March 7, 2005 4:00 AM PST

AMD jockeys with Intel in software stakes

SAN FRANCISCO--Advanced Micro Devices will detail its "Pacifica" virtualization technology by the end of this month, enabling software companies to start working with the feature, which makes it easier for a computer to run several operating systems simultaneously.

The Pacifica technology is scheduled to arrive in processors in 2006, later than the comparable Vanderpool technology--now officially called Intel Virtualization Technology--that is promised to appear this year in Intel chips. What's not clear is whether the two technologies will be compatible, raising the prospect of complications for some software makers.

"We're going to be releasing the specification for Pacifica publicly by the end of this month," said Margaret Lewis, AMD's senior software strategist, at a meeting last week. "Once the spec is out, we can have a lot of conversations about Pacifica versus other specs."

News.context

What's new:
AMD and Intel are promoting virtualization, which lets multiple operating systems run simultaneously, for personal computers. The technology's uncertain future will get one step clearer by the end of March, when AMD plans to detail its Pacifica technology.

Bottom line:
Finding out whether AMD's approach is compatible with Intel's will help determine if it helps or hinders software companies hoping to profit from the technology.

More stories on virtualization

That position worried some attendees. "It's hard to imagine that AMD would be so blindingly stupid as to forward a truly Vanderpool-incompatible virtualization mechanism," a move that could cause heartburn for many software makers, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "It's hard to understand why, if they do intend to do the right thing here, that they're so obstinately set against just saying so."

Running multiple operating systems simultaneously is useful on the servers--indeed it's a standard feature today on mainframes and Unix systems from IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. The different OSes can run separate jobs at full throttle without having one job interfere with another.

But Intel and AMD are among those pushing the technology for machines using their x86 chips, such as Xeon and Athlon. They're betting it will be desirable not just for lower-end servers but also for personal computers.

Divvying up the desktop
For example, a PC could be divided into separate segments for official corporate work, personal tasks and system administrator updates, Gregory Bryant, director of Intel's digital office planning and marketing unit, said during a panel discussion at the Intel Developer Forum last week. Or a home computer user could record digital video in one partition and perform regular tasks in another.

Today, running multiple operating systems in separate partitions is possible on x86 computers only if they have sophisticated software such as EMC's VMware or Microsoft's Virtual Server, which create software-based "virtual machines."

A third option in this "hypervisor" market is an open-source alternative

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