Sun’s Virtualization Push

Project Blackbox might be a gimmick, but Sun’s virtualization moves are for real

It was a busy week for Sun Microsystems Inc. last week. The company announced a new data center-in-a-box (“Project Blackbox”) and unveiled a raft of new virtualization technologies.

When Sun introduced Project Blackbox last week, the Unix giant wasn’t hyping an abstract (or even a figurative) black box. Nor did Sun simply neglect to rechristen an internal project code name before productizing it.

No, Sun had a very literal black box in mind: a large black box—very much reminiscent of a shipping container, in fact—which customers can effectively forklift into their data centers.

In Sun’s thinking, the Blackbox becomes the data center. To that end, Sun officials bill Project Blackbox as an “instant-on” modular data center, comprising all-in-one compute, storage, and network resources, along with high-efficiency power and cooling features, too.

Now that the costs of data-center real estate (not to mention data-center power and cooling) are vying with those of data-center hardware, software, and even staffing, Sun says it can offer companies an inexpensive alternative. Each Blackbox data center unit is boxed in a standard shipping container form factor.

“Just about every CIO and startup I meet says they're crippled by data-center energy and space constraints. Today's solutions are clearly failing to meet the needs of Web 2.0," said Sun president and CEO Jonathan Schwartz, in a prepared release. “Rather than trying to improve upon today's data center, designed for people babysitting computers, Project Blackbox starts from the world's most broadly adopted industry standard, the shipping container.”

What’s in it for customers? A scalable data center on a budget, for starters: Sun claims that Project Blackbox units drop in at one-hundredth of the initial cost of the average data center. That’s one-fifth the cost per square foot, Schwartz claims, with 20 percent greater power efficiency to boot.

Sun officials say Project Blackbox—which at this point is only a prototype—can help companies facilitate rapid Web 2.0 build-outs; can support advanced military applications, thanks mostly to Sun’s promise to deploy Project Blackbox data centers anytime, anywhere; can provide turn-key data center environments for developing nations; and could provide disaster-recovery-in-a-box relief, too.

Virtualization Renaissance

To a large degree, Project Blackbox vision will depend on the scalability and granularity of Sun’s virtualization capabilities.

The Unix giant was busy in this department, too, last week, proving that its virtualization story is no longer limited to physical partitioning between and among compute resources. That hasn’t been the case for a while—Solaris Containers saw to that—but Sun last week announced a new round of virtualization offerings, including a technology it calls Logical Domains (LDoms). What’s more, the company announced plans to tightly couple its Solaris operating environment with the open-source Xen virtualization project.

Sun’s announcements amount to a distinct refinement of its virtualization philosophy, says Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with consultancy Illuminata. For one thing, Haff points out, Sun has in the past eschewed discrete virtual machines (VMs), preferring instead to emphasize its Solaris Containers approach. LDoms, for one, bring Solaris Containers much closer to VMs, at least in terms of their ability to simultaneously host multiple operating system environments.

Right now, Haff says, Solaris Containers have most of the benefits of discrete VMs but are not, in fact, VMs. That’s because they’re partitioned instances of the same operating system, whereas VMs typically comprise multiple instances of the same (or different) operating system(s). “Although containers have the advantage over VMs of only having a single OS image to patch and manage, that also means containerized systems can’t run different operating system versions and types,” Haff notes. LDoms, on the other hand, make it possible for customers to run multiple operating systems simultaneously with Solaris Containers: “LDoms are implemented with a thin layer of firmware coupled with hardware extensions that provide isolation between partitions.”

Sun’s Solaris-on-Xen push brings it even closer to embracing VMs. Next year, Sun promises, it will deliver full Xen capabilities in an update to the Solaris 10. The upshot, Sun says, is that users can host concurrent Solaris 10, Linux, and Windows "guest" operating systems on a Solaris 10-based VM. Haff likes the sound of this.

“Sun’s Xen implementation will leverage the Xen community hypervisor and marry it with a Solaris instance for the control domain [“Dom0”]. This is architecturally a somewhat similar approach to that being taken by the Linux distributions—except, of course, that the Linux distros use Linux, not Solaris, to control the hypervisor,” Haff points out. “Sun hasn’t yet finalized all the Dom0 design details. However, philosophically, Sun believes in using Solaris for this function to leverage capabilities such as DTrace and Predictive Self-Healing, for performance tuning and reliability respectively.”

Sun still hasn’t completely embraced VMs. Not all the way, anyway. Right now, for example, it positions Xen as a technology for x86 systems only. For UltraSPARC, at least in the near term, Sun will push LDoms, says Haff. Over time, however, Sun will bring the two technologies together.

“At that point, Xen presumably becomes a common cross-platform interface and software layer—perhaps even one that implements agreed-upon virtualization interface standards if such can ever be agreed upon by the industry,” he concludes. “LDoms themselves would then fade into the background where they would essentially let the hardware fit into virtualization with better performance and reliability.”

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