Storage Informer
Storage Informer

Accelerating Your Innovation – Intel Xeon 5500 based workstations with Intel Virtualization Technology for Direct ed I/O

by on Jul.08, 2009, under Storage

Accelerating Your Innovation – Intel Xeon 5500 based workstations with Intel® Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O

Your most valuable employee is the one that creates tomorrow’s successes.  Providing them tools that help them do that faster will help your organization create new products or optimize old ones more rapidly.  The benefit to the organization is increased opportunities to win the customer’s attention via new products or your responsiveness to their request; the employee gets to brag on what he or she just helped bring to market.

Before we get too far let’s look at Intel’s mission with respect to workstations.  We are laser focused on supplying technology that provides users with an uncompromised experience in transforming their ideas into reality.  With that in mind we look at how users create; we try understanding their obstacles and work with the ecosystem of hardware and software providers to deliver solutions to real problems that may be inhibiting their opportunity to innovate.  

One technology that is helping users innovate faster is virtualization. 

No, we are not looking to remove the workstation from the user’s desk or share his or her workstation with peers, who also need a workstation.  We are using virtualization to deliver the performance they need to innovate faster.

The Observation

We saw workstation user’s innovation slow as they multitasked between tasks – some of them not even theirs.  The involuntary tasks included deploying IT security patches, updates, and system backups to name a few.  We also saw that users were no longer just doing Computer Aided Design (CAD) alone, but they were doing CAD, using productivity tools, meshing, web surfing for supporting facts, collaborating via video and Instant Messaging (IM) tools, digital white boarding and trying to do analysis-driven design.  They were very busy people who can’t afford any downtime or slow time.

In some cases we noticed that some users actually had not one, but two or more workstations running in completely different environments, many times with different OSs.

The Problem

What the above really lead to is a conclusion that too many tasks were going after too few resources and that the experience we had hoped the user would encounter was not happening.  In fact the reverse was happening – interactive creative tasks were slowing, system sluggishness was at an all time high.  The “uncompromised experience in transforming their ideas into reality” we wanted for a workstation user was not there and any innovation that was possible was slowed down to a crawl.

A Potential Solution

Intel® Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (Intel VT-d), once just thought of for servers actually has a place in the workstation market. 

This technology provides an important step toward enabling a significant set of emerging usage models in the workstation. VT-d support on Intel platforms provides the capability to ensure improved isolation of I/O resources for greater reliability, security, and availability.  That is a mouth full let’s see it in action.

There are two key requirements that are common across workstation usage models.

1.       The first requirement is protected access to I/O resources from a given virtual machine (VM), such that it cannot interfere with the operation of another VM on the same platform. This isolation between VMs is essential for achieving availability, reliability, and trust. This helps you get the performance you want from your workstation.

2.       The second major requirement is the ability to share I/O resources among multiple VMs. In many cases, it is not practical or cost-effective to replicate I/O resources (such as storage or network controllers) for each VM on a given platform.

In the case of the workstation, virtualization can be used to create a self-contained operating environment, or "virtual software appliance[RC1] ," that is dedicated to capabilities such as manageability or security. These capabilities generally need protected and secure access to a network device to communicate with down-the-wire management agents and to monitor network traffic for security threats. For example, a security agent within a VM requires protected access to the actual network controller hardware. This agent can then intelligently examine network traffic for malicious payloads or suspected intrusion attempts before the network packets are passed to the guest OS, where user applications might be affected. Workstations can also use this technique for management, security, content protection, and a wide variety of other dedicated services. The type of service deployed may dictate that various types of I/O resources, graphics, network, and storage devices, be isolated from the OS where the user&aposs applications are running.

The Result

In collaborating with virtualization and automation leader, Parallels, on its Parallels Workstation Extreme solution,  we identified two impediments to workstation user productivity.  The first was the issue around general resource overhead that afflict a traditional virtualized workstation system due to  insufficient resources to address the overload of requests. The second issue explored includes the more complex problem of a single workstation with the need to support multiple OSs and display visualization programs at near- or full-performance within virtualized machines.

The first issue was more straightforward – create VMs, partition resources and now the user has a very resilient workstation that is capable of delivering the intended experience.  IT can have their VMs and the user has his or her workstation back and the concept of digital prototyping to create and explore a complete product before it is built is a reality.  The creative innovator in the company can now iterate through more ideas in less time and your company created more opportunities to catch the customer’s attention just went through the roof.

