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Improving Machine Efficiency Through Consolidation

Multicore computing is really just the continuing development of more powerful system architectures. Tasks that used to require a dedicated machine can now be performed using a single core of a multicore machine. This is a new opportunity to consolidate multiple tasks from multiple separate machines down to a single multicore machine. An example might be using a single machine for both a web server and e-mail where previously these functions would be running on their own dedicated machines.

There are many ways to achieve this. The simplest would be to log into the machine and start both the e-mail and web server. However, for security reasons, it is often necessary to keep these functions separated. It would be unfortunate if it were possible to send a suitably formed request to the web server allowing it to retrieve someone's e-mail archive.

The obvious solution would be to run both servers as different users. This could use the default access control system to stop the web server from getting access to the e-mail server's file. This would work, but it does not guard against user error. For example, someone might accidentally put one of the mail server's files under the wrong permissions, leaving the mail open to reading or perhaps leaving it possible to install a back door into the system. For this reason, smarter technologies have evolved to provide better separation between processes running on the same machine.

Using Containers to Isolate Applications Sharing a Single System

One such technology is containerization. The implementations depend on the particular operating system, for example, Solaris has Zones, whereas FreeBSD has Jails, but the concept is the same. A control container manages the host operating system, along with a multitude of guest containers. Each guest container appears to be a complete operating system instance in its own right, and an application running in a guest container cannot see other applications on the system either in other guest containers or in the control container. The guests do not even share disk space; each guest container can appear to have its own root directory system.

The implementation of the technology is really a single instance of the operating system, and the illusion of containers is maintained by hiding applications or resources that are outside of the guest container. The advantage of this implementation is very low overhead, so performance comes very close to that of the full system. The disadvantage is that the single operating system image represents a single point of failure. If the operating system crashes, then all the guests also crash, since they also share the same image. Figure 3.4 illustrates containerization.

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 Using containers to host multiple guest operating systems in one system

Hosting Multiple Operating Systems Using Hypervisors

Two other approaches that enforce better isolation between guests' operating systems also remove the restriction that the guests run the same operating system as the host. These approaches are known as type 1 and type 2 hypervisors.

Type 1 hypervisors replace the host operating system with a very lightweight but high-level system supervisor system, or hypervisor, that can load and initiate multiple operating system instances on its own. Each operating system instance is entirely isolated from the others while sharing the same hardware.

Each operating system appears to have access to its own machine. It is not apparent, from within the operating system, that the hardware is being shared. The hardware has effectively been virtualized, in that the guest operating system will believe it is running on whatever type of hardware the hypervisor indicates.

This provides the isolation that is needed for ensuring both security and robustness, while at the same time making it possible to run multiple copies of different operating systems as guests on the same host. Each guest believes that the entire hardware resources of the machine are available. Examples of this kind of hypervisor are the Logical Domains provided on the Sun UltraSPARC T1 and T2 product lines or the Xen hypervisor software on x86. Figure 3.5 illustrates a type 1 hypervisor.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 Type 1 hypervisor

A type 2 hypervisor is actually a normal user application running on top of a host operating system. The hypervisor software is architected to host other operating systems. Good examples of type 2 hypervisors are the open source VirtualBox software, VMware, or the Parallels software for the Apple Macintosh. Figure 3.6 illustrates a type 2 hypervisor.

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.6 Type 2 hypervisor

Clearly, it is also possible to combine these strategies and have a system that supports multiple levels of virtualization, although this might not be good for overall performance.

Even though these strategies are complex, it is worth exploring why virtualization is an appealing technology.

  • Security. In a virtualized or containerized environment, it is very hard for an application in one virtualized operating system to obtain access to data held in a different one. This also applies to operating systems being hacked; the damage that a hacker can do is constrained by what is visible to them from the operating system that they hacked into.
  • Robustness. With virtualization, a fault in a guest operating system can affect only those applications running on that operating system, not other applications running in other guest operating systems.
  • Configuration isolation. Some applications expect to be configured in particular ways: They might always expect to be installed in the same place or find their configuration parameters in the same place. With virtualization, each instance believes it has the entire system to itself, so it can be installed in one place and not interfere with another instance running on the same host system in a different virtualized container.
  • Restricted control. A user or application can be given root access to an instance of a virtualized operating system, but this does not give them absolute control over the entire system.
  • Replication. There are situations, such as running a computer lab, where it is necessary to be able to quickly reproduce multiple instances of an identical configuration. Virtualization can save the effort of performing clean reinstalls of an operating system. A new guest operating system can be started, providing a new instance of the operating system. This new instance can even use a preconfigured image, so it can be up and running easily.
  • Experimentation. It is very easy to distribute a virtualized image of an operating system. This means a user can try a new operating system without doing any damage to their existing configuration.
  • Hardware isolation. In some cases, it is possible to take the running image of a virtualized operating system and move that to a new machine. This means that old or broken hardware can be switched out without having to make changes to the software running on it.
  • Scaling. It is possible to dynamically respond to increased requests for work by starting up more virtual images. For example, a company might provide a web-hosted computation on-demand service. Demand for the service might peak on weekday evenings but be very low the rest of the time. Using virtualization, it would be possible to start up new virtual machines to handle the load at the times when the demand increases.
  • Consolidation. One of the biggest plays for virtualization is that of consolidating multiple old machines down to fewer new machines. Virtualization can take the existing applications, and their host operating systems can move them to a new host. Since the application is moved with its host operating system, the transition is more likely to be smooth than if the application had to be reconfigured for a new environment.

All these characteristics of virtualization make it a good fit for cloud computing. Cloud computing is a service provided by a remote farm of machines. Using virtualization, each user can be presented with root access to an unshared virtual machine. The number of machines can be scaled to match the demand for their service, and new machines can quickly be brought into service by replicating an existing setup. Finally, the software is isolated from the physical hardware that it is running on, so it can easily be moved to new hardware as the farm evolves.

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