Sunday, 22 January 2012

Xen Part 3: Installing the Host OS

Xen is basically a customised kernel which can run multiple operating systems simultaneously. It divides these OSs into two primary zones with different permissions. One OS, the host OS, runs in what is known as domain 0 (dom0). Dom0 has complete control over the system.

One can then install guest OSs, which run in either paravirtualised or fully virtualised mode. They are heavily restricted, either running on fully emulated hardware, or using hypercalls to communicate with the Xen kernel. They run in what is known as domain U (domU).

So, first we install our dom0 OS (the host OS), and install Xen onto that, replacing the native Linux kernel. Finally, we reboot into our new Xen kernel in dom0, and proceed to create virtual machines to install domU OSs (the guest OSs) into.  

Dom0 OS

Dom0 can be moreorless any Linux distro you choose, although some are better choices than others. I found Fedora 16 to be the simplest to get Xen running on, whilst I had difficulty with OpenSUSE and Debian.

Debian is well known as being the sysadmin's favourite distro, due in large part to its legendary stability and its fantastic package management system based on Aptitude. It seems like the perfect base on which to build a rock-solid Xen system.

I already gave Debian a try and completely failed to load the Xen kernel, due to a bug which proved elusive. Yet, aside from anything else, I have most experience with Debian, and prefer it over RHEL-based distros (which I found relatively simple to get Xen running on). What you use for your dom0 will be your own choice, but I have chosen to start over with Debian – and I intend to get it working. The instructions that follow assume you too are using Debian 6.

Installation of Debian

For the time being, all we have to do is install a standard Debian distro via the usual methods. If installing a Linux distribution is new to you, please seek out some tutorials on the web. There are hundreds, if not thousands, to choose from. 

We will be making use of a GUI, and I recommend using GNOME – the default – unless you have a particular preference otherwise.

I chose to use two 1TB drives (Samsung Spinpoint F3 HD103SJ, one of the fastest 7.2krpm drives on the market), to provide a RAID1 redundant configuration. For the partitioning, I went for a simple setup of a single partition for the host OS, allowing a whole 100GB to ensure there's absolutely no possibility of running out of space. I added on a total of 10GB of swap space, and finally the remainder (about 895GB) for guest OSs, which I plan to install to LVM logical volumes within this partition. 

Note: you do not, by any means, need to use LVM for guest OSs. You do not need to follow my partitioning structure or sizing. Neither do you need to use a RAID configuration. This is all completely up to you, and you could technically use a single drive - or a part thereof - and just select automatic partitioning during the installation process. Alternatively, you could surpass my feeble attempts and try to run hardware supported RAID10 across four SSDs - it's your call.

If you need assistance on partitioning your drives, I advise that you do a web search for tutorials on the process, of which there are many. However; briefly, if you want to use a RAID1 setup like mine, choose a manual partition configuration during the installation process. Format both drives if necessary (i.e. remove any existing partitions, which will of course destroy any existing data on them), and create an identical partition setup on both 1TB drives:
  • 100.0GB partition, type: physical partition for RAID, with bootable flag
  • 5.0 GB partition, type: swap (we are not going to mirror these partitions)
  • <remaining space, around 895GB>, type: physical partition for RAID
Then choose to set-up software RAID. We need to create two RAID1 MD devices. So first create one across both 100GB partitions (2 active, 0 spare), and then create another across both <remaining space> partitions (2 active, 0 spare).

Select the first 100GB RAID device and create an ext4 partition with the root mount point. Select the second <remaining space> RAID device and create a physical partition for LVM.

Finally, in the latter stages of the installation process, install your chosen bootloader (I'd recommend GRUB if you have no preference) to the MBR of the first drive of the set, e.g. /dev/sda.

I won't continue to give advice specifically for Fedora, but this one is worth mentioning. Fedora 16 has a bug (hopefully fixed now) which can cause the OS not to boot when it is installed to a software RAID device. If you encounter the error "No such device" upon booting your new Fedora installation on software RAID, this may help.

Next > Part 4: Booting into dom0

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