IBM Solves Virtual Machine 'Noisy Neighbor' Problem

New IBM patent shifts VMs to load balance network bandwidth, making better use of all computing and network resources.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

October 10, 2013

4 Min Read

IBM, the original inventor of virtualization in computing, has patented a method of moving virtual machines around dynamically to ensure each has the amount of network bandwidth that it needs. The technique can be used to load balance large conglomerations of virtual machines from a bandwidth perspective, instead of server CPU and memory perspective. By shifting virtual machines that need more access to network bandwidth away from virtual machines that are already making heavy use of it, the virtual environment is used in a more efficient and intelligent way, approximating fuller use of all resources.

In effect, IBM has announced that Patent #8,352,953, its method for "dynamically provisioning virtual machines," has solved what Netflix defined on Amazon Web Services as the "noisy neighbor" problem.

Netflix does nearly 100% of its computing on Amazon. In the first two years of use, it concluded noisy neighbors or bandwidth-demanding virtual machines on a shared host stole a small percentage of compute cycles from its virtual machines as their CPUs waited on idle for access to the network. It developed tools that detected noisy neighbors, killed off the Netflix virtual machine on that server and moved it somewhere else. Netflix concluded in some cases the penalty was too great to tolerate, said Netflix cloud architect Adrian Cockcroft at Cloud Connect in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2011.

[ Want more on how VMware is promoting network virtualization? See VMware Launches Software-Defined Data Center Tools. ]

One way to address the problem, said IBM's description in its patent filing is for the VM provisioning manager to apply the dynamically provisioning virtual machines (DPVM) method to the traffic information in an Ethernet switch's database. From the database, DPVM can determine the amount of bandwidth being used by individual virtual machines, even though the VMs are using different Ethernet links on the switch.

DPVM then advises the provisioning manager how to move a virtual machine to a different host to optimize use of existing bandwidth. "Using the process, virtual machines may be dynamically migrated in order to provide each virtual machine with a required amount of network bandwidth," said the IBM patent application, filed Jan. 8.

IBM's best-known operating system for its 370 and 390 mainframes was MVS. But it produced another, VM, or Virtual Machine, which changed the mainframe into a host that could run different operating systems as guests, including MVS. The move made the mainframe a much more useful and flexible platform.

The IBM announcement of the patent said DPVM was suited to applications that "experience dramatic peaks and valleys." They might include: online retailers and auction sites that endure daily spikes of activity or seasonal spikes of traffic; search engines, which must respond to surges of activity on different topics; government and news media, where sudden spikes of traffic might be driven by natural disasters, emergencies, elections, or outbreaks of conflict; and online sites for sporting events.

"This is the type of investment in invention and innovation that is needed to be a leader in the competitive cloud computing market," said Dennis Quan, VP of strategy for IBM cloud services.

In the past, IBM has produced many innovations in virtualization for its own server lines, but the lately, news about virtualization has tended to be about virtualization for commodity x86 servers. Virtualization increased the servers' value by making them easier to use for running many application on one box. VMware and XenSource, acquired by Citrix Systems, are companies most closely associated with early x86 innovation.

As cloud computing proliferates, IBM sees the handwriting on the wall. The cloud is built with commodity x86 servers and IBM has concluded it's unlikely to ever convince the world to build massive clouds out of its Power CPUs. Now IBM is innovating in virtualization in the x86 world. Its long term stake in virtualization is not going to be left behind by the cloud, if it can help it.

Focusing on network bandwidth brings a large new load-balancing element to the table just as software-defined networking is catching on. The bandwidth intelligence captured in DPVM will make virtual machines and the hardware on which they run more valuable than there were before. It potentially will erase one of the last remaining bottlenecks to fully using the CPU power, increased RAM size and I/O of the modern x86 server.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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