XEN, Not Your Regular Hypervisor, and DPDK

No host OS + paravirtualization support = performance improvement

XEN is a hypervisor. A hypervisor is a supervisory program (think, operating system) that provides support for virtual machines. Parallels (Parallels), VMWare (Dell), and Virtual Box (Oracle) are all hypervisors. They provide an environment that hosts a number of processes (virtual machines) where each virtual machine believes it is running on the underlying hardware. Each virtual machine contains a guest operating system (e.g., Windows, macOS, Linux) and one or more processes/applications running within the guest operating system. Each of these hypervisors sits on top of a host operating system (e.g., Windows, macOS, Linux).

It is common to run a hypervisor like Virtual Box on a Mac and load one or more Windows virtual machines in order to run applications that only run on Windows.

XEN is a bit different in several ways from the three hypervisors listed above. First, it is a “bare metal” system. It runs as the lowest level, right on top of the hardware — there is no host operating system. As you’d expect, this improves performance and efficiency.

Second, XEN supports paravirtualization. With paravirtualization, XEN provides APIs for many system functions and the guest operating system in the virtual machines can be rebuilt to access system resources and the I/O subsystem via this API.

There are several Linux distributions that have been recompiled to use the XEN interface. This can improve performance and also allow stronger support for virtual machines on CPUs that don’t have good VM support (some x86s, older ARMs, etc.) XEN also provides support for accessing the underlying hardware like the other hypervisors (this is called Hardware Virtual Machine, HVM). The final difference is that XEN is open-source.


One of the major problems with implementing network processing applications in virtual machines is implementing high performance I/O. Packet processing applications often need to process tens of thousands or even millions of packets per second. This is difficult at the application layer, in general, but even more difficult when the system I/O calls are made to a guest operating system which has to access the hard through the hypervisor and the host operating system.

The Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) is a solution to this problem. DPDK is a framework that provides for creating software libraries tailored for specific hardware architectures (e.g., X86) and specific operating systems (e.g., Linux). These libraries (called Environment Abstraction Layer or EAL) provide high performance, generic (i.e., hardware and OS independent) access to hardware and operating resources including the I/O subsystem.

Using the DPDK EAL allows the development of high performance user-mode packet processing applications which can also be tuned to exploit multi-core CPUs.

​Next, we provide an overview of a general packet processing model: General Packet Processing Model


By Larry S.