Is KVM a type 1 or a type 2 Hypervisor? – aka – My Hypervisor is better than your Hypervisor!

There are many virtualisation solutions on the market today. As a result we now get companies telling us that their solution is better than their competitors – nothing new there. Of course, no one seems to provide any benchmarks and some companies even get their knickers in a twist if you even suggest you’re going to perform and openly document any benchmarks.

Firstly, if you remember that it is all done with smoke and mirrors you’ll be fine.

What is a Hypervisor ?

Some people/vendors say Hypervisors (also called the Virtual Machine Monitor) are new technology that enables multiple Operating Systems to co-exist on a single system. This is incorrect, hypervisors have been around since system virtualisation started back in the 1970’s with IBM’s CP-370 reimplementation of CP-67 for the System/370 known as VM/370. VM/370 has evolved over the years and is now known as z/VM and is fundamental to large scale virtualisation of linux (and opensolaris) on system z.

Hypervisors use a small layer of code to achieve fine-grained, dynamic resource sharing of the underlying system though you could easily argue that z/VM is not a small layer of code. In general to me a piece of code that provides fine-grained, dynamic resource sharing of the underlying system sounds awefully like an operating system.   Admittedly this operating system allows you to run other operating systems simultaneously. Again, this doesn’t sound terribly different to an operating system running processes so clearly there is something more to it.

The issue revolves around how an operating system manages the underlying hardware resources. It does so in a privileged state where it handles all requests to access the hardware on behalf of the user processes. That is, my user mode process cannot directly access the hardware and it delegates that request to code running in a more privileged state. This is where the smoke and mirrors come out. The Hypervisor provides each guest operating system the appearance of full control over a complete computer system (memory, CPU, and all the peripheral devices). Fundamentally, Hypervisors work by intercepting and emulating in a safe way sensitive operating system operations (such as page table manipulation) in the guest.

Hypervisors, in general, are historically classified in two types:

  • Type 1 hypervisor (Bare-Metal Architecture) – This is a hypervisor that runs directly on a given hardware platform. A Guest OS then runs at the second level above the hardware. The classic type 1 hypervisor was CP/CMS, developed at IBM in the 1960s. Often quoted examples of this type are Xen, VMware’s ESX Server and IBM’s LPAR hypervisor (PR/SM).
  • Type 2 hypervisor (Hosted Architecture) – This is a hypervisor that runs within an OS environment. A Guest OS then runs at the third level above the hardware. Some examples quoted of this type are VMware Server and Linux KVM.

KVM is Type 1 versus Type 2?

Vendors will often be seen bagging their competition. Oh they’re a type 2 hypervisor, we’re a type 1. Since we’re type 1 we must be better.

Is the distinction between types even relevant anymore?

If we look at the above list of type 1 hypervisors we see IBMs PR/SM and the son of CP/CMS known as z/VM. Both system z PR/SM and z/VM are classified as type 1 hypervisors, but you can run z/VM as a type 1 hypervisor in a PR/SM logical partition. Does it make sense to keep the distinction of type 1 versus type 2 in this case – probably not.

What about x86?

If we look more closely at x86 style architecture we see that it is divided into 4 hardware resource privilege levels aka rings. The operating system kernel runs in privilege level 0 (aka ring 0) giving it complete control over the system. In the case of Linux, ring 0 is also known as kernel space, with user mode being in ring 3.

So where does the hypervisor and virtualisation fit into this?

Virtualisation effectively puts the hypervisor into Ring 0 which then in turn presents a ring 0 lookalike to the guest operating systems thereby fooling them into believing they are running on the native hardware.

In this context you could argue that a type 1 hypervisor runs directly in ring 0 and a type 2 hypervisor runs in ring 3, but as we’ve seen above with PR/SM and z/VM the distinction between type 1 and type 2 hypervisors is fuzzy at best.

Now coming back to the reason for me blathering on – Is KVM a type 2 or a type 1 hypervisor? Many people will flatly say type 2 as it is loaded by a hosted operating system (in this case Linux) and of course those running type 1 hypervisors will say that theirs is better. Others will say KVM is a type 1.

I’m not so sure that KVM is a type 2 hypervisor. Sure it does use a Linux operating system. But what are the differences between a dedicated hypervisor microkernel and a dedicated linux based hypervisor. I don’t think amount of code should really be a determining factor.

KVM makes available the hardware virtualisation extensions (AMD SVM or Intel VT-x) to the Linux kernel effectively making the kernel a Ring 0 Hypervisor. In this new mode the ring 0 hypervisor (VMXROOT) has full privileges and the guest operating systems run in what is known as a deprivileged ring 0. Sure guest VM creation is performed from user space via /dev/kvm device ioctls, but you could just as easily argue – do you want vm creation/management to be performed by a privileged microkernel?

Personally I think the distinction between Hypervisors based on their ‘type’ which is in itself a historical artefact of technology long extinct is a waste of time – perhaps that is why it is used in marketing campaigns 🙂

Perhaps we’d be better off looking at performance and interoperability and making those the things to argue about.   Let’s all forget about Type 1 and Type 2, it’s all too fuzzy to be bothered with those terms anymore.

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5 thoughts on “Is KVM a type 1 or a type 2 Hypervisor? – aka – My Hypervisor is better than your Hypervisor!

  1. I think one difference is that the host system of a t2 hypervisor knows about the memory used by guests (i.e. each guest system is represented as a normal process in the host system), whereas the root system of a t1 hypervisor knows not about the memory used by children (i.e. while there is a normal process representing each VM that process does not use as much memory as the VM really does).

    I have here a Hyper-V system on a 4 GB machine. The VM (Vista) has 1 GB of RAM assigned to it. And it works well. But the root system doesn’t seem to know about the 1 GB used by the Vista VM.

    I am wondering what would happen if the root partition tried to use that 1 GB of RAM. Since the memory is not owned by any process, it could overwrite it (and crash the VM). Or, if the hypervisor stops the root partition from overwriting that 1 GB, the root partition would crash because the memory would seem defective.

    How does this work and is that the difference between t1 and t2?

  2. One of the best explanations of basic virtualization I have ever read! Thanks!

  3. That was great article. Thanks man!

  4. Good stuff. Got some ammunition now!

  5. This is a nice technical debate man.I have mentioned you in my blog post.

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