Praying to the hypervisor God

I was reading a great article by Frank Denneman about storage intelligence moving up the stack. It was pretty much in line with what I have been observing in the past 18 months or so, about the storage pendulum having swung back to DAS (direct attached storage). To be more precise, the DAS form factor I am referring to are physical server hardware that houses many disk drives.

Like it or not, the hypervisor has become the center of the universe in the IT space. VMware has become the indomitable force in the hypervisor technology, with Microsoft Hyper-V playing catch-up. The seismic shift of these 2 hypervisor technologies are leading storage vendors to place them on to the altar and revering them as deities. The others, with the likes of Xen and KVM, and to lesser extent Solaris Containers aren’t really worth mentioning.

This shift, as the pendulum swings from networked storage back to internal “direct-attached” storage are dictated by 4 main technology factors:

  • The x86 server architecture
  • Software-defined
  • Scale-out architecture
  • Flash-based storage technology

Anyone remember Thumper? Not the Disney character from the Bambi movie!


When the SunFire X4500 (aka Thumper) was first released in (intermission: checking Wiki for the right year) in 2006, I felt that significant wound inflicted in the networked storage industry. Instead of the usual 4-8 hard disk drives in the all the industry servers at the time, the X4500 4U chassis housed 48 hard disk drives. The design and architecture were so astounding to me, I even went and bought a 1U SunFire X4150 for my personal server collection. Such was my adoration for Sun’s technology at the time.

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SMP than VMware

VMware is not a panacea for all your server virtualization requirements but because they do fantastic marketing (not to mention doing 1 small seminar every 1.5-2 months here in Malaysia last year), everyone thinks they are the only choice for server virtualization.

Efforts from Citrix Xen, Microsoft Hyper-V and RedHat Virtualization do not seem to make a dent into VMware’s armour and it is beginning to feel that VMware is the only choice for server virtualization. However, every new server virtualization proposal would end up with the customer buying a brand new, much more powerful server. More CPUs, more cores, and more RAM (I am not going into VMware vRAM licensing issues here but customers know they are caged-in).

You see, VMware’s style of server virtualization is a in-system virtualization. The amount of physical resources within the system are being pooled, virtualized and shared with the virtual machines (VMs) in the physical chassis. With exception to the concept of distributed vSwitches (dvSwitch), CPUs, processing CPU cores and RAM are pretty much confined within what’s available in the physical box in most server virtualization environment. You can envision the concept of VMware’s in-system virtualization in the diagram below:

So, the consolidation (and virtualization) phase of older physical servers would involve packing tons of CPU cores and tons of RAMs in a newer, high end server.

I just visited a prospect a few days ago. For about 30 users for an ERP system and perhaps 100 users of Zimbra mailboxes, he lamented that he had to invest into 2 Dell R710 servers with 64GB of RAM each and sporting 2 x 8-core Intel Xeon. That sounded to like an overkill but that is what is happening here in this part of the world. The customer is given the perception and the doubt of inadequacy when they virtualize their servers. “What if I don’t have enough cores?; what if I don’t have enough RAM?” That in itself is the typical Malaysian (and Singaporean) kiasu mentality. Check out the Wikipedia definition of kiasu here.

Such a high-end server costs a lot of moolahs. And furthermore, the scalability and performance of the virtualized servers in the VMs are trapped within how much these servers can scale physically. If the server is maxed out at 16-cores and 128GB of RAM, then the customer to upgrade again with a server forklift. That’s not good.

And one more thing. VMware server virtualization is not ready for High Performance Computing (HPC) …yet.

Let’s look at this in another way. Let’s assume that you can look the server virtualization approach in an outward manner rather than the inward within kind of thinking, like the VMware in-system method.

What if you can invest in lower-end x86 servers with 1 x quad-core CPUs, with 8GB of RAM? What if you can put aggregate many of these lower-end servers together and build a large cluster of lower-end x86 servers into a huge symmetric multiprocessing server farm that supports 1,024 CPUs of 16,384 cores, 64TB of RAM? Have a look at this video that explains what I just mentioned:

ScaleMP video

Yeah, yeah .. it’s a marketing video from ScaleMP. But I am looking beyond the company and looking at the possibility of this out-system type of server virtualization. The ability to pool together all the CPU processing power of many physical servers and the aggregation of physical RAMs of all the combined servers into a single shared memory architecture unleashes the true power of server virtualization. This is THE next generation symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) architecture, and it breaks free from the limitations and scalability the in-ward virtualization of physical servers.

In the past, SMP system rely on heavy programmability of the applications to scale with SMP systems. Applications didn’t necessary scale on-the-fly with SMP systems, and some level of configuration and programming have to be applied to address the proprietary  SMP methods and interconnects. ScaleMP’s vSMP Foundation hypervisor solution removes the proprietary nature of SMP and bringing x86 server virtualization to meet the demands of HPC.

Here’s a look at the high level architecture of ScaleMP vSMP:

This type architecture brings similarity to RNA Networks solutions that I blogged some time ago. RNA Network, which was acquired by Dell late last year, based their solution on the RDMA technology and protocol, and was more about enhancing scalability and performance with memory pooling via Memory Cloud. ScaleMP’s patent-pending technology is more than that. It pools both memory and processing cores as well, giving it greater scalability and performance, the much needed resources for the demands of HPC environments.

The folks at ScaleMP contacted me a couple of weeks back and shared some of their marketing datasheets and whitepapers. While the information passed to me were OK, I wish the information could have a deeper dive into the technology and implementation as well. I hope they could share it, and I don’t mind signing an NDA.

Well, this is done pro bono, because I want everyone to know the choices and possibilities out there. It is my worldly cause to have people educated because only by being informed, we make better choices. The server virtualization world isn’t always about VMware, you know.