Q&A: AMD's Margaret Lewis talks about the client virtualization market

AMD has introduced technologies to help reduce complexity and overhead associated with virtualization. What else does the processor giant have up its virtual sleeve?

As an industry, we talk a lot about the advancements that have been made over the last few years in both server and client virtualization, and when we do, we often talk about those advancements as they have come from the software manufacturers or the virtualization platform providers like VMware, Citrix, Parallels, or Microsoft.

But there have been quite a few advancements made in the virtualization industry thanks to hardware and processor manufacturers. The server virtualization market has made great strides in these last few years thanks to additional processor technologies introduced like AMD-V and Intel VT. By removing the need to emulate certain x86 instruction sets, these processor technologies removed barriers to entry into this market and introduced much-needed speed.

Thanks to the many processor advances made in both performance and architecture, x86 virtualization now works fast enough and well enough that it has been given a great big push along the maturity and adoption curve. And companies like AMD are still inventing and enhancing their processor lines with additional virtualization improvements.

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I was lucky enough to speak with Margaret Lewis, director of software solutions at AMD and a well-known personality in the virtualization community. Margaret and I talked about the importance of the processor in the world of virtualization, the role it plays within client virtualization, best practices for implementation, and where things are headed in the industry. She spends a lot of time speaking with customers and datacenter managers, so she had a lot of great insight to share with me.

InfoWorld: Thanks for your time today, Margaret. Can you start off by giving us a little bit of background about your role over at AMD?

AMD: I'm currently director of Software Solutions for AMD, where I lead a team responsible for marketing efforts with software partners, including Microsoft, Red Hat, Adobe, VMware, AutoDesk, and the emerging world of DX11 and OpenCL software. In my role at AMD, I meet with hardware and software partners as well as customers to discuss growth opportunities in the industry, and talk about ways to optimize the hardware and software ecosystem to benefit end-users. At the end of the day, this is what is really important -- figuring out how technology works together. I get to tackle that problem every single day.

InfoWorld: People tend to think of software as the dominant part of virtualization. How would you answer them? And why is the processor so important?

AMD: By its nature, virtualization software has to have extremely close ties to the hardware platform -- it has the task of scheduling the use of CPU, memory, and I/O resources for all the virtual machines on a system. This is a demanding and complex effort that can introduce unwanted latency to applications. AMD has worked closely with virtualization software vendors to put in hardware hooks to help reduce the complexity and overhead associated with virtualization. AMD Virtualization (AMD-V) technology was first introduced in our processors in 2006 to assist with CPU and memory virtualization. AMD has just recently introduced AMD chip sets that provides a basis for I/O virtualization, which should help to enhance security and performance of I/O intensive virtual machines. To meet the demands of virtualization, you really need a hardware platform that supports virtualization at the processor level. Like I always say, it's not that hardware or software is more important than one another -- they are equally important because they rely on each other.

InfoWorld: While talking about the processor, can you explain to us what role the processor plays within client virtualization?

AMD: There are several approaches today to client virtualization. There are hosted client methodologies -- where client applications or even the entire desktop are run on a virtualized server and then streamed to the client. Windows Remote Desktop Services, VMware View, and Citrix XenDesktop are examples of software that take this approach. There is also the approach of running multiple virtual machines on a client. An example is the XP mode offered by Window 7 Professional and Ultimate editions. This enables a user to run Windows XP virtual machine to help maintain compatibility with legacy software. In these examples, hardware-assisted virtualization like AMD-V is used by the server that houses the hosted client environments or by the client that is running Windows 7 and Windows XP on the same system. One of the key features of AMD-V is Rapid Virtualization Indexing, which helps enhance efficiency and performance for demanding virtualized environments, like when you have many employees accessing server-based applications and data that are housed on centralized servers, and you need to be mindful of performance and overall productivity.

InfoWorld: So what can you tell us about what AMD is doing in this space?

