Intel and AMD are planning to add virtualisation capabilities to their x86 processors during the next few years - a move experts say will lead to more flexible and faster virtual machines on low-cost, standards-based platforms.

But it may lead to performance issues because the software gets bulky. With virtual machine environments being supported directly in hardware, virtualisation software such as VMware's ESX Server will no longer have to complete the task of carving out multiple virtual server systems. Vendors can then focus on providing tools necessary to manage virtual environments, analysts say.

It's good news for users who, in growing numbers, are turning to virtualisation software vendors to reduce a glut of x86 boxes in their data centers.

News conglomerate Gannett, for example, deployed ESX Server software last year to consolidate dozens of Intel servers that were running at less than 15 percent use onto two, four-way systems running virtual machines.

Adding hardware support to the x86-based virtualisation package should result in even more efficiency as far as data center consolidation goes, says Eric Kuzmack, IT architect at the company. "Hardware-level virtualisation support will reduce layer complexity and improve performance of virtualised applications," he said. "Higher performance equals more workloads that can be virtualised."

Hardware that supports virtualisation will also reduce the cost of developing virtual drivers, "which reduces our cost for the [VMware] platform," he said.

In the past, the ability to partition servers into multiple, isolated virtual machines was restricted to mainframes and proprietary RISC-based systems. VMware changed that with its virtual machine software in 1999. "Today, VMware does it with a complicated software system that identifies instructions that have to be handled in a special way to make virtualisation work," says Martin Reynolds, a Gartner Fellow. "When Intel and AMD introduce their hardware much of that will go away and the virtualisation will become more efficient in terms of space and speed."

Intel and AMD have released few specifics about their technologies - codenamed Vanderpool and Pacifica, respectively. Vanderpool is expected to appear in Itanium next year. The features are slated to be added to Pentium and Xeon systems in 2006. Pacifica also is planned to be added to the Opteron platform in the 2006 time frame.

Patrick Bohart, marketing manager at Intel's Vanderpool Technology desktop products group, says Intel's new architecture will let system software, including operating system and applications, run more efficiently.

"In the Vanderpool environment, there's a new architecture that eliminates the need for the operating system to run where it's not supposed to run, so the operating system loads where it's supposed to load, the virtual machine monitor loads where it's supposed to load and the whole system gets simplified by an order of magnitude," he said.