CloudStack system VM architecture

I had a recent discussion with some folks wondering why there was now an option for 32 or 64-bit System VMs with CloudStack 4.3. I provided an answer, and linked back to some mailing list discussions. I figured this might be of general interest, so I’d document in the short term with a blog post.

For background, system VMs provide services like dealing with snapshots and image templates, providing network services like load balancing, or proxying console access to virtual machines. They’ve historically been 32-bit. The reason for this is that the 32-bit arch has been very efficient with memory usage, and since these are horizontally scalable it’s easy to just spin up another. 

But you can have either – which do you pick?

Depending on the workload you might have a different answer. Some hypervisors work better with one arch over the other; and that might be a factor; but ignoring hypervisors lets examine the reason you’d want to use either.  32-bit:  32-bit operating systems are pretty efficient with their use of memory compared to 64-bit. (e.g. the same information typically occupies less space in memory). However there are limits on memory. (Yes, you could use PAE with a 32-bit kernel to get more addressable memory, but there is considerable CPU overhead to do so – which makes it inefficient given that all of this is virtualized) The 32-bit kernels also have a limit on how much memory is used by the kernel. This is really where the use case of 64-bit System VMs evolved from. Because one of the system VM functions is providing load balancing, the conntrack kernel module had a practical limit of ~2.5M connections – and that left precious little room for the kernel to do other things. CloudStack orchestrates HAProxy as the default virtual LB, which in turn uses conntrack. Having a heavily trafficked web property behind CloudStack’s 32-bit virtual load balancer might run into that limitation. 

64-bit: Not nearly as efficient with memory usage; however it can address more of it. You’ll actually tend to need more memory for the same level of functionality; but if you need to push the envelope further than a 32-bit machine, then at least you have an option to do so.

In short, you should probably default to 32-bit system VMs unless you envision that you might need to take advantage of the benefits a 64-bit system VM provides you.  

If you want to see the original discussion around this topic from the dev@cloudstack.apache.org mailing list, look here: 
http://markmail.org/message/i5kolazi5so52eon

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