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Intel stretches hypervisor across Xeon 5600, Freescale

Multi-core ARM chip support due next year

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Last week, chip maker and operating system wannabe Intel revved up its Wind River Linux with a version 4 update, putting a piping hot and steamy fresh Linux kernel at the heart of its cross-platform, embedded Linux platform. This week, the related Wind River Hypervisor is tweaked with a 1.2 release.

Wind River was already on its way making a virtual machine hypervisor that spans multiple chip architectures when Intel came a-knocking in June 2009 with a bag full of $884m in cash to acquire the maker of real-time operating systems and development tools. Thus far, Intel has taken a hands-off approach to Wind River, at least from the outside. The list of supported platforms has not suddenly shrunk to anything with Core or Xeon in the name and the x64 instruction set for either Wind River Linux or VxWorks operating system or Wind River Hypervisor, the latter of which was announced only a week after the Intel acquisition last year.

The chip giant has figured out that application developers and the tools they use to create applications can drive a chip platform out of the ashes - just look at Apple's nearly magical transformation and recovery from being a PC also-ran to an Internet giant - or get a new platform shooting skywards like a rocket - look at how quickly the Android operating system has taken off thanks to Google's backing and its use as the anti-Apple in a variety of handheld and lightweight computing devices. Intel doesn't want to sell computers (although it sometimes does, just the same, if you ask it to nicely and on the QT), but it has always done lots of work with compilers and development tools on its chips.

In an increasingly abstracted world, the hypervisor is becoming as important as the chip instruction set, the operating system, and the application development tools and runtimes (although you still need all the pieces). Intel already owns the PC market and is hitting its limits with a near monopoly on server chips and chipsets, so that leaves the embedded market. And so, for now, as Intel revs up its Atom and Xeon chips for embedded uses, Intel has to play friendly like Switzerland even though you know in its heart it either wishes it hadn't sold off its ARM business to Marvel or that its Atom will wrestle ARM chips and defeat them in the embedded space.

With Wind River Hypervisor 1.2 announced today, Intel's own six-core Xeon 5600 processors are now supported by this bare metal hypervisor, which could carve up Intel's Intel Core 2 Duo, Xeon 3500 and 5500, and Atom processors when it was announced last year as well as embedded PowerPC chips from IBM and Freescale Semiconductor. Intel is also adding support in the 1.2 release for Freescale's e500mc core and the QorIQ P4080 processor, which is based on those 32-bit Power cores. The e500mc cores are significant in that they have virtualization-assistance circuits on them, akin to Intel's VT instructions for its Core and Xeon processors. (Many embedded PowerPC chips do not have virtualization instructions, so you need to make up the functionality in microcode, which impacts performance.) The Wind River Hypervisor can run unmodified guest operating systems on Intel Core and Xeon chips and chips based on Freescale e500mc cores, which is the important thing as far as embedded application developers are concerned.

The P4080 chip, which was announced in June 2008 and initially sampled in mid-2009, supports up to eight cores on a single die running at 1.5 GHz. Embedded system designers started putting out reference systems earlier this year using the P4080 chip. No one has decided to put them into a consumer device yet, but they will pop up in embedded systems all over the place, driven by VxWorks and Linux and the Workbench toolset created by Wind River.

When the hypervisor was announced a little more than a year ago, Wind River and Intel said that they had no pans to support any x86 or x64 chips from Advanced Micro Devices or VIA Technologies with the hypervisor. The company has been planning to support MIPS and ARM chips with its hypervisor, but never gave out any dates. Now, Intel is ready to commit to delivering Wind River Hypervisor on multi-core ARM chips sometime in 2011. No word on when MIPS chips get support. ®

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