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Chip Shot: AMD And Intel Add Virtualization Hooks

Virtualization software has had to be sophisticated to do a good job of running multiple operating systems on a single platform. New chip technology will make it much simpler, Intel's Bohart says.
Silicon will begin catching up to software-virtualization technology over the next year as both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. add built-in chip enhancements that are expected to improve the performance of virtual-machine environments in x86-based servers and PCs.

"The original x86 CPU wasn't designed with virtualization in mind," says Patrick Bohart, virtualization technology marketing manager for Intel. "Virtualization software has had to be very sophisticated in order to do a good job of running multiple operating systems on a single platform."

Intel plans to add virtualization technology, which it calls VT, to its Pentium processor line for desktop PCs in the fourth quarter of this year and to its Itanium and Xeon processors for servers, as well as its Centrino mobile PC platform, in the first half of 2006. AMD plans to add its Pacifica virtualization technology to its Athlon and Opteron processors for desktop and server applications, respectively, in the first half of 2006.

Don't expect the chip-based technology to provide the processor performance gains seen by recent x86 chip advancements like 64-bit capabilities, which can improve performance by about 10%, or dual-core processors, which can add a 50% to 80% boost, says Marty Seyer, corporate VP and general manager of the microprocessor unit and computation products group for AMD.

"What you will see is a gain in efficiencies per dollar spent," he says. "We're going to need to look at a different set of metrics when gauging improvement. Virtualization is a way to improve security and throughput, and some of those metrics haven't even been invented as yet."

Intel has only begun to see early versions of virtualization software written to specifically take advantage of VT, and benchmarks will be some months away, Bohart says. While conventional x86 processors were designed to provide a single operating system with access to the primary operational layer of the processor, on-chip virtualization will create new execution modes for the operation of virtual-machine monitors, which will allow for virtualization software to run more efficiently than in the past, he says.

"The primary benefit of the technology is to simplify the overall performance of virtualization software," Bohart says. "We're taking what has been a very complex situation and making it much simpler."

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