Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) is an open source virtualization technology built into Linux®. Specifically, KVM lets you turn Linux into a hypervisor that allows a host machine to run multiple, isolated virtual environments called guests or virtual machines (VMs).
KVM is part of Linux. If you’ve got Linux 2.6.20 or newer, you’ve got KVM. KVM was first announced in 2006 and merged into the mainline Linux kernel version a year later. Because KVM is part of existing Linux code, it immediately benefits from every new Linux feature, fix, and advancement without additional engineering.
How does KVM work?
KVM converts Linux into a type-1 (bare-metal) hypervisor. All hypervisors need some operating system-level components—such as a memory manager, process scheduler, input/output (I/O) stack, device drivers, security manager, a network stack, and more—to run VMs. KVM has all these components because it’s part of the Linux kernel. Every VM is implemented as a regular Linux process, scheduled by the standard Linux scheduler, with dedicated virtual hardware like a network card, graphics adapter, CPU(s), memory, and disks.
Long story short, you have to run a version of Linux that was released after 2007 and it needs to be installed on X86 hardware that supports virtualization capabilities. If both of those boxes are checked, then all you have to do is load 2 existing modules (a host kernel module and a processor-specific module), an emulator, and any drivers that will help you run additional systems.
But implementing KVM on a supported Linux distribution—like Red Hat Enterprise Linux—expands KVM’s capabilities, letting you swap resources among guests, share common libraries, optimize system performance, and a lot more.
Migrating to a KVM-based virtual infrastructure
Building a virtual infrastructure on a platform you’re contractually tied to may limit your access to the source code. That means your IT developments are probably going to be more workarounds than innovations, and the next contract could keep you from investing in clouds, containers, and automation. Migrating to a KVM-based virtualization platform means being able to inspect, modify, and enhance the source code behind your hypervisor. And there’s no enterprise-license agreement because there’s no source code to protect. It’s yours.
KVM is part of Linux. Linux is part of KVM. Everything Linux has, KVM has too. But there are specific features that make KVM an enterprise’s preferred hypervisor.
KVM uses a combination of security-enhanced Linux (SELinux) and secure virtualization (sVirt) for enhanced VM security and isolation. SELinux establishes security boundaries around VMs. sVirt extends SELinux’s capabilities, allowing Mandatory Access Control (MAC) security to be applied to guest VMs and preventing manual labeling errors.
KVM is able to use any storage supported by Linux, including some local disks and network-attached storage (NAS). Multipath I/O may be used to improve storage and provide redundancy. KVM also supports shared file systems so VM images may be shared by multiple hosts. Disk images support thin provisioning, allocating storage on demand rather than all up front.
KVM can use a wide variety of certified Linux-supported hardware platforms. Because hardware vendors regularly contribute to kernel development, the latest hardware features are often rapidly adopted in the Linux kernel.
KVM inherits the memory management features of Linux, including non-uniform memory access and kernel same-page merging. The memory of a VM can be swapped, backed by large volumes for better performance, and shared or backed by a disk file.
KVM supports live migration, which is the ability to move a running VM between physical hosts with no service interruption. The VM remains powered on, network connections remain active, and applications continue to run while the VM is relocated. KVM also saves a VM’s current state so it can be stored and resumed later.
KVM inherits the performance of Linux, scaling to match demand load if the number of guest machines and requests increases. KVM allows the most demanding application workloads to be virtualized and is the basis for many enterprise virtualization setups, such as datacenters and private clouds.
In the KVM model, a VM is a Linux process, scheduled and managed by the kernel. The Linux scheduler allows fine-grained control of the resources allocated to a Linux process and guarantees a quality of service for a particular process. In KVM, this includes the completely fair scheduler, control groups, network name spaces, and real-time extensions.
The Linux kernel features real-time extensions that allow VM-based apps to run at lower latency with better prioritization (compared to bare metal). The kernel also divides processes that require long computing times into smaller components, which are then scheduled and processed accordingly.
It’s possible to manually manage a handful of VM fired up on a single workstation without a management tool. Large enterprises use virtualization management software that interfaces with virtual environments and the underlying physical hardware to simplify resource administration, enhance data analyses, and streamline operations. Red Hat created Red Hat Virtualization for exactly this purpose.