Through virtualization, multiple operating systems (OSes) are able to run on the same hardware, independently, thinking that each one of them controls the entire system.

Virtualization can be done using a hypervisor, which is a low-level software that virtualizes the underlying hardware and manages access to the real hardware, either directly or through the host Operating System. There are 2 main virtualized environments: virtual machines and containers, each with pros and cons regarding complexity, size, performance and security. Unikernels come somewhere between those 2.

Virtual Machines#

A virtual machine represents an abstraction of the hardware, over which an operating system can run, thinking that it is alone on the system and that it controls the hardware below it. Virtual machines rely on hypervisors to run properly.

A hypervisor incorporates hardware-enabled multiplexing and segmentation of compute resources in order to better utilize, better secure and better facilitate the instantenous runtime of user-defined programs. Through By the means of a virtual machine, an operating system is unaware of the multiplexing which happens to facilitate its existence. The hypervisor emulates devices on behalf of the guest OS, including providing access to virtual CPUs, virtual Interrupt Controllers and virtual NICs, which are segmented from the underlying hardware.

The hypervisors can be classified in 2 categories: Type 1 and Type 2:

  • The Type 1 hypervisor, also known as bare-metal hypervisor, has direct access to the hardware and controls all the operating systems that are running on the system. The guest OSes have access to the physical hardware, and the hypervisor arbiters this accesses. KVM is an example of Type 1 hypervisor.

  • The Type 2 hypervisor, also known as hosted hypervisor, has to go through the host operating system to reach the hardware. Access to the hardware is emulated, using software components that behave in the same way as the hardware ones. An example of Type 2 hypervisor is VirtualBox.

Comparison between different virtualization systems.
Figure 1Comparison between different virtualization systems.

In Figure 1 a comparison between different virtualization systems is illustrated and demonstrates how the degree of separation between a "guest application" and the hardware and “host” becomes further removed. The defined job of the host OS and kernel or hypervisor became that of 1). to juggle the runtime of multiple applications and environments; 2). to present a subset or non-contiguous representation of hardware resources virtually and translate operations, and provide emulation and compatibility between guest and host; and, 3). to ultimately guard access to them to prevent corruption or malicious attacks.

Supported platforms#

Unikraft is usually run in 2 ways:

  • As a virtual machine, using QEMU-KVM or Xen. It acts as an operating system, having the responsibility to configure the hardware components that it needs (clocks, additional processors, etc). This mode gives Unikraft direct and total control over hardware components, allowing advanced functionalities.
  • As a linuxu build, in which it behaves as a Linux user-space application. This severely limits its performance, as everything Unikraft does must go through the Linux kernel, via system calls. This mode should be used only for development and debugging.

When Unikraft is running using QEMU-KVM, it can either be run on an emulated system or a (para)virtualized one. Technically, KVM means virtualization support is enabled. If using QEMU in emulated mode, KVM is not used.

Emulation is slower, but it allows using CPU architectures different from the local one (you can run ARM code on a x86 machine). Using (para)virtualisation, aka hardware acceleration, greater speed is achieved and more hardware components are visible to Unikraft.

Future virtualization support#

Unikraft is planned to be able to run on Hyper-V and VMWare, in the near future.

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