Intel, AMD spar over virtualization

Intel says its multi-OS technology is ready for testing, while AMD works the communications angle.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Intel and Advanced Micro Devices once again are angling for leadership in virtualization, technology that increases a computer's efficiency by letting it run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

Intel is expected to declare Tuesday that its Virtualization Technology (VT) is mature enough for testing and about three months away from prime time. But AMD, whose rival "Pacifica" technology won't debut in processors until midway through this year, is trying to set its own technology as a standard for virtualization of computer communications, an element not present in Intel's VT.

The two chipmakers are seeking the advantage in the strategic virtualization area. Mainstream servers using x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron are getting features once reserved for high-end mainframes or Unix machines that let them run multiple operating systems simultaneously. That technology is timely, as well: It's one important way to keep at bay the problems of increasing electrical power consumption.

Intel's newest high-end Xeon processors--code-named Paxville--shipped with VT, but server makers employing the chip didn't enable the feature. Now, with new BIOS software available from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, that's changing, said Lorie Wigle, director of marketing for Intel's Server Platforms Group.

"We feel we're at critical mass in terms of having both software and computer maker support far enough along that IT departments can start to evaluate the technology," Wigle said. "We're at the stage where people should start their pilot with a notion of moving to production in a quarter or so."

VT will extend to more widely used chips for dual-processor servers with the release of Dempsey systems in coming months. And Itanium will get the support with "Montecito," delayed but due later this year. AMD's virtualization will arrive in mid-2006 with the "Rev F" version of its Opteron.

Software support for VT is in the new VMware Server, Wigle said, a newly free package that lets a computer run several operating systems simultaneously in partitions called virtual machines.

VT is required to run 64-bit operating systems on the software. In addition, an open-source VMware competitor called Xen uses VT to let an operating system run without having to be modified. That enables Windows to run on Xen.

Virtualization is a broad term that in general describes how one computing element can run atop a virtual foundation rather than the real thing it expects. The virtualization foundation lets hardware be used at higher capacity and lets software be reconfigured more easily.

VT virtualizes the processor, but one element missing from first-generation VT is virtualization of input-output (I/O) tasks. That work will endow virtual machines with direct channels to network resources, Wigle said.

AMD's counterpunch: networking
But AMD, through work with software and hardware partners, believes it will beat Intel to the punch in the I/O virtualization department.

"We expect to see the first devices by the end of 2006," and broader support that extends to personal computers in 2007, said Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions for AMD. The technology extends beyond processors and therefore requires support from hardware partners that build chipsets connecting those processors to other computer components, she said.

And to boost its approach, the company on Tuesday released a royalty-free, public specification for its approach to I/O virtualization. The technology elicited endorsements in statements from VMware and Xen.

"Assisted virtualization for I/O devices is the next logical step in hardware virtualization," said Simon Crosby, chief technology officer for XenSource, a start-up commercializing Xen. And Raghu Raghuram, VMware's vice president of platforms products, said, "We look forward to working with AMD on I/O virtualization to further advance the state-of-the-art in virtual infrastructure."

Virtualization hardware is helpful today, but in the future it will be mandatory for some. Microsoft is working on "hypervisor" software to compete directly against similar technology such as Xen and VMware ESX Server, and that project will require hardware support, the company has said.

The Microsoft hypervisor, code-named Viridian, is scheduled to debut in an update sometime after Microsoft's initial release of its next-generation Windows server product, code-named Longhorn Server, Wigle said.

Microsoft has said the hypervisor is a high priority. In a January interview, Windows chief Jim Allchin said that the company wants to make progress in its Next Generation Secure Computing Base, formerly known as Palladium, but it must first complete the hypervisor.

CNET News.com staff writer Ina Fried contributed to this report.