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Re: [Xen-users] Recommendations for Virtulization Hardware

On 2012-09-24 05:45, ShadesOfGrey wrote:
Sorry for the late response, I've had a lot to digest.

On 09/21/2012 11:22 AM, Robin Axelsson wrote:
If you want to be able to use PCI and VGA passthrough you basically need to make sure that your hardware supports either AMD-Vi (formerly known as AMD-IOMMU) or Intel VT-d extensions. In the Intel case it limits your choice of Motherboard (it must be supported in the BIOS) and CPU. In the AMD case it limits only your choice of motherboard. A good start is to check out one of these pages:


A word of warning here is that parts of the documentation is somewhat dated. You can also communicate with e.g. Gigabyte, Asus or ASRock customer support and ask them if a particular motherboard supports these extensions. Most motherboards also have downloadable user manuals, if the BIOS settings in those pages shows options to enable/disable VT-d or AMD-Vi/IOMMU extensions then you will be ok with that motherboard.

The lack of current information about Xen (and KVM) online has been frustrating — especially finding the many proof of concept videos that demonstrated possibilities but offered no real specifics. Looking for specifics, I sought information from gaming and enthusiast sites; I figured finding confirmation of VT-d and AMD-Vi support on such sites would be more likely. However, I found that wasn't often the case. I did determine that ASRock motherboards seem to be the most likely to support VT-d, ASUS least likely (unless equipped with an Intel 'sanctioned' VT-d chipset). I had narrowed my choices to two motherboards that appear to offer VT-d support and was intending to contact the manufacturer before purchase. Both choices are a bit pricey and I've been reconsidering whether I should look to other motherboards to reduce costs.

Some motherboards support IOMMU even though it is not found in the user manual or specified on the website. Your best bet is to ask customer support. A guy posted here that he got it working on an Intel motherboard that doesn't even have options for it in the BIOS, so it seems that in some cases it is only up to the CPU. This is not the case with AMD though as I stated before. I have bought a couple of Gigabyte GA990FX-UD7 myself, they are stable and have a good layout. They have support for IOMMU but I haven't tested it thoroughly enough to fully confirm this although I don't believe there would be any problem.

It surprises me that ASRock and ASUS are so different. ASRock is, or at least used to be a subsidiary of ASUS so there shouldn't be that much difference between them.
The other thing is choice of GPU for VGA passthrough and it is preferable that the GPU supports FLR or Function Level Reset as it is called. Thing is that the hardware needs to be reset somehow as it is passed through to the host. This is best done with FLR and nVidia is known to supply firmware patches for some of their Geforce cards with this support and it is said to be supported by default with their Quadro cards. FLR is not the only way to reset a PCI device, a reset could be trigged through the ACPI power management framework by temporarily cutting power to the affected PCI slot. These reset methods are called d3d0 and bus reset. The question however, is if this works on PCI cards that use auxiliary power directly from the PSU. There is a pdf document on the VMWare website (http://www.vmware.com/files/pdf/techpaper/vsp_4_vmdirectpath_host.pdf) about this:

Reset Method

Possible values for the reset method include flr, d3d0, link, bridge, or default.

The default setting is described as follows. If a device supports function level reset (FLR), ESX always uses FLR. If the device does not support FLR, ESX next defaults to link reset and bus reset in that order. Link reset and bus reset might prevent some devices from being assigned to different virtual machines, or from being assigned between the VMkernel and virtual machines. In the absence of FLR, it is possible to use PCI Power Management capability (D3 to D0 transitions) to trigger a reset. Most of the Intel NICs and various other HBAs support this mode.

There are indications from people that d3d0 also work with PCI cards that take power from auxiliary inputs. I suggest that you take a look at the following youtube clip and read the comments there:


So it seems that it works although it may be a bit more quirky. It doesn't hurt to take that discussion (particularly about FLR support) with nVidia and/or AMD.

