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Chip makers move to boost virtual machines

Intel and AMD plan to offer enhanced virtualization capabilities, though analysts predict users will still be kicking the tires into 2006.

The race for virtualization-optimized processors has begun.

Recently, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel announced x86-based chips that will allow hardware to support virtual machines (VMs) more efficiently. Details concerning AMD's Pacifica technology are scheduled to be released later this month, while the specs for Intel's virtualization offering (formerly called Vanderpool) are currently available.

Though analysts have not been able to comment on AMD's offering specifically yet, they have observed that the two offerings seem to be similar.

We're basically moving to the point where every system will be virtualizable.
Gordon Haff

What is virtualization?

Server virtualization software allows a platform to run multiple operating systems across a single physical machine. These multiple systems are independent logical entities or VMs.

Enhancements to the chip set will improve hardware's ability to support, create and operate VMs -- improving the performance of the current software. Users would still need to support virtualization software, such as VMware or Xen, in order to create VMs.

"This won't allow you to do anything new, but it will allow you to perform current functions more efficiently and more reliably," said Tony Iams, analyst with Port Chester, N.Y.-based Ideas International.

"The chips are providing an API [application program interface] that allows software to create VMs without having to do as many tricks. It makes the x86 architecture more virtualizable," said Gordon Haff, senior analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. "There is less rewriting of calls, less inspection. It makes it easier to create VMs in a way that performs well."

For more information:

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Microsoft offers virtualization tool to ease OS migrations

Server virtualization eases systems management

Data center managers operating pools of virtual machines in x86 environments will be able to operate more robust systems with increased hardware support.

"From a management point of view, you will stop concerning yourself as much with the size of physical systems," Haff said. "We're basically moving to the point where every system will be virtualizable."

According to Iams, the technology will make Linux users' lives easier. The AMD offering strongly supports Xen, which is part of the reason AMD made the Pacifica announcement at LinuxWorld.

"Linux software distributors will standardize on Xen. Combining with this technology will provide an open source industry standard for virtualization," Iams said.

Virtualization vendors

AMD and Intel, the two major players in the processor market, have already committed to the technology. The AMD offering is reported to ship in 2006, while Intel's chips are scheduled to arrive later this year.

But AMD's increased support for open source will likely heat up the hypervisor software market between VMware and Xen.

According to Iams, VMware and Xen are similar, but there are critical differences. For example, Xen uses paravirtualization, which requires that the OS cooperate with the hypervisor.

"Today you can only use Xen for open source, not guest machines running Windows. But when you combine Xen with Vanderpool, it will be able to manage Windows systems," Iams said. "VMware adds a lot of value through features like V-motion, but the basic virtualization function will be available in open source."

The end game is that data centers will move toward logical pools of resources rather than physical pools, resulting in server consolidation.

This will allow companies to reduce the number of physical servers. But according to Iams, overall management burden is not affected until companies add high-level software, such as provisioning and load balancing tools.

Iams is leery to make any major predictions before the products actually ship. By the time people have the chance to kick the tires on this, it will be 2006-2007, according to Iams. But he feels the technology has the potential to change the data center environment.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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