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Oracle punts first VirtualBox x64 hypervisor

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Application security programs and practises

VirtualBox made the cut in the wake of the acquisition of Sun by Oracle back in January, and Wednesday marked the first release of what is now called Oracle VM VirtualBox.

With VirtualBox 3.2 (and no one is ever going to call it Oracle VM VirtualBox, so let's get that straight), the software engineers have tweaked the type 2 (meaning hosted) hypervisor so it can run on all the latest "Westmere" variants of Intel's Core i5 and i7 processors for desktops and the Xeon 5600s for servers and high-end workstations.

On all of these Westmere chips, Intel has a feature called unrestricted guest execution, which does not mean you can kill all the people who annoy you at a party, but rather the VT-x features of the Intel chips that support nested paging, which allows real mode and protected modes without paging to run faster, which speeds up OS boot times for guest operating systems riding atop VirtualBox.

Large-page support is now enabled on Intel chips with VT-x and Advanced Micro Devices AMD-V virtualization electronics, which can boost the performance of guest VMs. VirtualBox also has dynamic memory ballooning to allocate or deallocate main memory for the VM on 64-bit hosts. A feature called page fusion allows for the memory used by multiple virtual machines to be deduplicated if they are running the same bits of software, allowing two or more VMs to share the same memory related to that software. This frees up more memory for applications to play in or for hosting more VMs.

Hot CPU support is now added, too. On machines running Linux as the host platform for VirtualBox, processors can be hot-added or hot-subtracted without having to stop Linux or VirtualBox; those using Windows as the host can only do hot adds. The host operating system has to support hot-adding of CPUs, which means Windows Server 2008 or Linux with the 2.6 kernel.

VirtualBox 3.2 also sports a revamped virtual disk subsystem, say the project's contributors, making use of asynchronous I/O to boost the performance of file systems that underpin virtual machines. The virtual networking subsystem has been tweaked to reduce context switching between guests and host, allowing virtual network bandwidth to rise by up to 25 per cent.

The new version of the x64 hypervisor from Oracle also has experimental support for Mac OS X guests on Apple iron using x64 chips. The virtual video subsystem also allows for up to eight virtual monitors to be configured to a virtual machine running atop VirtualBox, which in turn can drive up to eight physical monitors. This multi-monitor support is enabled for Windows guests only.

VirtualBox 3.2 also sports acceleration for the Remote Data Protocol if you are using a Windows 7 client in a VM, and the hypervisor can emulate an LSI Logic SAS controller for storage as well, which is common in high-end x64 workstations and entry servers and midrange x64 servers.

VirtualBox supports just about any x64 operating system you can imagine: Windows NT all the way back to 4.0 and Windows all the way back to 3.0, plus DOS, OS/2, Linux 2.4 and 2.6, Solaris, and BSD Unix - and now Oracle Enterprise Linux 5.5 and Canonical Ubuntu 10.04 are added to the long list.

You can read the release notes for VirtualBox 3.2 here and download the hypervisor there. The VirtualBox project says that the hypervisor has had more than 26 million downloads since October 2007 and is still running at more than 40,000 downloads a day on average. The software is free for personal use, but commercial support licenses cost $50 per machine. A very reasonable and un-Oracle price, indeed. We'll see if that lasts.

Oracle has not made much noise lately on the Sparc virtualization front, but the virtualization blog at Oracle just posted a recap of Oracle's Sparc virtualization strategy, reminding everyone that Sun's xVM variant of Xen is dead and has been replaced by Oracle VM, Oracle's clone of the Red Hat Xen that Red Hat doesn't really care about any more because it thinks KVM is better. Oracle has also changed the name of Logical Domain (LDom) logical partitions on Sparc T series servers to Oracle VM for Sparc. ®

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