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VMworld 2006 this week, the biggest yet with over 7,000 attendees, was virtualisation market leader VMware's third annual convention. Although product news from VMware was not as thick on the ground as previous years, we managed to scoop up some snippets, including the feature set from the next version of Workstation, aimed at test and development environments, and ACE 2.0.

We also heard from company co-founder and academic Mendel Rosenblum in his keynote speech on the future of the technology.

VMware Workstation 6

VMware has revealed more about the forthcoming version of its Workstation product, version 6.

VMware Workstation is typically used in a test and development environment and is aimed at those needing to develop applications, and test new deployment configurations before committing them to production machines.

Among the long list of new features unveiled by R&D manager Robert Baesman at VMware's annual convention this week were:

  • Record/replay - which allows you to record entire the runtime state of the VM as it changes, and then play it back for debugging purposes
  • Support for Vista as host and guest, and for Solaris 10 as a guest
  • Virtual battery for laptops that shows battery life
  • Easy virtual disk mounting for Windows so you can mount a VM disk file as a drive
  • New virtual hardware to include USB2 and a 64-bit sound driver
  • Max RAM moves from 4GB to 8GB
  • Improved and more flexible shared folders
  • Cross-platform drag and drop and copy/paste operations
  • Improved inter-operability with remote control software such as VNC
  • Support for multiple displays
  • Experimental support for quad-core machines and more virtual PCI slots

ACE 2.0

VMware has released details of ACE 2.0, which is due for release towards the middle of 2007.

The product, which was demonstrated in alpha at VMworld this week, allows administrators to distribute pre-packaged virtual machines to users in a secure manner. This means, for instance, that contractors can be allowed to attach to the enterprise network using their own laptops but only via the ACE VM.

The new version was created, according to VMware, because users asked for greater control over the VMs, especially when, for instance, large numbers of remote users need to attach to the enterprise network. Other areas due for improvement include security and integration with enterprise management tools.

VMware said it is also working on what it called technical obstacles to deployment, such as adding multiple versions of Linux as host OSes, allowing WorkStation and ACE Manager to run simultaneously, and allowing a PC running VMware Player to also run an ACE VM.

Improvements include the implementation of FIPS 140-2 certification for encryption, plus the encryption of entire ACE packages. Security policies are more granular -- for instance, admins can lock down the ACE VM so it only runs on a particular device, using specific device attributes, such as the MAC address, as a control mechanism.

Central control is achieved by means of a new product, ACE Management Server, which provides a central view of and control over ACE VMs. The VMs have to check into the server at admin-defined intervals, which allows them to control attributes such as expiry date f the VM, and what it can attach to.

ACE VMs will also be able to run from a USB flash drive, providing amore convenient mechanism for their distribution.

Future of virtualisation

VMware co-founder Mendel Rosenblum revealed some elements of the future of virtualisation in his keynote on the second day of VMware 2006.

Among the demos at the virtualisation company's annual convention was VM Replay, which can help bug-hunting. Rosenblum said the feature allows the reproduction of software bugs. "It's about the ability to fix a bug in software even after it's been distributed", he said.

"One of the neat things that this means is that you can record the execution of a VM running in production", he said. "You can then take another VM, point it at the recording and repeat the execution it saw. This reporting capability will become standard part of virtualisation."

He didn't reveal when this technology might be available but implied that it could be released in shortly forthcoming versions of its products.

He also showed a demonstration of a future AMD CPU feature, Nested Paging. This technology moves the mapping of virtual machine memory page tables to physical memory into the CPU hardware. Rosenblum demonstrated an extreme example of how applications could be accelerated -- AMD's Margaret Lewis said that acceleration of memory-intensive tasks such as compilation is likely to be around 43 per cent. Lewis said that this technology, first announced in August, would be available in 2007.

Rosenblum said that there still ways in which performance of VMs could be improved, especially in the area of 3D graphics and other I/O. He said that "the challenge is the huge variety of devices that computers connect to from SAN to USB devices." Referring to the increasing need for virtual machines to be able to handle 3D graphics, he said that "there's also the challenge of high speed 3D graphics and 10 gigabit Ethernet." The answer, said Rosenblum, was to build a standard interface for drivers that understand virtualisation, and can pass the data through the virtualisation layer directly to the application.

He also pointed out that the challenge for VMware in virtualising I/O was to retain the functionality that the virtualisation layer provides, "such as resource management, fault tolerance, format conversions, security policies, Vmotion, and I/O de-multiplexing."

The future of virtual appliances -- pre-packaged virtual machines -- came under scrutiny as Rosenblum predicted that the OS would shrink and become part of the application. This follows from the fact that most elements of the OS are not required inside a virtual appliance. However, Rosenblum also said that "it's important to retain the flexibility of the PC. We want to take the advantages of VM isolation and add back the flexibility. It's a big challenge."