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AMD jockeys with Intel in software stakes

Will its "Pacifica" virtualization technology be compatible with Intel's? If not, that's a potential headache for some software makers.

SAN FRANCISCO--Advanced Micro Devices will detail its "Pacifica" virtualization technology by the end of this month, enabling software companies to start working with the feature, which makes it easier for a computer to run several operating systems simultaneously.

The Pacifica technology is scheduled to arrive in processors in 2006, later than the comparable Vanderpool technology--now officially called Intel Virtualization Technology--that is promised to appear this year in Intel chips. What's not clear is whether the two technologies will be compatible, raising the prospect of complications for some software makers.

"We're going to be releasing the specification for Pacifica publicly by the end of this month," said Margaret Lewis, AMD's senior software strategist, at a meeting last week. "Once the spec is out, we can have a lot of conversations about Pacifica versus other specs."

News.context

What's new:
AMD and Intel are promoting virtualization, which lets multiple operating systems run simultaneously, for personal computers. The technology's uncertain future will get one step clearer by the end of March, when AMD plans to detail its Pacifica technology.

Bottom line:
Finding out whether AMD's approach is compatible with Intel's will help determine if it helps or hinders software companies hoping to profit from the technology.

More stories on virtualization

That position worried some attendees. "It's hard to imagine that AMD would be so blindingly stupid as to forward a truly Vanderpool-incompatible virtualization mechanism," a move that could cause heartburn for many software makers, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "It's hard to understand why, if they do intend to do the right thing here, that they're so obstinately set against just saying so."

Running multiple operating systems simultaneously is useful on the servers--indeed it's a standard feature today on mainframes and Unix systems from IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. The different OSes can run separate jobs at full throttle without having one job interfere with another.

But Intel and AMD are among those pushing the technology for machines using their x86 chips, such as Xeon and Athlon. They're betting it will be desirable not just for lower-end servers but also for personal computers.

Divvying up the desktop
For example, a PC could be divided into separate segments for official corporate work, personal tasks and system administrator updates, Gregory Bryant, director of Intel's digital office planning and marketing unit, said during a panel discussion at the Intel Developer Forum last week. Or a home computer user could record digital video in one partition and perform regular tasks in another.

Today, running multiple operating systems in separate partitions is possible on x86 computers only if they have sophisticated software such as EMC's VMware or Microsoft's Virtual Server, which create software-based "virtual machines."

A third option in this "hypervisor" market is an open-source alternative to those commercial products: Xen, which is backed by a start-up called XenSource and supported by several computing heavyweights.

Programming jobs in Microsoft, VMware and Xen get a lot easier with virtualization support built directly into the processor. And in the case of Xen, help in building the support is coming directly from programmers at Intel and AMD.

"AMD will be supporting Xen by contributing a port of Xen to AMD's Pacifica technology," said AMD's Elsie Wahlig in a posting to a Xen mailing list. And Intel has been working on Vanderpool support.

Minor consequences from differences?
Lewis argued that whatever differences might exist in the AMD and Intel virtualization approaches, they will only affect those hypervisor parties.

Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds agreed, arguing that supporting AMD or Intel processors will require one-time work by the hypervisor makers. "Once you've done it, everything works," he said.

Eunice also said that the hypervisor makers are the most directly affected, but he said he believes others are involved--particularly when looking farther into the future, when virtual machine technology should let computer environments be packaged up and moved from one physical computer to another.

At that point, the decisions of AMD and Intel affect operating system makers, such as Red Hat and MontaVista Software; security software makers, such as Symantec and McAfee; and makers of midlevel software, such as BEA Systems and Oracle.

If AMD and Intel prove 95 percent compatible, "everything will be fine," Eunice said. But if there are differences in instructions, capabilities and mechanisms for handling failures, "then we have a problem with the forking of x86."

The x86 instruction set is largely the same between Intel and AMD. That means, for example, that Microsoft Windows and Adobe Photoshop will work on either.

A divergent instruction set could prove to be a problem. For example, while Intel was following AMD by adding 64-bit memory extensions to x86, Microsoft made it clear that it would support only one approach.

AMD's Wahlig hinted that Pacifica may vary from Vanderpool. "It's architecturally very similar to Vanderpool, though it does offer a different feature set and differing implementation, all designed to provide a richer environment for hypervisor-based virtualization," Wahlig said.

Lewis indicated that any variations aren't being added lightly. "Any features we put in that are not in Vanderpool are features we put in at the request of the virtualization software vendors," she said.

And differences need not be final. AMD and Intel went separate ways when adding new x86 instructions to speed multimedia operations, but eventually AMD built in support for Intel's standard as well as its own 3DNow.