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Sun plans to get Linux on UltraSPARC via Xen

Hypervisor marriage

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Sun Microsystems feels your pain.

The server maker has plans to offer the Linux set a bit of Niagara Viagra. Sun's engineers have been beavering away on a hypervisor layer that sits on the company's UltraSPARC T1 - aka Niagara - processor and allows operating systems such as Linux and BSD to run on the chip. More impressively, perhaps, Sun plans to merge its own hypervisor work with the open source Xen code.

Quite some time ago, Sun's software team began hammering away on something called "Project Q." This was an effort to run multiple operating systems in different partitions on the same server. The work done by the Project Q team first appeared on Sun's UltraSPARC T1 chip - only Sun didn't talk a whole lot about it.

As the OpenSPARC group explains it,

"Sun's UltraSPARC T1 processor has been designed to incorporate hypervisor technology in order to present a virtualized machine environment to any guest operating system running upon it. The resulting software model for a guest operating system is referred to as the 'sun4v' architecture.

"This virtual machine environment is implemented with a thin layer of firmware software (the 'UltraSPARC Hypervisor') coupled with hardware extensions providing protection. The UltraSPARC Hypervisor not only provides system services required by the operating system, but it also enables the separation of platform resources into self-contained partitions (logical domains) each capable of supporting an independent operating system image."

For some reason, the hypervisor technology has been largely ignored by the press and analysts. In a rare move, Sun has chosen not to hype it up either.

This could be because the likes of Red Hat and SuSE have shied from porting their versions of Linux over to UltraSPARC. There doesn't seem to be much motivation from the main Linux vendors to help Sun out with any non-x86 efforts. Although, we suspect this chap might be more open to the idea.

Another reason for ignoring the hypervisor might be because developers would see it as yet another virtualization platform to support, and who needs that. There's already VMware, Xen, Microsoft and a host of smaller players dabbling in the server slicing market.

Sun's move to merge its own technology with Xen would lessen these concerns.

In fact, Xen and XenSource could open up a nice, unique market on Sun's UltraSPARC T1 chip. The multicore dynamo promises to reduce power consumption in data centers and is said to be top notch at the web and application serving tasks which are in Linux's wheelhouse.

It would be silly to expect a bustling Linux on UltraSPARC T1 industry appear overnight. Sun has tried and failed at plenty of similar software gambits over the years. Heck, it has even tried and failed and tried again with Solaris x86 and that sits pretty close to home.

Still, there's something appealing about running a couple copies of Linux across one of the UltraSPARC T1-based boxes and seeing what happens. If the system cranks out web pages at a record clip, Sun's customers will be thrilled, and Dell's customers will wonder where the company has been hiding its own Viagra. ®

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