Although virtualization was far from front and center at this week's Intel Developers Forum, Dell and several other vendors used the conference as the platform to unveiled its latest virtual goods.
On Tuesday, Dell showcased what it described as the first Single Root I/O Virtualization (SR-IOV) solution based around industry standards. I/O, as anyone who follows virtualization knows, is the bug-bear of the virtualization world. To mitigate the bottleneck across both servers and storage, Dell has partnered with Intel and Citrix to help improve virtualization performance.
Dell, Intel and Citrix worked together to develop a standards-based SR-IOV solution that would improve virtualization performance and enable multiple operating systems to share a physical interconnect. To accomplish this, they switched from the currently standard model in which the hypervisor virtualizes an I/O device in the software and shares the emulated virtual NIC with multiple virtual machines, to one in which a single piece of I/O hardware is subdivided logically to appear as 128 virtual NICs. Each NIC is then assigned independently and directly to a virtual machine. This provides per-VM control, and yields a faster connection.
The technology is built around PCI-SIG I/O Virtualization specifications along with Intel Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (Intel VT-d) and the chipmaker's 82599 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GE) device.
It will be made available initially on Dell's PowerEdge R710, which is equipped with a SR-IOV enabled BIOS. These systems are powered by Intel's Xeon 5500on and come with Citrix XenServer preinstalled.
Intel and the larger implications aside, it's an interesting move for both Citrix and Dell. In recent weeks, the attention paid to Hyper-V has been eclipsing XenServer, and Microsoft has been pegged as the company that will ultimately prevail in bringing server virtualization to SMBs. But Dell also looms large in the SMB world, and this combination offers an ease of use proposition that will likely appeal to many SMBs.
Dell has gotten to where it is by following industry trends and adding products and technologies when standards have formed around them. The SR-IOV technology it has chosen to deploy is no exception to this: It does not require a proprietary switching infrastructure and works with 10GE switches from multiple vendors.
It is also turnkey, which means that should it be universally accepted, and evolve into "the standard" the I/O virtualization quagmire has the potential to disappear.
Dell, it should be noted, is far from the only vendor embracing SR-IOV. Neterion, for example, a storage vendor that specializes in I/O virtualization and sells 10 Gigabit Ethernet adapters, has also partnered with Intel.
Neterion's offering, like Dell's, aims to bring the platform, software, and hardware together for an end-to-end I/O virtualization solution stack. Its virtualization software of choice is Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.4, and its hardware is its X3100 10GbE adapter.
Red Hat's relationship with Neterion is by no means an exclusive one. Along with Intel, it has also partnered with LSI Corp. to offer an SR-IOV-capable storage controller. The controller uses Intel VT-d and PCI-SIG SR-IOV technology to allow virtual servers in direct-attached-storage environments to share a storage controller.
In a storage environment, SR-IOV works in a manner to similar to how it does in a server one: It enables a single physical instance of the storage controller to appear as a number of virtual controllers. This enables multiple operating systems running simultaneously within a single computer to share PCI Express devices natively.
The side benefit of moving the onus of I/O to the hardware itself, is that the software is less taxed, and its one less trouble spot for the admin to have to monitor closely.
The pipe may not be getting wider but more conduits are certainly being added.
Amy Newman is the managing editor of ServerWatch. She has been covering virtualization space since 2001, and is the coauthor of Practical virtualization Solutions, which is scheduled for publication in October 2009.