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HotOS X, Tenth Workshop on Hot Topics in Operating Systems — Abstract

Are Virtual Machine Monitors Microkernels Done Right?

Steven Hand, Andrew Warfield, Keir Fraser, and Evangelos Kotsovinos, University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory; Dan Magenheimer, HP Labs


At the last HotOS, Mendel Rosenblum gave an `outrageous' opinion that the academic obsession with microkernels during the past two decades produced many publications but little impact. He argued that virtual machine monitors (VMMs) had had considerably more practical uptake, despite—or perhaps due to—being principally developed by industry.

In this paper, we investigate this claim in light of our experiences in developing the Xen virtual machine monitor. We argue that modern VMMs present a practical platform which allows the development and deployment of innovative systems research: in essence, VMMs are microkernels done right.

We first compare and contrast the architectural purity of microkernels with the pragmatic design of VMMs. In Section 3, we discuss several technical characteristics of microkernels that have proven, in our experience, to be incompatible with effective VMM design.

Rob Pike has irreverently suggested that ``systems software research is irrelevant'', implying that academic systems research has negligible impact outside the university. In Section 4, we claim that VMMs provide a platform on which innovative systems research ideas can be developed and deployed. We believe that providing a common framework for hosting novel systems will increase the penetration and relevance of systems research.

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