An In-depth Look at SR-IOV NIC Passthrough

SR-IOV or “Single Root I/O Virtualization” is a very interesting feature that can provide virtual machines shared access to physical network cards installed in the hypervisor. This may sound a lot like what a virtual NIC and a vSwitch does, but the feature works very similarly to PCI passthrough, granting a VM direct access to the NIC hardware. In order to understand SR-IOV, it helps to understand how PCI passthrough works. Here is a quote from a post I did a few years ago:

“PCI Passthrough – or VMDirectPath I/O as VMware calls it – is not at all a new feature. It was originally introduced back in vSphere 4.0 after Intel and AMD introduced the necessary IOMMU processor extensions to make this possible. For passthrough to work, you’ll need an Intel processor supporting VT-d or an AMD processor supporting AMD-Vi as well as a motherboard that can support this feature.

In a nutshell, PCI passthrough allows you to give a virtual machine direct access to a PCI device on the host. And when I say direct, I mean direct – the guest OS communicates with the PCI device via IOMMU and the hypervisor completely ignores the card.”

SR-IOV takes PCI passthrough to the next level. Rather than granting exclusive use of the device to a single virtual machine, the device is shared or ‘partitioned’. It can be shared between multiple virtual machines, or even shared between virtual machines and the hypervisor itself. For example, a single 10Gbps NIC could be ‘passed through’ to a couple of virtual machines for direct access, and at the same time it could be attached to a vSwitch being used by other VMs with virtual NICs and vmkernel ports too. Think shared PCI passthrough.

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