Comparison of a traditional OS stack and a MirageOS unikernel
Comparison of a traditional OS stack and a MirageOS unikernel

A unikernel is a specialised, single address space machine image constructed by using library operating systems.[1] A developer selects, from a modular stack, the minimal set of libraries which correspond to the OS constructs required for the application to run. These libraries are then compiled with the application and configuration code to build sealed, fixed-purpose images (unikernels) which run directly on a hypervisor or hardware without an intervening OS such as Linux or Windows.

The first such systems were Exokernel and Nemesis in the late 1990s.

Design

In a library operating system, protection boundaries are pushed to the lowest hardware layers, resulting in:

  1. a set of libraries that implement mechanisms such as those needed to drive hardware or talk network protocols;
  2. a set of policies that enforce access control and isolation in the application layer.

The library OS architecture has several advantages and disadvantages compared with conventional OS designs. One of the advantages is that since there is only a single address space, there is no need for repeated privilege transitions to move data between user space and kernel space. Therefore, a library OS can provide improved performance by allowing direct access to hardware without having to transition between user mode and kernel mode (on a traditional kernel this transition consists of a single TRAP instruction[2] and is not the same as a context switch[3]). Performance gains may be realised by elimination of the need to copy data between user space and kernel space, although this is also possible with Zero-copy device drivers in traditional operating systems.

A disadvantage is that because there is no separation, trying to run multiple applications side by side in a library OS, but with strong resource isolation, can become complex.[4] In addition, device drivers are required for the specific hardware the library OS runs on. Since hardware is rapidly changing this creates the burden of regularly rewriting drivers to remain up to date.

OS virtualization can overcome some of these drawbacks on commodity hardware. A modern hypervisor provides virtual machines with CPU time and strongly isolated virtual devices. A library OS running as a virtual machine only needs to implement drivers for these stable virtual hardware devices and can depend on the hypervisor to drive the real physical hardware. However, protocol libraries are still needed to replace the services of a traditional operating system. Creating these protocol libraries is where the bulk of the work lies when implementing a modern library OS.[1] Additionally, reliance on a hypervisor may reintroduce performance overheads when switching between the unikernel and hypervisor, and when passing data to and from hypervisor virtual devices.

By reducing the amount of code deployed, unikernels necessarily reduce the likely attack surface and therefore have improved security properties.[5][6]

An example unikernel-based messaging client has around 4% the size of the equivalent code bases using Linux.[7]

Due to the nature of their construction, it is possible to perform whole-system optimisation across device drivers and application logic, thus improving on the specialisation.[8][9] For example, off-the-shelf applications such as nginx, SQLite, and Redis running over a unikernel have shown a 1.7x-2.7x performance improvement.[10]

Unikernels have been regularly shown to boot extremely quickly, in time to respond to incoming requests before the requests time-out.[11][12][13]

Unikernels lend themselves to creating systems that follow the service-oriented or microservices software architectures.

The high degree of specialisation means that unikernels are unsuitable for the kind of general purpose, multi-user computing that traditional operating systems are used for. Adding additional functionality or altering a compiled unikernel is generally not possible and instead the approach is to compile and deploy a new unikernel with the desired changes.

See also

References

  1. ^ a b "Unikernels: Rise of the Virtual Library Operating System". Retrieved 31 August 2015.
  2. ^ Tanenbaum, Andrew S. (2008). Modern Operating Systems (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall. pp. 50–51. ISBN 978-0-13-600663-3. . . . nearly all system calls [are] invoked from C programs by calling a library procedure . . . The library procedure . . . executes a TRAP instruction to switch from user mode to kernel mode and start execution . . .
  3. ^ Context switch#User and kernel mode switching
  4. ^ Chia-Che, Tsai; Arora, Kumar-Saurabh; Bandi, Nehal; Jain, Bhushan; Jannen, William; John, Jitin; Kalodner, Harry; Kulkarni, Vrushali; Oliviera, Daniela; Porter, Donald E. (2014). Cooperation and Security Isolation of Library OSes for Multi-process Applications (PDF). Proceedings of the Ninth European Conference on Computer Systems (EuroSys). pp. 1–14. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.589.1837. doi:10.1145/2592798.2592812. ISBN 9781450327046.
  5. ^ "Why Unikernels Can Improve Internet Security". April 2015. Retrieved 31 August 2015.
  6. ^ Madhavapeddy, Anil; Mortier, Richard; Charalampos, Rotsos; Scott, David; Singh, Balraj; Gazagnaire, Thomas; Smith, Steven; Hand, Steven; Crowcroft, Jon (March 2013). "Unikernels: Library Operating Systems for the Cloud" (PDF). SIGPLAN Notices (ASPLOS 13). 48 (4): 461. doi:10.1145/2499368.2451167.
  7. ^ Kaloper-Meršinjak, David; Mehnert, Hannes; Madhavapeddy, Anil; Sewell, Peter (2015). "Not-Quite-So-Broken TLS: Lessons in Re-Engineering a Security Protocol Specification and Implementation". Proceedings of the 24th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 15).
  8. ^ Madhavapeddy, Anil; Mortier, Richard; Sohan, Ripduman; Gazagnaire, Thomas; Hand, Steven; Deegan, Tim; McAuley, Derek; Crowcroft, Jon (2010). "Turning Down the LAMP: Software Specialisation for the Cloud" (PDF). Proceedings of the 2Nd USENIX Conference on Hot Topics in Cloud Computing.
  9. ^ Martins, Joao; Mohamed, Ahmed; Raiciu, Costin; Huici, Felipe (2013). Enabling Fast, Dynamic Networking Processing with ClickOS (PDF). Proceedings of the Second ACM SIGCOMM Workshop on Hot Topics in Software Defined Networking. p. 67. doi:10.1145/2491185.2491195. ISBN 9781450321785.
  10. ^ Kuenzer, Simon; Bădoiu, Vlad-Andrei; Lefeuvre, Hugo; Santhanam, Sharan; Jung, Alexander; Gain, Gaulthier; Soldani, Cyril; Lupu, Costin; Teodorescu, Ştefan; Răducanu, Costi; Banu, Cristian (2021-04-21). "Unikraft: fast, specialized unikernels the easy way". Proceedings of the Sixteenth European Conference on Computer Systems. Online Event United Kingdom: ACM: 376–394. arXiv:2104.12721. doi:10.1145/3447786.3456248. ISBN 978-1-4503-8334-9.
  11. ^ "Just-in-Time Summoning of Unikernels (v0.2)". Magnus Skjegstad. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  12. ^ "Zerg". Zerg — an instance per request demo. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  13. ^ Madhavapeddy, Anil; Leonard, Thomas; Skjegstad, Magnus; Gazagnaire, Thomas; Sheets, David; Scott, David; Mortier, Richard; Chaudhry, Amir; Singh, Balraj; Ludlam, Jon; Crowcroft, Jon; Leslie, Ian (2015). Jitsu: Just-In-Time Summoning of Unikernels (PDF). The 12th USENIX Conference on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI). ISBN 978-1-931971-218.