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Unikernels: The Rise of the Virtual Library Operating System


Unikernals, illustration

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Cloud computing has been pioneering the business of renting computing resources in large data centers to multiple (and possibly competing) tenants. The basic enabling technology for the cloud is operating-system virtualization such as Xen1 or VMWare, which allows customers to multiplex virtual machines (VMs) on a shared cluster of physical machines. Each VM presents as a self-contained computer, booting a standard operating-system kernel and running unmodified applications just as if it were executing on a physical machine.

A key driver to the growth of cloud computing in the early days was server consolidation. Existing applications were often installed on physical hosts that were individually underutilized, and virtualization made it feasible to pack them onto fewer hosts without requiring any modifications or code recompilation. VMs are also managed via software APIs rather than physical actions. They can be centrally backed up and migrated across different physical hosts without interrupting service. Today commercial providers such as Amazon and Rackspace maintain vast data centers that host millions of VMs. These cloud providers relieve their customers of the burden of managing data centers and achieve economies of scale, thereby lowering costs.


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