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 customers 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 to 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. 

The Observation

We saw workstation user’s innovation slow as they multitasked between tasks – some of them not even theirs.  The involuntary task included IT security patches, updates, and system backups to name a few.  We also saw that users were no longer just doing CAD, but they were doing CAD, using productivity tools, meshing, web surfing for supporting facts, collaborating via video, digital white boarding and trying to do analysis driven design.  They were very busy people.

In some cases we noticed that some users actually had not one, but two workstations running in completely different environments, many times different OS’s.

The Problem

What the above really lead to is a conclusion that too many task 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 task 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, 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.

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 appliance," 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's applications are running.

The Result

Working with Parallels Workstation Extreme VM application we looked at two problems.  First was the general overhead related to too many request and too few resources and then we explored the more complex problem of a single workstation with a need to display at near native performance in two different OS’s.

The former was straight forward, create VM’s, partition resources and your innovator now has a very resilient workstation that is capable of delivering the intended experience.  IT can have their VM’s 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.  Your innovator can now iterate through more ideas in less time and your company’s opportunity to catch the customer’s attention just went through the roof.

The former provided a much harder challenge.  We tested the idea in the oil and gas market where users actually had two workstations; one running Windows, one running LINUX. Both had a requirement for visual display and both acted on that same reservoir data with applications that while similar in many ways, they were still different.  When preparing to drill a multimillion dollar well – the idea of more data saying the same thing is a very good thing.

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 geologic 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 running these applications on two separate workstations, driving down productivity and increasing both power consumption and IT maintenance costs.

A New Paradigm

With the advent of Intel Xeon processor 5500 series-based workstations running Parallels Workstation Extreme, virtualization software has opened new horizons with breakthrough graphics performance.

Schlumberger compared the concurrent performance of applications running on a virtualized Intel Xeon processor 5400 series-based workstation with the same setup on the Intel Xeon processor 5500-based machine. The results were astounding. The first machine ran Petrel at full native speed, but performance for GeoFrame 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.

When the group tested both applications on the Xeon 5500 series workstation, the results were striking: Both applications ran at full native speed, and both were able to refresh graphics at 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 virtualization a contender for these users. A streamlined work interface, reduced office noise and clutter, and significant performance gains works on the user side. But the IT organization also gains benefits by lowering capital, management, support, space, and energy 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