Thirty gigs on a stick could change the rules of the PC game. Fujitsu Siemens Computer's chief technology officer, Dr. Joseph Reger, thinks something is stirring and getting ready to surface. He calls it PC virtualisation and talks about the possible separation of PC hardware from all of its software stack: operating system; applications; and settings.

Here's how Reger overviews the situation: "Server virtualisation leads to much less hardware installed because it increases server utilisation. In the PC space in contrast virtualisation could go so far as to do away with the PC form factor altogether."

A malware barrier

He sees a clear security benefit. "A browser, such as Firefox, could be put into a virtual machine (VM), running Linux, and so run in an encapsulated environment," safe from malware infestation. When the session is completed the VM could de torn down leaving nothing behind. With modern Intel and AMD chips the CPU cycle burden of running VMs is less than ten percent - VMs like this wouldn't suffer from m Windows software bloat.

But you could go further. U3, the SANdisk-owned way of carrying a limited PC environment, such as E-mail and settings, on a memory stick is just a start. What if you could define a user environment completely; meaning the whole stack from operating system through applications to settings, and store this as a disk image? Suppose you could put that in a USB thumb drive/memory stick?

30 gig on a stick

Currently memory sticks are readily obtainable with 2, even 8GB. It's not enough to store such a disk image. Currently we have the U3 limited Windows environment possible in with this amount of storage. But flash memory density is steadily increasing.

Reger said: "In four years from now we can expect 30GB on a stick. You could expect it in a cell phone. You could store a (complete) virtual machine image in it. It would be a more advanced idea of the U3 environment. ... The natural device to host this core environment will be the cell phone."

You would carry your complete PC environment around with you on a memory stick or in your cell phone. (Perhaps SANdisk will call it U4.)

"The PC processing power though won't be in the phone. Virtualisation gives you a separation between the PC and its peripherals and the PC's 'state'; what's on the stick or in the Internet somewhere."

(Perhaps you don't even carry your PC environment around with you; you download it.)

If this happens then the software heart of the PC is ripped out. There's no O/S, at least, no Windows as we know it, no applications. It becomes the hardware shell of a PC with some sort of hypervisor, and it's embedded in a desk or a flat screen or "some other piece of furniture and used for access."

Would such a PC need a hard drive? Probably not.

Company image

Reger says: "It's all facilitated by virtualisation technology and will probably enlarge the PC market. Companies could define official company (disk) images which could be deployed company-wide. The management of the PC hardware becomes completely separate from the management of the PC software asset. Employees might bring their own PC hardware to their work and then run the company image on it."

"There could be an expiration date on the company image." For example, if it was on a laptop it might just have a 12-hour life. After that it expires - self-destructs - and the loser of a laptop doesn't have to worry so much about confidential company data becoming public.

Reger is convinced that: "This is the ultimate consequence of PC virtualisation. We're going to see a lot of activity in this area.

One issue he foresees is management. Currently virtual environments on Intel and AMD are different. There needs to be a common management standard to avoid homogeneous shops with lots of influence in the hands of a single hardware or O/S or hypervisor supplier.