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With acquisition, VMware brings virtualization to mobile phones

The recent acquisition of Trango Virtual Devices brings a bare-metal hypervisor into the VMware fold that virtualizes an ARM processor. But VMware isn't the only virtualization provider now focused on mobile devices.

If you think VMware Inc. is all about x86 virtualization, think again. Today, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company...

announced plans to ship a bare-metal hypervisor for the ARM processors that power mobile devices such as the Apple iPhone and RIM BlackBerry. Called the VMware Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP), the new hypervisor is based on technology developed by Trango Virtual Processors, a French startup that VMware acquired last month for an unspecified sum.

For more on virtualization and mobile devices:
Windows on iPhone: Citrix pledges to make it reality

VMware's foray into the mobile device market is not without competition, however: The open source community has worked on porting Xen to the ARM platform, while the OKL4 embedded virtualization platform from Chicago Il.-based Open Kernel Labs already ships in mobile devices from Nokia, LG and HTC. Also, in an effort to heed customer demand, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Citrix Systems Inc. recently announced plans to make Windows applications accessible on an iPhone . Now VMware, the leading virtualization provider in the server domain, will try its hand in the mobile device arena.

"Our roots are with x86 desktops and servers, but we've been thinking that mobile phones will be the next frontier for us," said Srinivas Krishnamurti, VMware's director of product management and market development. And while the market is "very much in its infancy," Krishnamurti cited a prediction from Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. that 50% of smart phones will ship with a virtualization layer by 2012.

Hardware, data independence
The benefits of virtualization on a mobile device are similar to those on a general-purpose computer: security, isolation, consolidation, portability and power efficiency. For instance, today, mobile devices run processes on multiple processors to isolate them from one another. But with a virtualization layer in place, those processes could run on the same physical processor, but enjoy logical isolation. This would help reduce the cost and footprint of mobile devices and help improve battery life.

Our roots are with x86 desktops and servers, but we've been thinking that mobile phones will be the next frontier for us.
Srinivas Krishnamurti,
director of product management and market developmentVMware Inc.

A virtualization layer would also help device manufacturers get their products to market faster, Krishnamurti said.

"Manufacturers tell us that it's expensive for them [to develop a new phone] in terms of development costs because they all use different chipsets, and they can't re-use any of the stuff they already have. With every new phone, it's almost like starting all over again," he said.

But with virtualization, "you don't worry about the underlying hardware, you just create your software stack and it runs on any phone," Krishnamurti said.

The new ARM hypervisor may also help end users achieve a new level of device independence, for instance, run multiple phone "personas" on a single device (one for work; one for personal use); and simplify the process of upgrading or replacing a device. "Our vision, in general, is that applications and data should not be tied to a particular device," he said.

Potential customers for MVP are a small handful of embedded device manufacturers, some of which have already begun proofs of concept, Krishnamurti said, and could result in phones based on VMware's technology in nine to 12 months.

Challenges ahead
Still, VMware may have a lot more work to do in developing MVP than it encountered with the ESX hypervisor. Unlike Intel and AMD, which own the intellectual property as well as manufacture their chips, the British ARM holdings PLC licenses its design to numerous chip manufacturers, which then add value to the design with their own enhancements. MVP is currently certified for ARM processors from Freescale, Marvell, Texas Instruments and Atmel Corp.

It's also unclear whether and how MVP will address the question of helping users access information on their Windows PCs from mobile phones.On the other hand, Citrix's remote desktop client for the Apple iPhone will enable users to access their Windows desktops and should be available in early 2009.

MVP, conversely, has no direct answer to supporting traditional Windows operating systems. It will, however, support the embedded Windows CE, Linux, Symbian OS, and eventually, Google Android.

Clearly, though, the introduction of the MVP platform creates a lot of possibilities for VMware. On the x86 side, "it's amazing the number of different problems we've been able to solve with virtualization," Krishnamurti said. Likewise, MVP's real potential may lie somewhere completely novel and in "solving problems we haven't even thought of yet," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director. And check out our Server Virtualization blog.

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