Volume 8, Number 20 -- May 22, 2008

Sun Updates VirtualBox with Native Solaris Support

Published: May 22, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Server and operating system maker Sun Microsystems is probably best known for its Solaris Unix, even though its Java programming language is probably more well known than Sun itself--and not necessarily connected with Sun in the minds of end users, now that I think about it. Ditto for OpenOffice. And that will probably hold true for the company's recently acquired VirtualBox PC and server virtualization hypervisor, too, which Sun is building out after acquiring the program in February.

If you missed it, Sun acquired Innotek, a German maker of virtual machine hypervisors for supporting Windows, Linux, and MacOS operating systems that was actually founded a number of years ago to sell virtualization products for IBM's and Microsoft's jointly developed OS/2 operating system. In January 2007, the company took its hypervisor knowledge and created a desktop virtualization tool to take on VMware, Parallels, and others in the virtualizing of Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and other operating systems environments on 32-bit X86 and 64-bit X64 machinery.

Now, Sun is making VirtualBox, which is technically now called xVM VirtualBox in keeping with Sun's overall virtualization branding, a more appropriate platform not only for PCs, but also servers, and is also moving support for Mac OS X and Solaris hosts and guests from beta to production environments. The updated VirtualBox 1.6 apparently includes over 2,000 improvements and fixes, including support for Solaris 10 and OpenSolaris 2008.5 as guest operating systems within the host environment, which can be Linux, Windows, Solaris, or MacOS.

VirtualBox is not what is called a bare metal hypervisor, like VMware's ESX Server, which runs on a piece of hardware essentially as firmware and allows multiple operating systems to run side-by-side--and thinking that they own a whole piece of hardware, which they do not--atop the hypervisor. Other hypervisors run on top of an operating system (usually Windows or Linux), which is called the host, and then creates various guest partitions into which other operating systems can run. The main difference between the bare metal and host-guest approaches is that the guest operating system is a single point of failure for all of the partitions on the machine, while the less-complex hypervisor is (presumably) using less resources and more rugged, stable, and secure. (I have yet to see any data about this, but I learned a new word this week, hyperjacking, which means cracking hypervisor software and stealing whole system images or in some way messing with them.)

With the VirtualBox 1.6 update, Solaris 10 or OpenSolaris are now certified as either guest or host operating systems. For server customers, Sun has also added support for as many as 32 SATA disk drives per virtual machine, which Sun says is the first hypervisor to do this. That is a lot of disk capacity for a desktop machine and may be useful to test and development environments. VirtualBox 1.6 also includes optimized paravirtualization drivers for those operating systems that require this virtualization approach (such as Windows). And VirtualBox 1.6 does not require (like some products on the market) the hardware-assisted virtualization electronics in the latest X64 chips to work. (These are called AMD-V on Opterons and VT-d on Xeons and Core chips.) Running OS/2 in a partition does require this hardware, but that is more because OS/2 is a dead operating system that hasn't been changed in a decade. Sun says that VitualBox has "significant improvements to scalability," but finding out what these are is not an easy task. Whatever the enhancements are, I could not find them on the VirtualBox site or in the manual for the 1.6 code.

What VirtualBox does not do is run on Sparc, Itanium, or Power iron. The hypervisor approach used underneath VirtualBox could be ported to any of these chip architectures, and VirtualBox is an open source program, so nothing is stopping anyone from doing it.

What Sun has not yet done is explain how VirtualBox will fit in to its server virtualization plans. The xVM strategy includes the use of logical domains (LDoms) and Solaris containers on "Niagara" class machines and probably future "Rock" servers, containers on current UltraSparc-IV+ and Sparc64-VI servers, and containers on X64-based machines running Solaris. Sun is also supporting a native Xen hypervisor inside OpenSolaris 2008.5, and is working to allow Solaris 10 to run inside the official XenServer hypervisor from Citrix Systems or its derivatives buried inside Red Hat and Novell Linuxes. A true server implementation of VirtualBox--including for-fee support provided by Sun--has a place in the Unix market, particularly if VirtualBox is more flexible and less expensive than either ESX Server or Xen.


Sun Delivers OpenSolaris Development Distro, Plus Support

PC Virtualization Provider Innotek Snapped Up by Sun

Sun Elaborates on its xVM Virtualization Plans

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