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Sun Labs edges toward practicality

Games, Solaris and DARPA - Oh my!

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You never know what will turn up when Sun Microsystems opens the doors to its Labs operations, as it did for reporters last week. In the past, the company has tried to woo observers with things as trite as drying paint - or at least drying paint full of sensors. This time around, Sun offered some more gripping - and reality tethered - labs work to the press.

Massively parallel bass fishing

Dashing to the eye-candy first, we bring word of "Project Darkstar." This is Sun's move to build video game servers, which could one day power a video game hosting service.

Sun reckons that current data centers powering on-line games are too expensive and inefficient. Many of the systems used to run Second Life, City of Heroes, EverQuest and other games falter due to heavy user volume, server failures and data errors. Sun hopes to apply its data center expertise to create a game server that has better load balancing, fail over traits and general intelligence.

Backers of today's most popular games must spend millions of dollars per month on hardware and data center operation costs. Such expenditures make life tough on smaller game developers that want to own a piece of the on-line action. By freeing up its game servers in a hosted model, Sun could tap this small developer market.

"There might be 500 people that want to play online bass fishing," said Jeff Kesselman, the lead behind Sun's game server project. "It's just not affordable to build a system that can do that today. With our system, small developers can get in."

Sun is currently in discussions with "one of the biggest developers in the business" about moving to a type of hosting model. Sun would either handle the servers in-house or team with a telco partner. Sun, however, doesn't plan to use its $1 per CPU hour grip model for games.

The games group has been testing out their software on Sun's upcoming Opteron-based blade servers code-named Andromeda.

"Technically, we're probably a year within being ready (for large-scale hosting," Kesselman said.

There's more on the project here. There's a good piece of game scaling woes here as well.

NICed and sliced

Closer to the heart of Solaris geeks is the "Crossbow" project to virtualize NICs.

Sun researchers have moved to tackle what they see as one of the next major pieces of the virtualization puzzle. Customers today run two, three and four operating systems (and related applications) per server with packages such as VMware and Xen. Those using Solaris Zones can run even more OS instances per server due to the arguably more efficient zone model. Controlling how networking loads from these partitions are handled by NICs can be difficult.

Crossbow tries to solve some of the networking problems by making sure each applications gets a set amount of bandwidth.

"Crossbow provides the building blocks for network virtualization and resource control by virtualizing the stack and NIC around any service (HTTP, HTTPS, FTP, NFS, etc.), protocol or Virtual machine," Sun says.

"Each virtual stack can be assigned its own priority and bandwidth on a shared NIC without causing any performance degradation. The architecture dynamically manages priority and bandwidth resources, and can provide better defense against denial-of-service attacks directed at a particular service or virtual machine by isolating the impact just to that entity. The virtual stacks are separated by means of [a ] hardware classification engine such that traffic for one stack does not impact other virtual stacks."

Crossbow has been set up as an OpenSolaris project, and there's more detailed information available here.

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