This is precisely the kind of information I was looking for from the threads I started on Ars Technica. It's just unfortunate that FLR and D3 D0 support aren't often found in the tech specs of must expansion hardware. However, now that I know what to ask, I'll try contacting hardware manufacturers prior to purchasing any expansion hardware. Thank you!

D3 and D0 are power states defined for devices in the ACPI specification and can be used to control the supply voltage (Vcc) to PCI and PCIe devices. You can find more information about it here for example:



Device states

The device states D0-D3 are device-dependent:

  • D0 Fully On is the operating state.
  • D1 and D2 are intermediate power-states whose definition varies by device.
  • D3 Off has the device powered off and unresponsive to its bus.

So, either it works for a certain type of hardware or it doesn't and I wouldn't expect a vendor to state this "support" in the specifications since it isn't a "feature" in and of itself if you get me. But maybe this will change and maybe FLR support will become more widespread.

When it comes to virtualization, the technology has come very far, but it is still lacking considerably when it comes to sharing GPUs and also to some degree when it comes to sharing I/O devices (especially when you intend to run many virtual machines on a single system). The GPU today consists of three types of components; the processing unit, graphics memory and the video output unit/adapter and it is not clear as to how to share these components seamlessly between the host and virtual machines with minimal overhead. Whereas there are VT-x extensions that allows you to pretty seamlessly share CPU cores between VMs and the host there are currently none for the processing unit. It is also not clear how the hardware can assist with sharing TV/monitor screen estate between machines with all 3D effects such as Aqua for Win7 and the whatnot enabled for all machines. Especially when considering the dynamics of plugging and unplugging computer monitors to multiport/eyefinity graphics cards and the ability to change screen resolution. Things are improving for sure and a lot of research is likely going into this. I don't know what's happening in the GPU frontline but I know that the next thing with passthrough is the SR-IOV that allows PCI units to present several virtual instances of oneself to several virtual machines. It's a cool thing, I recommend further reading about this here:


That is fascinating. Extending virtualization to expansion hardware via SR-IOV, sure would make the kind of setup I'm attempting a lot easier. However, if I can replicate what I've seen in proof of concept videos (namely Casey DeLorme's), I think that will meet my needs for now. As it stands, I initially intend to reserve any discrete GPU(s) for Windows and rely on an integrated GPU for all other VMs using PV drivers (wherever possible). Afterward, I want to experiment with re-assigning the whatever discrete GPU(s) for GPGPU functions under a Linux VM whenever the GPU is not going to used for gaming (if at all possible).
It is likely to take a few years before something useful will come out of it. In the meanwhile, unless you want to use several GPUs which might not be a bad thing as a lot of monitors these days have several inputs, you can resort to using a remote desktop client to integrate one machine with another. Virtualbox for example use RDP through which you can interact with your virtual machine. In a similar manner you can set up a VNC server on your Linux host and establish a connection to it through your Windows VM. You will not get full 3D functionality (such as Aqua) through the client although there is a growing support for it through VirtualGL extensions that are coming to VNC and perhaps the Spice protocol. But some clients might even allow for seamless mode that lets you mix Linux and Windows windows on the same desktop like this for example:


Just keep in mind that this is still a little bit of uncharted territory so there may be a few bumps on the way and it may not work as smooth as you would desire.

From everything I've read, solutions that rely on any form of remote display protocols would be limited to a subset of Direct3D functions. Furthermore, these would vary from one implementation to another, thus making them far less attractive for gaming than VGA passthrough... Well, in my opinion anyway.

VirtualBox's seamless mode is pretty nifty. But it's a Type 2 Hypervisor and relies on paravirtualized drivers that also suffer from the same limitations as remote display protocols. It's great for most things, but gaming is not one of them. And I'm speaking from personal experience. Though I haven't used them myself, the same would seem to hold true of Parallel's and VMWare's 'Workstation' offerings. At least, as far as I've gathered.

