This article presents performance comparisons of several typical MPI applications — LAMMPS, WRF, OpenFOAM, and STAR-CCM+ — running on a traditional, bare-metal HPC cluster versus a virtualized cluster running VMware’s vSphere virtualization platform. The tests were performed on a 32-node, EDR-connected Dell PowerEdge C6320 cluster, located in the Dell EMC HPC Innovation Lab in Austin, Texas. In addition to performance results, virtual cluster architecture and configuration recommendations for optimal performance are described.
Interest in HPC virtualization and cloud have grown rapidly. While much of the interest stems from gaining the general value of cloud technologies, there are specific benefits of virtualizing HPC and supporting it in a cloud environment, such as centralized operation, cluster resource sharing, research environment reproducibility, multi-tenant data security, fault isolation and resiliency, dynamic load balancing, efficient power management, etc. Figure 1 illustrates several HPC virtualization benefits.
Despite the potential benefits of moving HPC workloads to a private, public, or hybrid cloud, performance concerns have been a barrier to adoption. We focus here on the use of on-premises, private clouds for HPC — environments in which appropriate tuning can be applied to deliver maximum application performance. HPC virtualization performance is primarily determined by two factors; hardware virtualization support and virtual infrastructure capability. With advances in both VMware vSphere as well as x86 microprocessor architecture, throughput applications can generally run at close to full speed in the VMware virtualized environment — with less than 5% performance degradation compared to native, and often just 1 – 2% . MPI applications by nature are more challenging, requiring sustained and intensive communication between nodes, making them sensitive to interconnect performance. With our continued performance optimization efforts, we see decreasing overheads running these challenging HPC workloads  and this blog post presents some MPI results as examples.
Figure 1: Illustration of several HPC virtualization benefits
As illustrated in Figure 2, the testbed consists of 32 Dell PowerEdge C6320 compute nodes and one management node. vCenter , the vSphere management component, as well as NFS and DNS are running in virtual machines (VMs) on the management node. VMware DirectPath I/O technology  (i.e., passthrough mode) is used to allow the guest OS (the operating system running within a VM) to directly access the EDR InfiniBand device, which shortens the message delivery path by bypassing the network virtualization layer to deliver best performance. Native tests were run using CentOS on each host, while virtual tests were run with the VMware ESXi hypervisor running on each host along with a single virtual machine running the same CentOS version.
Figure 2: Testbed Virtual Cluster Architecture
Table 1 shows all cluster hardware and software details, and Table 2 shows a summary of BIOS and vSphere settings.
Table 1: Cluster Hardware and Software Details
Dell PowerEdge C6320
Dual 10-core Intel Xeon E5-2660 v3 firstname.lastname@example.orgGHz (Haswell)
Mellanox ConnectX-4 VPI adapter card; EDR IB (100Gb/s)
vCenter management server
BIOS, Firmware and OS
OS Distribution (virtual and native)
OFED and MPI
(LAMMPS, WRF and OpenFOAM)
Intel MPI (STAR-CCM+)
Table 2: BIOS and vSphere Settings
Performance Per Watt (OS)
ESXi power policy
Enabled for EDR InfiniBand
20 virtual CPUs, 100GB memory
Virtual NUMA topology (vNUMA)
Auto detected (default)
CPU Scheduler affinity
Figures 3-6 show native versus virtual performance ratios with the settings in Table 2 applied. A value of 1.0 means that virtual performance is identical to native. Applications were benchmarked using a strong scaling methodology — problem sizes remained constant as job sizes were scaled. In the Figure legends, ‘nXnpY’ indicates a test run on X nodes using a total of Y MPI ranks. Benchmark problems were selected to achieve reasonable parallel efficiency at the largest scale tested. All MPI processes were consecutively mapped from node 1 to node 32.
As can be seen from the results, the majority of tests show degradations under 5%, though there are increasing overheads as we scale. At the highest scale tested (n32np640), performance degradation varies by applications and benchmark problems, with the largest degradation seen with LAMMPS atomic fluid (25%) and the smallest seen with STAR-CCM+ EmpHydroCyclone_30M (6%). Single-node STAR-CCM+ results are anomalous and currently under study. As we continue our performance optimization work, we expect to report better and more scalable results in the future.
Figure 3: LAMMPS native vs. virtual performance. Higher is better.
Figure 4: WRF native vs. virtual performance. Higher is better.
Figure 5: OpenFOAM native vs. virtual performance. Higher is better.
Figure 6: STAR-CCM+ native vs. virtual performance. Higher is better.
The following configurations are suggested to achieve optimal virtual performance for HPC. For more comprehensive vSphere performance guidance, please see  and .
MPI workloads are CPU-heavy and can make use of all cores, thus requiring a large VM. However, CPU or memory overcommit would greatly impact performance. In our tests, each VM is configured with 20vCPUs, using all physical cores, and 100 GB fully reserved memory, leaving some free memory to consume ESXi hypervisor memory overhead.
There are three ESXi power management policies: “High Performance”, “Balanced” (default), “Low Power” and “Custom”. Though “High performance” power management would slightly increase performance of latency-sensitive workloads, in situations in which a system’s load is low enough to allow Turbo to operate, it will prevent the system from going into C/C1E states, leading to lower Turbo boost benefits. The “Balanced” power policy will reduce host power consumption while having little or no impact on performance. It’s recommended to use this default.
Virtual NUMA (vNUMA) exposes NUMA topology to the guest OS, allowing NUMA-aware OSes and applications to make efficient use of the underlying hardware. This is an out-of-the-box feature in vSphere.
Virtualization holds promise for HPC, offering new capabilities and increased flexibility beyond what is available in traditional, unvirtualized environments. These values are only useful, however, if high performance can be maintained. In this short post, we have shown that performance degradations for a range of common MPI applications can be kept under 10%, with our highest scale testing showing larger slowdowns in some cases. With throughput applications running at very close to native speeds, and with the results shown here, it is clear that virtualization can be a viable and useful approach for a variety of HPC use-cases. As we continue to analyze and address remaining sources of performance overhead, the value of the approach will only continue to expand.
If you have any technical questions regarding VMware HPC virtualization, please feel free to contact us!
These results have been produced in collaboration with our Dell Technology colleagues in the Dell EMC HPC Innovation Lab who have given us access to the compute cluster used to produce these results and to continue our analysis of remaining performance overheads.
Na Zhang is member of the technical staff working on HPC within VMware’s Office of the CTO. Her current focus is on performance and solutions of HPC virtualization. Na has Ph.D. degree in Applied Mathematics from Stony Brook University. Her research primarily focused on design and analysis of parallel algorithms for large- and multi-scale simulations running on supercomputers.