Hardware-based virtualisation heralds major revamp for PCs

Partitioning will deploy multiple operating environments on one PC.

Partitioning will deploy multiple operating environments on one PC.

PCs are set for a major revamp with the emergence of hardware-based virtualisation technology, which will allow multiple applications to run securely and independently of each other.

Once the domain of high-end mainframe computing, hardware partitioning is used to deploy more than one operating environment on a single machine. Because each system is isolated, a software error in one system will not crash the whole machine. Now, users of desktop hardware will be able to benefit from this type of technology.

Intel has introduced a type of hardware partitioning for Pentium 4 PCs through a mechanism called Virtualisation Technology (VT). It will equip its Xeons and Itanium chips with VT in 2006. AMD is also expected to produce PC hardware partitioning, called Pacifica Virtualisation during 2006.

Intel's VT will effectively allow companies to run multiple PCs on a single processor, bringing several benefits.

The first is better performance, as multiple operating systems, and hence applications, will run simultaneously in different "compartments" or partitions, using the same processor.

This in turn could lower IT costs, as multiple servers or PCs are consolidated onto one platform. It also has the potential to reduce system complexity.

By using multiple partitions, businesses could perform system upgrades and maintenance, for example updating a PC's security software without interrupting the end-user's work.

Security should also be improved. Security managers could give users different levels of access and secure or separate particular partitions.

One application of improved security is online banking, where a partitioned interaction could be erased after use to secure the transaction and render certain spyware ineffective. Another use may be to filter all data traffic though an anti-virus partition before it reaches the user.

VT will work with existing virtualisation software applications such as VMware's ESX Server, Xen and Microsoft's Virtual PC, sitting below them and improving their performance and stability, said analysts.

This kind of chip-level virtualisation has been used in mainframes and niche systems for some years. However, Intel's VT, and AMD's Pacifica technology will bring it into the mainstream.


Virtualisation lacks software support

One barrier to the widescale adoption of Intel's Virtualisation Technology is the lack of software support, known as a "hypervisor", said Brian Gammage, vice-president at analyst firm Gartner.

The first release of Windows Vista is not expected to support VT, and there is no available hypervisor software from Microsoft or any other supplier at present that can manage the VT partitions or their security.

Microsoft is not expected to release its hypervisor before 2008. Users will therefore only be able to use VT with existing virtualisation software such as VMWare or the open source Xen product, or with a hardware security appliance from the likes of Lenovo.

Although hardware partitioning will improve security, users should be aware that hypervisors could introduce their own security risks.

IDC analyst Chris Ingle said, "Someone could compromise the hypervisor, or introduce a rogue hypervisor." This is more serious than compromising an operating system, he said, both from a technical perspective and that of user confidence.

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