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Look Ma, no hypervisor!

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Encouraged by hypervisor vendors, the confusion between virtualization and Cloud Computing is rampant. In the industry, the term “virtualization” (and its corollary, “virtual machine”) is used in so many different ways that it has lost all usefulness. For a recent example, read the introduction of this SNIA/OGF white paper (on Cloud Storage) which asserts that “the new technology underlying this is the system virtual machine that allows multiple instances of an operating system and associated applications to run on single physical machine. Delivering this over the network, on demand, is termed Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)”.

In fact, even IaaS-type Cloud services don’t imply the use of hypervisors.

We need to decouple the Cloud interface/contract (e.g. “what are the types of resources that can I provision on demand? hosts, app servers, storage capacity, app services…”) from the underlying implementation (e.g. “are hypervisors used by the Cloud provider?”). At the risk of spelling out things that may be obvious to many readers of this blog, here is a simplified matrix of Cloud Computing systems, designed to illustrate that all combinations of interface and implementation are possible and in many cases even reasonable.

  IaaS interface PaaS interface
Hypervisor used Yes! (see #1) Yes! (see #2)
Hypervisor not used Yes! (see #3) Yes! (see #4)

#1: IaaS interface, hypervisor-based implementation

This is a very common approach these days, both in public Clouds (EC2, Rackspace and presumably at some point the VMWare vCloud Express service providers) and private Clouds (Citrix, Sun, Oracle, Eucalyptus, VMWare…). Basically, you take a bunch of servers, put hypervisors on all of them and make VMs running on these hypervisors available to the Cloud customers.

But despite its predominance, this is not the only path to a Cloud, not even to an IaaS (e.g. “x86 hosts on demand”) Cloud. The following three other scenarios are all valid too.

#2: PaaS interface, hypervisor-based implementation

This is the road SpringSource has been on, first with Cloud Foundry (using AWS EC2 which is based on the Xen hypervisor) and presumably soon on top of VMWare.

#3: IaaS interface, no hypervisor in the implementation

Let’s remember that the utility computing vision (before the term fell in desuetude in favor of “cloud”) has been around before x86 hypervisors were so common. Take Loudcloud as an illustration. They were building what is now called a “public Cloud” starting back in 1999 and not using any hypervisor. Just bare metal provisioning and advanced provisioning automation software. Then they sold the hosting part to EDS (now HP) and only kept the software, under the name Opsware (now HP too, incidentally). That software was meant to create what we now call a “private Cloud”. See this old DCML announcement as one example of the Opsware vision. And no hypervisor was harmed in the making of this movie.

At the current point in time, the hardware (e.g. multiple cores, shared memory) and software (hypervisors, legacy apps) environment is such that hypervisor-based solutions seem to have an edge over those based on automated provisioning/configuration alone. But these things tend to change quickly in our industry… Especially if you factor in non-technical considerations like compliance, fear of data leakage and the risk of having the hardware underlying your application seized because of an investigation involving another tenant…

And this is not going into finner techno-philosophical points about the different types of hypervisors. Not to mention mainframe LPARs… One could build a hypervisor-free IaaS solution on these.

To some extent, you may even put the “pwned” machines (in a botnet) in this “IaaS with no hypervisor” category (with the small difference that what’s being made available is an x86 with an OS, typically Windows, already installed). If you factor out externalities (like the FBI breaking down your front door at 6:00AM) this approach has claims as the most cost-effective form of Cloud computing available today… Solaris zones are another example of possible foundation for a hypervisor-free IaaS-like offering (here too, with an OS rather than a “raw host” as the interface).

#4: PaaS interface, no hypervisor in the implementation

In the public sphere, this corresponds to Google App Engine.

In the private sphere, several companies have built it themselves on top of WebLogic, by adding some level of “on-demand” application provisioning in order to streamline the relationship between the IT group running the servers and the business groups who want to deploy applications on them. Something that one should ideally be able to buy rather than build.

Waiting for the question to become irrelevant

Like most deeply-ingrained confusions, the conflation of virtualization and Cloud Computing won’t be dispelled as much as made irrelevant. The four categories enumerated in this post are a point-in-time view of a continuously evolving system. What may start today as a bundle of a hypervisor, an OS and an app server may become a somewhat monolithic “PaaS engine” over time as the components are more tightly integrated. That “engine” may have memory isolation mechanisms that look a lot like a hypervisor. But it may not be able to host a generic OS. In the same way that whales don’t have fingers and toes and yet they are still very much apparent in their skeleton.

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Published at DZone with permission of William Vambenepe. See the original article here.

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