Golden's Rules: Why new chips + Xen = dream machines

I'm not usually a guy who slavers over the latest and greatest technology. In fact, I generally prefer to wait until a technology has been around at least a year before I jump on it. I let someone else pay a premium price and go through the shakedown experience, while I patiently wait for the price to drop. Then, I purchase the debugged version, thank you very much.

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I'm changing my ways, and all because of multi-core virtualization.

Developments in the chip world are making me rethink my laggard approach to technology. I believe that CPU advances will truly change how convenient and powerful our machines can be. When these new machines arrive, you can call me Mr. Early Adopter because I can't wait to buy them.

Both Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices are delivering multi-core processors today. Beyond the obvious benefits of increased processing power, both companies have gotten religion about reducing the power consumption of their chips. This translates into lower running costs and, in the case of notebooks, increased battery life.

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The mightier processing power of these chips will be well received. While the power of previous chips far outstripped the typical needs for most machines -- which were running browsers and office productivity software -- the demands of the new digitized world has found those chips lacking. Performing digital manipulation on audio and video caused them to run at high utilization and, in so doing, they sucked up energy. You can practically hear the chips panting while translating between digital formats and serving up video and acting as the hub of today's media-obsessed home.

As anyone who has ever owned a dog knows, panting is a way dogs throw off heat, which the older generation of chips does in spades.

I have three laptops and two mini-tower machines in my office, so I can attest to the thermal effect of the older chips. While not so bad in the winter, these five extra space heaters make summer just a bit too sauna-like for my taste. So, you'll be seeing multi-core wholesale replacements within our office in the near future.

Of course, more processing power and less heat only solves part of the problem. I will still have a bunch of machines in the office. Or will I?

That brings me to the second reason behind my becoming Mr. Early Adopter: virtualization.

Xen's a dream on new machines

You've probably heard about virtualization and the upcoming integration of Xen, an open source virtualization technology, into Linux distributions. You may not have heard why Xen goes better with this new generation of chips.

Intel has already delivered chips that support virtualization natively, and AMD will deliver them later in the year. Essentially, the chip takes on some of the burden of running virtualization, making it possible for virtualization software to accomplish two important things:

  • run a lighter-weight piece of software, freeing up more processing power for the hosted operating systems; and
  • run unmodified operating systems. (Previous virtualization required special versions of the operating systems that were modified to integrate with the virtualization software.)

With the new chips providing much of the virtualization capability, it is in the reach of a small business to have a high-performance virtualized machine (or indeed, machines). It is no longer necessary to have a four- or eight-way machine to host multiple operating systems, each in its own container; with the new chips, virtualization can be achieved with a single- or dual-processor machine.

The fact that these new chips come as dual-core makes virtualization even easier to achieve in a low-end machine. That's very good news.

In the past, if you wanted to run only Linux instances on the virtualized machine, you didn't need to run modified operating systems. Linux has had specially modified versions available for a while that would integrate into a Xen infrastructure.

What's exciting about the ability to run unmodified operating systems is that it opens up the possibility of running Windows instances alongside of Linux instances -- without requiring Microsoft to make available a modified version of Windows tuned for Xen.

This means, for example, that in the near future my current brace of machines -- one Linux and one Windows -- will be consolidated onto one multi-core machine, either single- or dual-processor. It will offer the full capability of both operating systems on the underlying machine. Full digital processing will be available, too, whether the necessary application runs on Linux or Windows. This certainly increases my choices and flexibility.

I'm even more excited about what this multi-core, virtualized chip availability means for my laptop. I will now be able to run both Windows and Linux on the same machine without having to suffer the compromise of dual-booting, which, frankly, always sounds better than it is in real life. I can use Linux as my main operating environment and still have the option of Windows available to run applications not yet ported to Linux. And, with Intel's and AMD's lower-power chips, I'll have more time per battery charge, making untethered computing available for longer time periods.

So, call me Mr. Early Adopter. I've never been this excited about new technology before. I believe AMD and Intel are delivering up a truly different generation of computing that will offer more flexibility and satisfaction at a lower operating cost, and I can't wait.

By the way, did I mention that next year both AMD and Intel are planning to deliver quad-core chips?

About the columnist: Bernard Golden is CEO of Navica Inc., a systems integrator based in San Carlos, Calif. He is the author of Succeeding with Open Source (Addison-Wesley) and the creator of the Open Source Maturity Model, a formalized method of locating, assessing and implementing open source software.

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