AMD: AMD really has a history in pioneering the architecture needed to enable x86-based virtualization. This includes innovations such as an integrated memory controller, 64-bit memory addressing, and multicore processor technology along with hardware-assisted virtualization. In fact, one of the 10 software partners who showcased demonstrations at the AMD Opteron processor launch in April 2003 was VMware. We have a history of introducing virtualization specifications and white papers that are aimed at sparking industry-wide discussions. We have just posted a white paper on cross vendor LiveMigration -- a capability end-users are continually requesting. On a day-to-day level, we work closely with our software partners to make sure we are providing the hardware environment they need for successful virtualization. Good examples are the recent releases of Windows Hyper-V R2 and VMware ESX 4.0 Update 1. These products already support our AMD Opteron 6000 Series (code-named "Magny Cours"), which is planned to be released in Q1 2010. This type of hardware and software cooperation is key for successful virtualization. And of course there is the collaborative work we did with Microsoft on Window 7 so that a broader base of customers can experience the benefit of client virtualization firsthand. In order to run the XP mode of Windows 7, you need hardware-assisted virtualization (AMD-V), which is in all currently shipping AMD processors, including our "Sempron" processor. AMD's consistency in processor generations enables extremely flexible buying decisions and is user-friendly, as opposed to the competition which has more complex configurations within their generations.

InfoWorld: What are you hearing from customers that you can share with our readers, re: best practices for implementing client virtualization strategies?

AMD: I always say -- be practical. This is a tough economy, and we all know that. At AMD, we're really trying to help customers understand how a virtualized environment works and guide them along the way. So that's my first piece of advice -- look at your current infrastructure and identify what areas make most sense to virtualize. You don't have to do everything at once.

Then, in terms of overall best practices, what virtualization really lets IT managers do is clear out old, out-of-warranty machines that require more power and cooling and consolidate core business applications on today's more energy-efficient models. Therein lies one of the key benefits for customers of server virtualization -- reduced energy costs. Client virtualization can also enable a simplified IT infrastructure that helps companies migrate to the latest hardware features for security and data protection without disrupting core business functions. Security is also a big part of what I hear from customers, especially as more and more employees are working from home every single day.

There is a lot of talk out there about the benefits of virtualization and cloud-models; something I've become a big proponent of is what I'll call a hybrid model. IT managers can think about virtualization and cloud computing in different pieces and integrate those solutions without overhauling your entire infrastructure. Client virtualization essentially offers simplified end-to-end management, and who doesn't want "simple"?

InfoWorld: How has the recession impacted client virtualization this year?

AMD: It's interesting -- the economy has forced businesses to rethink their IT investments. But what it's inherently done is made everyone get smarter about their technology. It's made them think efficiency first. That's actually allowed virtualization to continue to grow in a down economy. Industry analyst research reports that virtualization management software is set to continue strong growth through 2010. The economic recession has forced businesses to look into more efficient ways to manage their business and reduce costs, and this has had a direct impact on the adoption rate of virtualization. Businesses are realizing that in the long term, you are going to not only maximize your resources, but you can save costs on overall manageability of physical servers and begin getting more out of your upfront investment.

InfoWorld: What factors do you think have contributed to the lack of client virtualization in a larger scale up to this point? What are the chief factors that you believe have been holding up widespread adoption?

AMD: The simple answer is that it comes down to overall complexity of implementation, initial cost, and overall ROI. That said, SMBs around the world that rely on Windows are undoubtedly considering the upgrade to Windows 7 Professional, which represents an opportunity. I think we're going to start seeing a shift in the mindset that used to be skeptical of client virtualization because businesses couldn't see the direct impact to their bottom line when you took into account the cost of the overhaul and the day-to-day management. Now, you're going to see businesses much more willing to implement these solutions as they've been forced to adapt their thinking in this economic time and now presented with attractive solutions like Windows 7 and others.

InfoWorld: Where do you see the future of client virtualization heading?

AMD: In a nutshell, I see continued improved solutions from our key software partners like Microsoft, VMware, and Citrix. I see new competitors coming into the market and nipping at the heels of the big companies -- something that is at the heart of an ultra-competitive technology market. I see server platforms that continue to get more and more energy efficient, particular with AMD's 4000-series server platform, currently code-named "San Marino" coming to market in 2010. I see a market poised to move out of the hype stage and into the mainstream.

Again, I'd like to thank Margaret Lewis, director of software solutions for AMD, for taking time out to speak with me about the company, client virtualization, and where things are headed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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