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Hitachi blades virtualize without VMware

Hitachi's forthcoming Intel Xeon BladeSymphony servers don't need VMware-style virtualization to run multiple guests. They can use embedded virtualization instead.

When it comes to virtualization on blade servers, Hitachi America Ltd. of Brisbane, Calif., is taking a decidedly different approach from that of blade market leaders Hewlett Packard Co. and IBM Corp.

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Hitachi initially offered the embedded virtualization technology on Itanium-based servers and has adapted its Itanium hardware virtualization onto the back end of Xeon 7300 processor-based blades. Embedding virtualization on Hitachi BladeSymphony frees customers from having to purchase third-party virtualization software from companies like VMware.

It is desirable to do as much virtualization as possible at the hardware level.
Joe Clabby,
analystClabby Analytics

The embedded technology, known as Virtage, runs on an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) coupled with embedded firmware designed to handle virtualization tasks at the hardware level. Virtage works with Intel Virtualization Technology (VT) chips and enables users to partition physical server resources into isolated logical partitions (LPARs) that can each run a different operating system, or guest.

Hitachi designed Virtage for its BladeSymphony 1000 blade servers, which will be generally available by the first quarter of 2008.

Other attempts to embed virtualization within a server don't do so in hardware. In September, XenSource Inc. announced an embedded virtualization platform called XenExpress that integrates into servers via flash or on the hard disk. Similarly, VMware's ESX Server 3i fits on 32 MB of flash memory.

Speed and stability
According to the recent report "Virtualization on Intel microprocessors: The Hitachi answer" by Joe Clabby, president of Yarmouth, Maine-based Clabby Analytics, Virtage differentiates Hitachi in the expanding blade market, where virtualization is enabled mainly through software such as VMware plus AMD-V from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel Corp.'s Intel VT processors.

The report concluded that Virtage offers more virtualization features compared with those available in native Xeon and Intel Itanium implementations and delivers better virtualization performance than implementations that are not back-ended by a virtualization ASIC.

The primary advantage of Virtage for Hitachi Blade customers is speed. "Running virtualization at the hardware level is faster than driving workloads through layers of software because Virtage's hypervisor-type virtualization is embedded in firmware where workloads can execute more quickly," Clabby said.

Virtage hypervisor-type virtualization also allows applications to share or isolate resources among partitions, eliminating the performance hit that can occur with software-based virtualization, Clabby said.

Virtage can partition physical server resources by building multiple isolated logical partitions (up to 16 partitions per server module) capable of running independently and supporting independent operating environments on each logical partition. It also provides a secure environment for each virtual machine and fault isolation through hardware boundaries.

Also, BladeSymphony's SMP interconnect backplane supports two-socket Itanium processor blades that can be scaled up and/or out for up to two eight-socket (or 16-way) servers in a single chassis or eight two-socket (or four-way) servers. This scalability can reduce footprint and power consumption while increasing utilization rates, Clabby said.

The embedded technology is compatible with products from independent software and hardware vendors whose products already work on Intel x86 and Itanium architectures.

Hitachi's decision to add its own virtualization capabilities to its Intel Xeon-based blades is a wise one, Clabby said. Compared with the virtualization capabilities of IBM's and Sun Microsystems Inc's. processors, Intel-VT processors are "superficial." For instance, IBM's Power microprocessors are capable of performing hardware-based virtualization functions such as micropartitioning, allowing a single processor to run 10 virtual processes simultaneously; shared processor pooling; and virtual I/O serving. Sun's UltraSparc T2, in conjunction with its Solaris operating system, can run up to 64 applications on a single processor.

The new kid on the blade block
Though Hitachi has been in the server business for more than 40 years, its servers have been available in North America only since October 2005. The server blade market is dominated by HP and IBM, which command 79.5% of blade revenue as of the second quarter of 2007. Hitachi accounts for 1.6% of the blade market, and its blades generated $14 million in revenue -- 13% of Hitachi's total server revenue, according to Jed Scaramella, a research analyst of enterprise servers at Framingham, Mass-based IDC.

Charles King, analyst at Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Inc. said he admires the innovation, but since it's a relatively new player in the U.S. x86 market, Hitachi still has major challenges to overcome.

"They have done a really interesting thing here, taking hypervisor-based technology from their mainframe products and applying it to their Itanium and x86 blade servers. Like other mainframe-based solutions, it is very stable and offers an alternative to VMware and Xen-based virtualization offerings," King said.

BladeSymphony has achieved success in Japan. But in the U.S., no other U.S.-based vendor offers this kind of technology, and Hitachi products aren't well trusted at this point, King said. Thus, from a competitive standpoint, companies like VMware shouldn't be concerned, King said.

But Clabby still underscored the pros of the technology. Software-based virtualization adoption is huge and growing, he said, but "it is desirable to do as much virtualization as possible at the hardware level, because [it] offers enhanced performance and granularity."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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