No, Apple hasn’t made any announcements about virtualization for the iPhone, but all this reporting about VMware ESX Lite jogged my memory of a conversation I had recently with XenSource CTO and founder Simon Crosby. While talking about Xen 3.1, Simon mentioned that since Xen is an open-source project, some developers in the consumer electronics space have adopted it as the basis of an embedded hypervisor for your cell phone or MP3 player.
Yes, even down on a mobile device, virtualization has a role to play. For security reasons, Crosby explained, electronic device manufacturers typically use multiple chips to perform different functions — one processor to run the real-time operating system, another for graphics, a third for sound, and so on. And just like in contemporary servers, all those chips are wildly underutilized. Enter virtualization. By running an embedded hypervisor on a single CPU, every process can run logically isolated from one another, while allowing the manufacturer to cut down on the number of chips in the device.
“I call it PDA consolidation,” Crosby joked.
The benefits of integrating virtualization in to consumer electronics are similar to the benefits IT managers derive from server virtualization: better utilization of hardware equals less hardware. In consumer devices, that translates in to smaller, lighter devices with better battery life and that cost less to manufacture, and therefore, that cost less for consumers to buy. Cool.
This got me curious about who is actually doing this. A simple Google search gave me a couple of leads. Last year, LinuxDevices.com reported on a company called Sombrio Sytems developing a “Xen Loadable Module” (XLM) but the company appears to have gone by the wayside. However, Trango Virtual Processors, based in Grenoble, France, seems to be actively involved in embedded virtualization. According to their web site, just this week, the company announced a version of its TRANGO Hypervisor for the latest generation of ARM processors. With TRANGO, ARM processors gain the ability to run up to 256 virtual processes, executing a “rich operating system (such as Linux or Windows CE), a real-time operating system (RTOS), or a standalone driver or application.” I have no idea how far along they are on this process, or when virtualization-enhanced mobile devices might hit the market, but it certainly sounds promising.