The second issue offered a more complex challenge.  We identified certain industries such as the oil and gas exploration space where users actually had two or more physical workstations – one running Windows, the other running Linux. Both workstations had visual display requirements by the end user and both computers acted on the same reservoir data with applications that while similar in many ways, were still different in their functionalities and purpose.  In oil drilling projects that typically involve millions of dollars in capital investment, the confirmation of expected end results is an asset that far outweigh the costs of a few workstations. Nevertheless, in today’s economic setting, the ability to get the same functionalities at a lower cost is one of many key drivers in helping companies achieve healthy bottom lines.

The Proof Point For Virtualization In A Workstation Engineers from Schlumberger, a leading oil field service provider, run performance-demanding applications such as GeoFrame* and Petrel*.  These applications serve to analyze complex geological and geophysical data and determine the viability of potential reservoirs, or to optimize production at existing sites. With GeoFrame running on Linux* and Petrel on Microsoft Windows*, Schlumberger engineers have been using these applications on two separate physical workstations, driving IT spending higher, pushing down user productivity and increasing both power consumption and IT maintenance costs.

A New Paradigm For A New Day

With the availability of Intel Xeon processor 5500 series-based workstations, game-changing workstation virtualization software such as Parallels Workstation Extreme has opened up new horizons with breakthrough graphics performance with Intel’s latest processor technology. Parallels Workstation Extreme is built on top of the Parallels FastLane Architecture that effectively leverages the full potential of hardware resources such as graphics and networking cards to offer optimal workstation performance.

In comparison testing, Schlumberger compared the concurrent performance of applications running side-by-side on a virtualized Intel Xeon processor 5400 series-based workstation with the same setup on the newer Intel Xeon processor 5500-based machine. The results were astounding. The first machine with the older processor without Intel-VT-d support ran Petrel on the host OS at full native speed, but performance for GeoFrame in a VM slowed enormously. While Petrel refreshed its graphics at a rate of 30 frames per second, GeoFrame crawled along at a graphics refresh rate of JUST one frame every 19 seconds, an agonizingly slow performance on an older workstation without Intel VT-d support.

When the group tested the same applications on the newer Xeon 5500 series workstation with Intel VT-d support, the results were striking: Both applications – Petrel running on the host OS and GeoFrame in a guest OS in a VM – ran at full native speed, and both were able to refresh graphics at near 30 frames per second—a 570 times improvement over the first workstation.

Russ Sagert, Schlumberger’s Geoscience Technical Advisor for North America said “our engineers were blown away by the performance. We hammered these machines with extreme workloads that stressed every aspect of the system. Amazingly, the new workstation based on the Intel Xeon processor 5500 series provided performance enabling this multiple OS, multiple application environment for the first time.”

The key element in Schlumberger’s new environment is Intel Xeon processor 5500 series-based workstations with Intel® Virtualization Technology (Intel® VT) for Directed I/O (Intel® VT-d).  Together, these technologies enable direct assignment of graphics and network cards to virtual machines, enabling the machine to circumvent the interrupt and exit loop and clearing the previous performance problems.

Running in conjunction with Parallels Workstation Extreme, which effectively leverages Intel Virtualization Technology, including VT-d, the solution revolutionizes virtualization for high-end users. “High-performance virtualization on Intel Xeon processor 5500 series-based workstations is a game-changing capability,” says Sagert. “We can allocate multiple cores, up to 64 GB of memory and a dedicated graphics card to each machine. The results are spectacular.”

In the final analysis, moving to the Intel Xeon Processor 5500 series of next-generation workstations does far more than cut costs. It impacts the way that work gets done. If you have clients running the kind of resource-intensive, graphics-rich applications that traditionally slow to a crawl in a virtualized environment, consider the benefits of finally moving beyond the I/O barrier.

A fully configured Intel Xeon Processor 5500 series-based workstation running Parallels Workstation Extreme delivers the performance level that makes a virtualized workstation a leading contender for users with multi-workstation requirements. A streamlined work interface, reduced office noise and clutter, access to the same data repository and significant performance gains works on the user side. But the IT organization also gains benefits by lowering capital, management, support, provisioning, data protection, space, and energy and cooling costs.

Moreover, the IT team can now standardize on a single OS image while addressing alternative requirements.

Learn More

Intel Workstation Processors

Parallels Workstation Extreme


[RC1]To distinguish from the hardware appliance breed


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