And it's that need to protect those margins that has led to accusations that hardware vendors are throttling their software products in order to shift more tin.

But the days are surely numbered for the whole panoply of servers, switches, routers, firewalls and ADCs that used to make up the IT estate of the average company. They're clearly not all going to disappear - there's always going to be a need for some hardware. And some commentators are saying that they're not disappearing quickly enough but the trend is clear - even Cisco, the great high god of tin, is now rolling out virtual routers. And it's clear that future engineers are going to have slightly less backache in future.

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What do you think? Are you going for a virtual appliance approach or do you still see the need to have hardware in your server room?