Virtualisation targeted with Arm's next chip

Move may give vendor access to low-powered servers

Arm Holdings is set to release a new processor design that can run virtualisation software, a development that could help expand the use of Arm-based chips in low-powered servers.

The virtualisation capabilities will be introduced with the next version of Arm's Cortex A processor, code-named Eagle, which is "very, very close" to being released, said David Brash, a member of Arm's architecture group, in a presentation at the Hot Chips conference held at Stanford, California late last month.

Several companies are already developing hypervisor software for the new chip design, including VMware, the market leader in server virtualisation, and other vendors that make hypervisors for mobile and embedded use, according to a slide that Brash showed during his presentation.

Virtualisation allows software to run separately from its underlying hardware, allowing several operating environments to be run simultaneously on one computer, each in its own virtual machine. The technology has existed for a while on mainframes and recently became popular for consolidating workloads on x86-based servers.

Arm chips are known for their low power consumption and are widely used in cell phones — including the iPhone — and other embedded devices. Arm doesn't manufacture the chips itself; rather, it designs them and sells the architectures to chip makers like Texas Instruments.

Virtualisation could help developers bring their applications to a wide variety of phones more quickly, because they would no longer have to port them to each hardware device. Instead, the applications could run in a virtual machine separate from the underlying hardware.

Virtualisation will also allow users to install multiple OSes on a single phone. A user could have one OS environment for work and one for personal use, for example. VMware has already said it is developing virtualisation software for mobile phones.

But Arm also has ambitions in the server market, where reducing power consumption has become a big priority. Allowing hypervisors to run on the company's chips could help it break into that market. "We think there is going to be a place for low-power servers with the Arm architecture," Brash said.

There are challenges to using Arm chips in servers, however. Most server software is written for x86 processors and RISC-type processors, so software makers would have to port their software to Arm's designs. And Arm processors are less powerful than server chips from vendors like IBM and Intel.

The new ARM design will support both full virtualisation and a more limited form of virtualisation called paravirtualisation, Brash said. The other partners he named were Enea, Green Hills Software, Mentor Graphics, Open Kernel Labs and VirtualLogix.

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