How Sony impedes virtualization, hurting customers, Intel and Microsoft (and many others)

Posted by Staff   |   Thursday, July 30th, 2009   |  

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The Sony customers that bought a VAIO laptop in the last couple of years and are interested in virtualization should know by now that their machines are not worth the money spent.
The company in fact completely locked down the computers’ BIOS, preventing the capability to enable the Intel Virtualization Technology (VT) extension.

For the newcomers, the Intel VT technology was introduced in November 2005, featured by Pentium 4 662 and 672 CPUs.
Today VT is included in almost every Intel CPU, from the Atom mobile processor to the Xeon 5500 server processors, up to the upcoming new generations Core i3, i5 and i7.

This extension is used by the virtualization vendors to perform some virtual machines stunts, like running a 64bit guest operating system on top of a 32bit host OS, without much overhead.
Every virtualization platform uses it, commercial and open source ones, hosted ones and bare-metal ones (aka hypervisors). And this list includes products like VMware ESX and Workstation, Microsoft Hyper-V and Virtual PC, Citrix XenServer, Oracle VM and Sun VirtualBox, Parallels Desktop, Red Hat KVM and others.

Given the ubiquity of Intel VT, most virtualization vendors don’t use anymore alternative techniques (like the VMware Binary Translation) to perform some complex operations that the processor can do on their behalf. Their products simply check if the CPU is VT-capable and if so they use it.
In some computers the Intel VT extension is not enabled by default, so when the virtualization platform recognizes its presence the customers is invited to go inside the BIOS and enable it. And this solves everything, except if you are a Sony customer.

If you are an unlucky owner of a VAIO notebook you simply can’t perform the operation above, because Sony doesn’t expose any option inside the BIOS to enable VT. And for the ones that want it Sony doesn’t provide any firmware update.

The official Sony position on this is that Intel VT is not supported on VAIO machines but it’s not true at all: any customer can download a simple and free tool like CrystalCPUID and verify that its CPU includes Intel VT.

The customers are so frustrated by this situation that have to perform a reverse engineering of the firmware and develop unsupported, dangerous patches to enable VT.

It doesn’t matter if the total number of Sony customers that want to run virtualization on their VAIO laptops is very low. This issue is damaging the virtualization vendors but most of all it is damaging the Intel image as they are selling themselves as the leading chipmakers in virtualization.
Worse than that Intel received complains about the topic since February 2009 and it is doing nothing to push Sony.

The next one that will receive a damage from this is Microsoft, and it will probably receive it on a much larger scale.

On October 22, Microsoft will release its new consumer operating system: Windows 7.
The successor of Vista embeds a special version of Virtual PC that Microsoft hopes will simplify the migration of legacy applications from Windows XP.

Simply dubbed Windows Virtual PC, it will allow the users to run in the so-called Windows XP Mode.
Basically the applications will run inside a Virtual PC 7 virtual machine and will appear on the Windows 7 desktop through the so-called seamless window publishing.
But guess what? Windows XP Mode requires Intel VT and so no Sony customer will be able to use it.

For the ones that are optimistic and believe in an providential BIOS updated before October 22, there is a bad news: Sony officially said that has no plans to enable VT on old and new VAIO models.

According to this, the Sony VAIO notebook I own (a VGN-SZ770) will be immediately replaced (suggestions are welcome).
And of course, according to this doesn’t recommend Sony VAIO laptops to anybody looking for some serious use of virtualization technologies or just looking to upgrade to Windows 7.

Update: Sony gives the official reasons behind this major limitation.

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