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Parallels conducts Extreme Nehalem workstation wooing

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Virtualization hypervisor wannabee Parallels has released the latest version of its desktop - not server - hypervisor aimed at high-end workstations.

Called Parallels Workstation Extreme, the product is not based on the bare-metal or type 1 hypervisor we told you last week that Parallels had in development, and is it also not based on the existing Parallels Workstation 2.2 type 2 hypervisor.

Bare metal or type 1 hypervisors install directly on a PC or server and allow isolation of virtual machines and their operating systems. Type-2 hypervisors install atop an operating system and allow other operating systems to run inside VMs on that hypervisor/operating system stack.

So what exactly is Workstation Extreme, then? James Raquepau, Parallels director of OEM alliances, called the hypervisor a tweaked version of the code base for Parallels Desktop 4.0 for Mac (which lets Windows run in a VM atop Mac OS X) and Parallels Server for Mac (which does the same for Apple's Leopard Server OS on Xserve machines based on Intel processors).

Workstation Extreme, though, has some important updates that make it suitable for workstation users.

Many other desktop and workstation virtualization hypervisors use an emulated 3D graphics card to support the actual 3D graphics cards on machines, which offers poor performance and resolution compared to native graphics. And that's one reason why end users who are juggling multiple PCs and workstation on their desks haven't virtualized down to a single physical computer supporting multiple VMs and applications driving multiple screens instead.

Parallels Extreme Workstation will be released first on Intel's Nehalem processors and heavily exploit the VT-d virtualization-assistance electronics in these processors, Raquepau said. With this implementation of the Parallels hypervisor, graphics cards and their drivers can be directly assigned to VMs on a workstation. And when Parallels says "workstation", it really means the kind of high-powered device you'd expect on the desktop of a financial trader, an electronics designer, an oil explorer, an architect, or a media artist.

The new hypervisor from Parallels makes use of a VM-aware, multiple OS mode that Nvidia has created for its SLI-type graphics cards, and two separate VMs on a workstation can be tied to two SLI cards. The host operating system that supports Parallels Workstation Extreme can make use of the integrated graphics on the motherboard, which yields three different partitions. The idea is to use that basic card to run a Windows or Linux instance, where you browse the web, read email, and such, and then run your serious applications in the two other partitions.

The Workstation Extreme hypervisor supports partitions with as many as 16 virtual cores and up to 64GB of main memory. The term virtual core means the Parallels hypervisor sees each HyperThread inside each quad-core Nehalem EP as a virtual core: each core in the high-end Xeon 5500 processors - as the Nehalem EPs are known now that they have been launched - has two HyperThreads that boost the chip's performance by virtualizing instruction execution pipelines. This is a different, lower lever of virtualization than Parallels is doing with its hypervisor.

Thus far, the host operating systems that have been certified to support Parallels Workstation Extreme include Microsoft's 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Vista and the 64-bit Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.3. In terms of guest operating system running atop the hypervisor, a variety of other operating systems may work, in a technical sense, but only RHEL 4.7 and 5.3 and Windows XP and Vista have been certified by Parallels to work out of the box. The company will support the Fedora development release of Red Hat's Linux variant because a customer has requested it.

Only Nvidia's Quadro FX 3800, 4800, and 5800 graphics cards are supported, and Raquepau said ATI cards from AMD are "in the future" but there's no firm schedule. The reason is simple: Nvidia has the lion's share - around 80 per cent - of the workstation market that Parallels is targeting here.

For now, only one workstation is certified to run Parallels Workstation Extreme, and that is Hewlett-Packard's Gunnison Z800 workstation, which is a two-socket tower workstation that has up to 192GB of main memory. The less capable Z400 and Z600 Nehalem workstations announced last week, which will ship in a few weeks from HP alongside the Z800, are not yet supported by Parallels Workstation Extreme.

Raquepau said Nehalem workstations from Dell, Fujitsu, and Lenovo will also eventually be certified to run the hypervisor. The hypervisor has a list price of $399 per machine, and will probably sell for $250 a pop with decent volume discounts, according to Raquepau. ®

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