Intelligent Machines

An Emulation Sensation

A startup claims it has created software that lets programs run on any operating systemand any processorwithout slowing down. Is the hype for real this time?

The topic of program emulation is not something that will light a fire in many peoples hearts, or put a spark in their eyes. But run the topic by IT professionals and youll likely see a glimmer of hopefollowed by a dismissive wave. Theyre enchanted by the promise of the technology, but havent exactly been thrilled with the offerings to date. Big promises, piddling results.

Software emulatorssoftware that allows another piece of software to run on hardware for which it was not originally intendedhave been an elusive goal for the computing industry for almost 30 years. The ability to port software to multiple hardware configurations is something companies such as IBM, Intel, and Sun Microsystems are constantly working on. Software emulators do exist today, but most are narrowly focused, allowing one particular program to run on one other processor type. Sometimes, performance suffers with the use of an emulator.

It was with a shock, then, that I read the announcement by tiny Transitive Software of a new product, Quick Transit, that it claims allows software applications compiled for one processor and operating system to run on another processor and operating system without any source code or binary changes. My first thoughts went straight to the heart of the Linux/Microsoft battle. Could this software emulator be used to run Microsoft programs on Linux? And wouldnt that be inviting the full wrath of the Microsoft legal team?

I called the Los Gatos, CA-based startup to learn more and ended up talking with CEO Bob Wiederhold, who spoke from Manchester, England, home of the companys engineering offices. Wiederhold immediately dashed my grander ideas. If we tried to run Windows programs on a Linux platform, Microsoft would be upset, Wiederhold said. Thats not what were trying to do. Wiederholds initial goals are less incendiary, but could bring about big changes in the way companies manage their technology assets. Whats more, the technology could eventually drift down to the consumer level, where it could allow older video games to play on newer versions of game platforms (such as Microsofts Xbox, or Sony Playstation). The initial target market for the product, however, is large computer makers.

Wiederhold says Quick Transit has been in development for nine years, and that its the first software emulator that works with a broad array of processors with minimal performance degradation. Typically, software emulatorswhen they do worksuffer performance hits; a cursor arrow struggles to move across the screen, or there’s a two-second delay after clicking on a file menu before the dialogue box opens. Analysts who have seen Quick Transit report that it exhibits no such degradation.

The release has generated some buzz, along with doubts. People are excited, says Wiederhold. But theres also quite a bit of skepticism surrounding the announcement. That was expected. We claim to have made a pretty big breakthrough and dont think people will believe it until they can see the [shipping version].” Transitive claims it has six companies signed up for the product, but declined to identify them; Wiederhold says the first customer announcement will come “in the next couple of months.”

If the product actually does what Transitive claims it can do, it could have a big impact. Among the biggest expenses and headaches for IT departments today are the management of servers, the migration of software, and hardware upgrades. Businesses often hold off on upgrading or switching servers because of the time and cost involved with migrating their software to the new hardware. A product such as Quick Transit could make the migration much easier and less costly.

Another potential benefit could be an increased ability for IT staffs to consolidate servers. IT departments often run multiple servers, each for a specific tasktheres a file server, a mail server, and so forth. These servers are often vastly underutilized, not running near their capacity. A program such as Quick Transit could enable a single server to run multiple tasks, reducing the management hassle and budget overhead from running multiple units.

Astute readers will notice a lot of could and potentially and might in this story. Software emulators such as Quick Transit have had high hypes only to deliver poorly. And with Transitive keeping the unveiling restricted to a handful of analysts until its first customer ships, you cant get much more definitive than that. I trust the analysts I spoke with for the story, having known them for years. And theyre aware of the broken promises software emulators have left in the past. Thats what makes their endorsement of Quick Transit noteworthy. But Ill be watching in the next couple of months for that first customer announcement, and well revisit this topic when I can actually speak with customers about their experiences using the product.

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