FYI, the Type 1 Hypervisors from Parallel's and VMWare* are priced waaayyy outside my budget.

I understand that you want full 3D functionality for Windows gaming but maybe you'll find the subset of 3D functionality for the Linux machine acceptable. I have looked into VirtualGL and with TurboVNC, you might get a pretty decent desktop environment and it seems like most of the features are there already. It appears that the 3D is rendered by hardware/GPU before it is streamed through VNC or Spice. So it seems that you would need another GPU for that. You can find more info on VirtualGL here:


Also the line between a type 1 and type 2 hypervisor tend to get a bit blurry. The point with type 1 is that it has access to ring-0 so that it can get access directly to the hardware to be passed through to the guests (I did confuse 'host' and 'guest' in my prior post). It also doesn't need to ask the host OS for permission in the same way as a type 2 hypervisor which is likely to give performance advantages in some cases.

However, even a type 2 hypervisor, although it is run as an application inside the OS can get "type 1" like privileges. By patching into the kernel and/or using special "dummy drivers" for hardware to be shared with VMs you can achieve pretty much the same thing, ergo it is no longer clear whether the hypervisor is a type 1 or type 2.

There is an article about it from the old IBM Mainframe days but I can't seem to find it.

*I only found out about VMWare's 'free' vSphere after I'd written this response.

I see that your demands are somewhat multifaceted. I believe that you also want to use diffent services such as using your machine as a file server with the possible intention of using filesystems such as ZFS. If you do, you should be careful with your selection of hardware for these particular purposes. If you want to get full protection against data corruption from ZFS, your choice of hardware gets rather limited when it comes to choice of hard drives, host bus adapter and network controller. The most stable implementation of ZFS is found with Illumos based operating systems (such as OpenIndiana, SmartOS, OmniOS, Belenix etc) or Solaris if you choose to download it from Oracle's website. With these operating systems you are most likely to want to use hardware that has certified drivers for it. That way you are less likely to run into problems later on. That implies that you will be limited to choosing Intel based network adapters and LSI based SAS controllers. There should be _no_ hardware RAID functionality in the SAS controller that merely should be run in IT mode (or Initiator-Target mode). That requires the LSI controller to be flashed with IT firmware in most cases. The objective here is to make sure that _all_ errors that might occur with the hard drives are reported all the way to the software level and that nothing is concealed of obfuscated by internal error handling in the hardware. It is therefore recommended to use SAS hard drives instead of S-ATA (which also are fully compatible with SAS controllers). SAS hard drives are not much more expensive than similar SATA drives and you get a higher reliability out of them. It is also recommended to have at least two drive redundancy simply because if one drive is dead and you swap it, it is not uncommon that another drive dies in the rebuild process of the RAID cluster because of the added strain the rebuild process (or 'resilvering' as it is called in Solaris terms) put on the drives. Of course, the system should communicate directly to the hard drive hardware and not be obfuscated by some virtual abstraction layer in between which means that you either run ZFS on the metal or through PCI passthrough of the SAS (and perhaps also network) adapters. Also, it is highly recommended that you use ECC RAM for such applications and it doesn't hurt to dedicate a few gigs of it to the ZFS as RAM is used for cache. The good news is that most motherboards with good chipsets support ECC RAM even though you might not find anything about it in the user manuals.
Again, thanks for the thorough explanation. This gives me a great deal to think about. The more I learn about ZFS, the less appealing it becomes. And by that I mean the confusion over which version of ZFS is in what OS? And just how well maintained the OSes supporting ZFS are? Now I have additional hardware considerations to keep in mind that may (or may not) make the cost of ZFS RAID-Z pool comparable to a hardware RAID5/6 solution anyway. Do you have any suggestions as to which of LSI HBAs I should be considering? I haven't found an HCL for ZFS in my searches.

Out of curiosity — and if you would happen to know — do you think what you suggest about the HBA and SAS drives for ZFS also applies to Btrfs? I'm assuming it would, but I'd appreciate some confirmation.

