FreeBSD 10 introduces brand-new virtualization platform

The Bhyve BSD hypervisor is legacy-free, with a small footprint, but offers a number of features out of the gate

For more than a decade we've been talking about the skirmishes that have made up the hypervisor wars. But now much of the virtualization community has moved beyond that discussion, dubbing the hypervisor as more of a commodity play, and is instead looking toward the cloud.

VMware vSphere is still considered the dominant hypervisor platform when it comes to market share, but those numbers have been dwindling over the years. Some researchers claim the current VMware market share number to be somewhere around 55 percent, and Microsoft Hyper-V has been steadily making up ground with each new release. Yet even as VMware, Microsoft, and Citrix continue to innovate and throw marketing FUD at one another, there is still enough meat left on the bone for other would-be contenders -- Red Hat, Oracle, and Parallels, to name a few -- to to advance their own hypervisor technologies.

[ Also on InfoWorld: IBM drops $1.2B to significantly expand its global cloud footprint | The 10 biggest virtualization and cloud stories from 2013 | Track the latest trends in virtualization in InfoWorld's Virtualization Report newsletter. ]

If the hypervisor war is really over (or at least winding down), is there room for yet another new hypervisor? If so, you might want to take a look at the latest release of FreeBSD announced this month.

This new version of FreeBSD is the first major update to the open source server operating system in two years, since FreeBSD 9.0 was officially announced. The project is one of the earliest open source operating system projects, tracing its roots back to the original works performed at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1990s, so it certainly has the credentials to capture interest.

FreeBSD 10 is by all accounts a solid release. It contains major improvements in the kernel, better multimedia and networking hardware support, ZFS TRIM support for solid state disks, the deprecation of GCC in favor of Clang, support for LZ4 compression in ZFS, and official Raspberry Pi support. It also adds driver support for better performance as a guest operating system on VMware and Microsoft virtualization platforms. Other improvements can be found in the product's release notes.

Beyond that, what interested me most about this latest release was the introduction of new virtualization capabilities -- chief among them, a new BSD hypervisor technology dubbed "Bhyve," which creates yet another alternative platform to the open source Xen and KVM hypervisors commonly used within the Linux community. While not as advanced, the new hypervisor does offer an original design, maintains a GPL-free, BSD license, and is well-coded with a very small footprint. Hopefully, it too will continue to advance and improve much like Xen and KVM have over the years.

So far, because of Bhyve's different approach to its virtualization hardware architecture, the BSD hypervisor is limited in hardware choice; it requires an Intel CPU that supports VT-x and Extended Page Table (EPT), Intel's nested paging feature found in Nehalem core or later CPUs. The project is, however, looking for ways to expand support to older CPUs without nested paging virtualization requirements.

Out of the gate, some of the current features or capabilities found within this new hypervisor include:

  • Support for a maximum of 16 vCPUs assigned to an individual virtual machine
  • No hard limit of RAM currently assigned to an individual guest machine
  • Support for ACPI and a clean and proper "power down" at shutdown, with full suspend, resume and live migration under development
  • PCI passthrough on systems that have Intel IOMMU (aka VT-d)
  • Memory overcommit where guest memory is pageable, allowing virtual machines to be allocated more memory than is physically available on the host
  • Additional support for VirtIO net/block, AHCI SATA/ATAPI interfaces, and serial PUC/LPC device support

The current version of Bhyve also supports a limited set of guest operating systems. As of this writing, the hypervisor supports any version of FreeBSD amd64 with VirtIO support, plus OpenBSD amd64 and GNU/Linux amd64 operating systems. Illumos support is under active development, and Windows and NetBSD support are being researched.

Beyond trying to break into an already commoditized hypervisor market, FreeBSD 10 will have to grapple with finding a place within the new cloud-driven data center. Server operating systems and modern data centers are undergoing a technological transformation, and applications are becoming the focal point in a public and private cloud environment.

The question that begs to be answered: Can FreeBSD and Bhyve bring enough to the table in this new world to warrant ongoing development of this hypervisor, or is this just a valiant effort with bad timing?

This article, "FreeBSD 10 introduces brand-new virtualization platform," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in virtualization and cloud computing at InfoWorld.com.

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