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Chip Changes Propel Virtualization

 
 

Think you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Consider x86 processors. Though the core instruction set hasn't changed in nearly 20 years, AMD and Intel continue to add major improvements, including 64-bit extensions for increased memory addressing, additional instructions for handling graphics and enhancements in floating-point math. And, perhaps most important for companies pondering server virtualization, the latest x86 advances from AMD and Intel introduce chip-level virtualization-assist technologies that could finally make virtualization live up to the hype.

The biggest challenge thus far has been making x86 virtualization happen at all. Architecturally, the platform was never designed to support multiple OSs concurrently, meaning virtualization vendors were forced to overcome both hardware and software limitations to allocate and manage processor, memory and I/O resources. VMware has traditionally dominated this arena, not only because it was first, but because it was able to overcome these hardware issues while providing a workable management environment for handling the problems inherent in large-scale virtualization.

Now that virtualization features in next-generation AMD and Intel processors are paving the way for efficient, hypervisor-based virtualization of x86 systems, the emphasis can shift to making the process more reliable. Though based on different approaches, choosing among hypervisor technologies from VMware, Microsoft and the open-source Xen may be less crucial than addressing the management challenges presented by large-scale virtualization. Eventually, the real market winners will be vendors that offer the best capabilities for translating our physical environments into more productive virtual environments. But first, we'll need a little help from our friends, the processor vendors.

Old Problem, New Solutions

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