Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Virtualization using Smartphone Hypervisors

Gartner has released its 2009 hype cycle report for mobile device technologies. The hype cycle outlines 22 technologies at different stages of development and adoption cycle. A lot of hype has already been created around virtualization, cloud computing, Software-as-a-services etc. which now are well on their way for the mainstream adoption although with some hiccups.
The virtualization technology has also found a place for itself in the hype cycle for mobile device technologies. Gartner has included “Smart phone Hypervisors” as emerging technology in its first phase of a Hype Cycle called as "technology trigger" which is breakthrough of product launch or other event that generates significant press and interest.
Smartphone Hypervisors as a technology is a thin layer of virtualization software running on top of smartphone hardware which would essentially break dependencies between hardware and smartphone operating systems by virtually isolating the operating systems from the underlaying hardware architecture. So effectively, (OS+Apps) running on smartphone are not aware of the hardware on which they are running. As published in my earlier blogpost on mobile apps, there are virtually whole host of operating systems in the market, right from proprietary systems such as iphone, blackberry or Qualcomm or some are open system architecture based. 
Looking at current available hardware and OS solutions for smartphones, it is not difficult to realize that these hardware and Operating systems have strong dependencies on each other. The benefit arising out of this arrangement is that we get a stable and high performing product. This very stringent but successful means is well being utilized as strong business strategy by companies like Apple for delivering great products to market. We may have alternatives such as symbian or Microsoft mobile OS which run of different hardware platforms and produce mixed results. However, vendors still have a tough time in making them work for these platforms. Hypervisor technology is the first step towards making standardization across different operating systems and hardware platforms for smartphones. If there is a hypervisor layer which can standardise and simplify what is presented to software then compatibility becomes less of an issue.  Mobile OS software becomes a whole lot easier to write and new mobile phones can be released to market a lot quicker.  The need for extensive test and development is cut dramatically for both the handset manufacturer and the mobile OS manufacturers. The usual strategic benefits would be:
·         Break dependencies between OS and hardware there by introducing standardization in the industry.
·         Manage OS and application as single unit by encapsulating them into VMs there by providing strong fault and security isolation. This may solve the security challenges which will be faced by mobile operators as more and more intelligent devices will get added.
·         VMs are hardware-independent: they can be provisioned anywhere and faster thus improving time to market.
There are three main players in this market place at present Trango, VirtualLogix and OKLabs.  Interestingly of the three, only OKLabs actually has it’s hypervisor product in handsets that have actually been released to market. At this point VMWare has acquired Trango, and Ctrix has made investments and partnerships with Open Kernel Labs. Right now the Trango hypervisor supports an interesting (but very limited) range of real-time OSes, including: Windows CE 5.0 and 6.0, Linux 2.6.x, Symbian 9.x, eCos, µITRON NORTi and µC/OS-II. Next questions would be: How will smatphone hypervisor market take off from this point? What will be strategies for players like VMWare going forward…Will the player exploit new opportunities created by cloud computing technologies? Will Cisco, Microsoft, Google or even Amazon make a similar play? 
Will soon find out in the time to come..