Virtualization Challenges

The grandfathers of virtualization, such as the IBM S/370, used a very robust system to allow the hypervisor to control the virtual machines. Every privileged instruction by a virtual machine caused a "trap", an error, as it was trying to execute a "resource management" instruction while running in a less privileged ring. The VMM intercepts all those traps and emulates the instruction, without jeopardizing the integrity of the other guests. In order to improve performance, the developers of the guest OS and VMM (both at IBM) tried to minimize the number of traps and reduce the time required to take care of the various traps.

This kind of virtualization was not possible on x86 as the 32/64-bit Intel ISA does not trap every incident that should lead to VMM intervention. One example is the POPF instruction that disables and enables interrupts. The problem is that if this instruction is executed by a guest OS in ring 1, an x86 CPU does not make a fuss about it, but simply ignores it. The result is that if a guest OS is trying to disable an interrupt, the interrupt is not disabled at all, and the VMM has no way of knowing that this is happening. As always, the good old x86 ISA is a bit chaotic: it has 17 of these "non-interceptable, cloaked for the VMM" instructions [1]. The conclusion is that x86 cannot be virtualized the way that the old mainframes were virtualized. Incidentally, the PowerPC and Alpha ISA's are clean enough to be virtualized in the classic manner.

The above is much more than a quick simplified history lesson. Keep this in mind when we discuss what Intel and AMD have been doing with VT-x and AMD-V.

A Matter of Privileges Binary Translation
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