In-Depth

The Next Frontier: Mobile Phone Hypervisors

VMware makes a play for mobile market share.

Not content to stay tethered to the data center and desktop market, VMware Inc. is breaking out into heretofore unclaimed virtualization territory: mobile phones. In November, VMware announced its Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP). MVP is built on technology acquired from Trango Virtual Processors, a company VMware bought last year. VMware would not provide details of the transaction, which closed in mid-October 2008, but the company says the idea of virtualization on mobile devices had been percolating for some time before that.

"About two years ago, VMware started looking at mobile phones as the next frontier for us," explains Srinivas Krishnamurti, VMware's director of product management and market development.

"Your phone is becoming a combination of your PC and wallet all rolled into one. This could become the most important device a consumer can own," Krishnamurti adds.

There remain significant hurdles, though. For one thing, virtualization tends to be resource-intensive, and most mobile devices lack both powerful processors and loads of RAM. VMware has researched those questions, says Krishnamurti. "From a technology perspective, [VMware asked]: 'Can you even run a hypervisor on a mobile phone? Is there a problem that this layer of software could solve?' Feedback [from customers the company approached] said, 'Yes, it does make sense.'"

Hence the Trango acquisition. Trango, although it had no customers yet, was poised to make a splash in the market, according to Krishnamurti. The Trango hypervisor, which will be rebranded, is between 20KB and 30KB in size; that tiny footprint has resulted in near-native performance. "Performance hasn't been affected. The benchmarks we've done, we've noticed 2 percent to 3 percent overhead for virtualization," Krishnamurti says.

Other hurdles will be solved in time to start shipping mobile phones and smartphones by late 2009 or early 2010, Krishnamurti says. VMware will charge mobile phone vendors for the MVP hypervisor.

Virtualizing Your Mobile Phone
It could be a lucrative business if, as analyst firm Gartner Inc. predicts, about half of mobile phones have hypervisors by 2012. There are a number of scenarios in which hypervisors make sense, starting with developers. Similar to the way virtualization emulates underlying hardware by allowing multiple operating systems to run on one computer, mobile phone hardware could also be virtualized. Developers could then develop one software stack on an operating system without being concerned about porting applications to the various mobile phones on the market.

"Your phone is becoming a combination of your PC and wallet all rolled into one. This could become the most important device a consumer can own."
Srinivas Krishnamurti, Director of Product Management and Market Development, VMware Inc.

MVP will play a key role in VMware's new vClient initiative, as announced by CEO Paul Maritz at the VMworld conference last September. Central to the vClient vision is the idea that each user has a "persona" -- a set of applications and data that define that user's usage. That persona should be able to follow the user wherever they work and not be tied to a particular endpoint device like a desktop or laptop.

MVP would allow, for example, a user's work profile and personal profile to each have a virtual machine (VM) on a single phone, thus eliminating the need for separate phones for business and personal use. Additionally, upgrading to new phones would be as simple as moving the VM containing the persona from the old phone to the new one. That kind of complexity will require management products in much the same way that VM proliferation today pushes the need for similar management. But for the moment, VMware seems content to focus on the MVP hypervisor.

Right now, VMware only has a few competitors in the mobile hypervisor space, and Krishnamurti is correct when he says, "mobile virtualization is very much in its infancy."

Current competitors include VirtualLogix Inc. and Open Kernel Labs Inc., but that number is sure to swell. If the field is as potentially lucrative as VMware believes, expect serious contenders to start lining up -- similar to what's happened in data center and desktop-based virtualization. "[Mobile] processors are getting more and more powerful, phones are getting more and more memory. If there's value that virtualization is bringing to the table, people will start optimizing for it," Krishnamurti says.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.

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