It's funny how the "I" in RAID never really seems to apply... Especially since it looks more and more like using ZFS or Btrfs will require I commit myself, from the start, to one or the other and a discrete HBA. Transitioning from an integrated SATA controller(s) and mdadm seems rather impractical. If I understand what's involved in doing so correctly. It may turn out that anything other than mdadm is price prohibitive.

I don't think you will have a problem with getting ZFS to run and if that's your only goal then you don't need to be very picky with your choice of hardware. I find ZFS pretty easy and handy to use. I has really great functionality and I don't have many bad things to say about it so far. ZFS is a filesystem (along with a couple of software tools to administrate it) just like EXT4 or NTFS so hardware support depends on the platform it runs on.

But the point with using ZFS is to get maximum protection against data corruption and that's where the selection of hardware gets limited and there are "best practices" set up to achieve that. I have not tested ZFS on any other platform than on OpenSolaris and OpenIndiana but I do know that it is well implemented on that platform and more mature there than on any other (non-solaris) platform. Another advantage with the OSOL/OI platform is that the CIFS functionality is implemented in the kernel space and not in the userland which will give advantages performance wise if you intend to share files with other windows computers. (I don't deny that Samba is pretty good on Linux too. There are some benchmarks on the phoronix website comparing samba with NFS and they are in favor of Samba on those benchmarks...) The second best implementation is found with FreeBSD and it is probably fairly mature but I haven't tested it myself and some people have run into problems with it in the past. The Linux version is probably merely at infancy stage and likely not yet mature enough for regular use. It is probably not as "bad" as btrfs though. There is quite a bit of information about it on the phoronix.com website (and probably also at lwn.net):


A search there on ZFS will give more articles. The latest official version of ZFS is 28 and is probably implemented in both Linux, and FreeBSD by now. Later versions have been released since Oracle killed the OpenSolaris project and can be found with the commercial closed-source Solaris platform that is supplied by Oracle. Things have happened since Oracle pulled the plug on OSOL project and leading developers behind the ZFS project such as Jeff Bonwick left Sun (after the acquisition by Oracle) and joined up with the Illumos team instead. So you cannot determine the stability of ZFS and ZPOOL merely by looking into the version number unfortunately and I wouldn't expect the FreeBSD implementation to be as stable as the Solaris implementation. It just takes time for the implementation to mature and the bugs to be weeded out and it just happens to have been around for Solaris/OpenSolaris/Illumos for much longer than the other platforms and the Solaris/Illumos version also happens to get first dibs on the features. Among the Illumos people there is an ambition to drop the version numbering altogether and instead talk about available features.

The recommendation to use SAS hard drives is not so much about the quality of the hard drives themselves as it is about the SAS protocol. The SAS protocol simply handles SCSI transport commands in a better and more reliable manner than do SATA. I believe any decent SAS drive would do. As for HBAs I wrote a list with LSI based hardware a while ago here:


the thing is that a lot of OEMs such as IBM, HP, Cisco, Fujitsu-Siemens, Dell, ... supply their branded HBAs with LSI circuitry on them. What hardware to choose depends on what you're looking for. If you want an 8-port controller I would go for Intel SASUC8I or LSI SAS3801E-R. If you want SAS/SATA3 with 6.0 Gb/s then LSI's SAS 9200 series cards would be a better choice. I don't know what OEMs have come up with in the SATA3 department since I wrote that list but the chips to look for in that case are the LSI MegaRAID 2004/2008/2016e depending on how many ports you want.

If you want to read a further discussion about reliability of different RAID setups I made a post about this in the following thread (last post):


I admire your persistence with pursuing this undertaking and wish you the best of luck with it!

Thanks. I've invested too much time in research to not at least make the attempt. Besides, if all else fails, I can fallback to a two box solution. That is, if I can get my hypothetical virtualization box to fit in my budget envelope...

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