Hypervisors for mobile devices, a conversation with Open Kernel Labs

Will lures of flexibility, security and lower overall cost persuade service and hardware suppliers to open the door to hypervisors for handheld and mobile devices?

I recently had an involved discussion with Robert C. McCammon, Vice President of Product Management of Open Kernel Labs, about the need for hypervisor technology, that is virtual machine software, on handheld and mobile devices. We came to the conclusion that today's devices have evolved to the place that they have enough physical resources; processor power, memory and storage; to easily support multiple workloads.

What is it about hypervisors?

Moving into a virtual world brings with it a number of benefits:
  • The use of hypervisors has promoted a great deal of flexibility by allowing different, incompatible workloads to work side by side.
  • Hypervisors have also made it possible for workloads to become agile. That is they can be moved from system to system to achieve certain service level objectives and address failures.
  • Workloads can be isolated from one another as part of a security architecture
  • Software can be treated as an appliance. This makes workloads can be much easier to install. They can be updated just as easily

Where has this technology been successful?

Hypervisors, that is virtual machine software that allows more than one operating environment to reside on the same physical machine, have been available for decades. Moving workloads into a virtual environment first appeared as capabilities built into the processors of mainframes in the late 1960s and in midrange machines in the early 1980s.

This capability was duplicated using a heavy layer of software in the world of industry standard (X86) systems in the 1990s. A large number of industry standard servers are now deployed running multiple workloads using hypervisors offered by Citrix, Microsoft, Oracle, Red Hat, VMware and a number of open source communities.

This technology has not seen as much success in the world of industry standard desktop and laptop systems. That being said, the use is growing.

Why should hypervisors find their way onto handheld and mobile devices?

Increasingly handheld and mobile devices are being used as one of the key ways people access important applications and data. The devices have become more powerful. That is they are sporting faster processors, offer a large internal memory capacity allowing users to carry a complete productivity environment in a pocket or a briefcase and have enough storage to allow the user to work independently.

Desktop and laptop issues reappear

Since these devices live on a network a good deal of the time, they are subject to viruses, worms and other forms of attack. Workloads have emerged that are incompatible with one another, that is only one may reside on the device at any moment. Installing individual applications, while much simplified, can still be a pain. Furthermore, these devices typically offer a single working environment.

Overcoming the single environment challenge

To overcome the single working environment limitation of these devices, people have done the following things:
  • People would carry a company device and their own personal device
  • People would carry a company device and surreptitiously put personal data and applications (scary for the company's security folks)
  • People would carry their own device and surreptitisously put corporate data and applications on it (also scarey for the company's security folks)

Being able to use one device that supports two virtual environments, one personal and one corporate, would make life easier for everyone.  The security folks could feel comfortable that the corporate personality would follow all of their guidelines. The owner of the device would be able to use the applications and services he/she would like.

Enter the mobile hypervisor

Open Kernel Labs would propose another approach. That is, adapt hypervisor technology to mobile devices. This would allow a personal environment and a corporate environment to reside side by side. This corporate environment could be built as a "golden image" and provided to each staff member.

There are a few challenges to this picture. They are:

  • Many individual select their own mobile or handheld devices and would resist being told they must have a specific device.
  • Devices manufacturers would have to be convinced that loading the hypervisor won't damage the device. Otherwise loading this software would, in all likelihood, void the warranty.
  • Wireless carriers have to be convinced that loading the hypervisor and the corporate virtual machines won't raise their support costs. Otherwise, they wouldn't support these devices when problems appear.

We'll all have to wait to see if this approach takes off. On the surface, it appears like a good idea.

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