Solaris-Zones: Linux IT Marbles Get a New Bag

Solaris-Zones provides the ability to run Linux and Solaris on the same machine without all the overhead of full virtualization.

Seldom is a data center asked to do less. More often, it's asked to do more with less—fewer computers and less power consumption. One significant industry discussion for the past few years has been regarding a reduction in the number of physical servers and an increase in the application-to-server ratio to maximize server utilization. Often, this increase is done via virtualization.

At Texas Instruments (TI), we have numerous data centers and design environments that thrive on the use of Linux and Solaris. Typically, each OS is installed on individual systems stacked high and aligned in rows throughout the data center. Linux applications run on Linux; Solaris applications run on Solaris.

Recently, a new virtualization solution has emerged that enables IT professionals to combine Linux and Solaris together within one physical environment. This solution reduces the number of physical systems in the computer environment and increases server work with greater efficiency.

One of the Solaris virtualization environments is called Solaris-Zones (also known as Solaris-Containers). Through the development of Open-Solaris, Solaris-Zones has been expanded to support zone branding. Solaris-Zones now enables the creation of “lx” branded zones. The lx branded zone supports the installation and execution of the Linux OS and its applications. When lx branded zones are used in conjunction with the ZFS (Zeta-byte File System), Linux environments are able to do more, faster.

Linux always has been about technical developers and enthusiasts doing whatever moves them. The security of Solaris-Zones combined with the power of Linux opens a huge new frontier of development freedom—from the enterprise environment to the single desktop. With Solaris-Zones, it's easy to define, create, install and execute Linux (lx) branded zones.

This article introduces lx branded zones and presents the necessary tools for each step of the zone management process. Readers should have some understanding of a chroot environment and the basic concepts of virtual machines (VMs) and the features they provide. Knowledge of these concepts is not required, but it will help in conveying what a zone is and create a better platform for understanding.

Zones Simplified

So, what is a zone? A zone provides security and virtualization in a unique way. The Solaris-Zone has its own filesystem with a root directory, system files and so on, like that of the primary environment of the physical system. The private root filesystem, one per zone, gives it the ability to be fully configurable and flexible. A zone provides nearly the same experience as the main OS. In this regard, it is like a VM without the VM hardware emulation layer.

The zone is provided with an operating environment but without a private dedicated kernel. The lack of a dedicated kernel is a huge performance enhancement—when you experience the boot process, you will see how fast it is compared to a normal boot. User and administrator experience within the zone is very similar to that of a full VM in flexibility, but like a chroot environment, it sheds the overhead of a full VM.

It is important to understand that a zone is not a full virtual machine in the sense that you would see with Xen or VMware or VirtualBox. A zone is an emulation layer, more akin to Wine perhaps, but at a more fundamental level. This, for example, means that an lx branded zone does not contain its own Linux kernel; rather, the kernel calls are redirected by the zone's emulation layer to the underlying Solaris kernel.

The zone provides security through isolation. Each zone has its own root account and password. The superuser within a zone has no special privileges to gain access to objects outside the zone. No account has rights to exit the zone or examine processes and files outside the zone. Advanced resource management is enabled when control of memory and CPU resources by zone is important. Resource management keeps zones from being harmed by others, including but not limited to CPU and memory starvation.

Note: the primary Solaris OS and the physical platform on which it executes are also known as a zone. It is defined as the global zone and continues to look and feel as it always has. All other zones are created from the global zone. Created zones are called sub or non-global zones. Non-global zones cannot create zones within themselves. Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between the global zone, non-global zones and possible VMs.

Figure 1. Relationships between Zones and VMs