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March 30, 2005

AMD readies Pacifica spec

Advanced Micro Devices have met with developers in Austin, Texas, and unveiled some key features of its forthcoming "Pacifica" processor virtualization technology. Timothy Prickett Morgan reports...

By CBR Staff Writer

While AMD told the developers in attendance at its Reviewer’s Day a lot about Pacifica, it has not said much publicly yet. The company is making sure that VMware and Microsoft, which sell the software-based virtualization hypervisors that most companies use today on X86 iron, have been involved in the development of Pacifica; AMD is also collaborating with the upstart, open source XenSource alternatives to VMware’s GSX Server and ESX Server and Microsoft’s Virtual Server 2005 products.

AMD is being very careful to pitch Pacifica, which is akin to Intel’s Vanderpool, now called Virtualization Technology or VT for short, for its Xeon and Itanium processors, as a means of extending the existing software-based hypervisors that VMware and Microsoft currently sell.

But the truth of the matter is that abstracting the X86 instruction set and virtualizing it was the real value in the virtualization software that these companies sell, and both VMware and Microsoft, as well as any products that come from the XenSource community, will be relegated to the realm of providing management of virtualization capabilities that are propped up by the chips.

This is great news for chip makers like AMD and Intel and for workstation and server customers, but it remains to be seen how virtualization software makers such as VMware, Microsoft, and XenSource will fare.

VMware has about 10,000 server customers, and the limiting factors to the adoption of its products have been the relatively high cost of its software and overhead associated with its use; Microsoft has a much smaller installed base, but the same limiting factors. Pacifica and Vanderpool will eliminate much of that overhead, and VMware and Microsoft will eventually have to drop prices on their virtualization products, since they don’t virtualize the hardware to the same extent and since XenSource will be offering similar capabilities across all X86 platforms for what will presumably be a very modest price.

The virtualization software business will go to the higher ground of proving who has the best, easiest management tools – and we will all benefit from this substantial change. That is why VMware, Microsoft, and XenSource are getting on board. They still have an excellent chance of making real money, and because Vanderpool will be on the Montecito Itanium chips that come out early in 2006, they will be able to support the Itanium platform for the first time. IBM already has similar virtualization hardware and a hypervisor for its Power-based servers, the iSeries and the pSeries, but these are not compatible with VMware, Microsoft, or XenSource products.

Pacifica will be embedded in PC and server chips from AMD that are due in the first half of 2006. It will not be available in the dual-core Opterons that are expected within a matter of months.

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