VMware highlighted its Mobile Virtualization Platform at VMworld 2011, but I left the show feeling like the technology is little more than a novelty.
The concept itself is a good one, but the lack of Apple iOS support, VMware’s reliance on Google’s fragmented hardware partners and concerns about battery life will all be major obstacles to widespread Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP) adoption.
Nowadays, more people are using their personal smartphones for work purposes — checking email, viewing documents, accessing corporate apps, etc. It’s convenient for users, but it creates security and management nightmares for IT departments.
With the Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP), your IT department can run a virtual machine (VM) on your smartphone, complete with another operating system — in effect, giving you a personal phone and a work phone on the same device. Inside the VM, IT admins can use VMware’s new Horizon line of application-management tools to authorize specific applications and corporate email accounts.
“The goal is to put a tighter bound around what users can and can’t do,” said Noah Wasmer, director of advanced development with VMware.
If something happens to your phone (or heaven forbid, you get fired), an IT admin can quickly wipe the VM, while keeping your personal information intact. The VM also ensures that your work data isn’t compromised if your personal smartphone is infected with malware.
The current state of MVP
Two years after VMware unveiled MVP at VMworld 2009, the company has begun testing the mobile hypervisor with some of its employees.
Currently, MVP is only compatible with Android devices. VMware is working on an Apple iOS implementation, but Apple is notorious for locking down its mobile operating system. So, if VMware wants to run MVP and Horizon Mobile Manager on iPhones, the company will need a different approach. Wasmer also said that there aren’t plans to support BlackBerry, but VMware would consider it if there’s enough interest.
The MVP hypervisor hooks into the base Android operating system through DLLs, which makes the smartphone aware of the hypervisor. Then, the virtual phone is installed on top of the hypervisor. Wasmer did not elaborate on MVP’s hardware requirements, but he said that VMware is working closely with LG, Samsung and other OEMs to support the platform on higher-end devices.
That said, Wasmer was running the hypervisor and virtual phone on the HTC Nexus One, which was released in January 2010. It sports a 1 GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM. Still, in my brief demo, the virtual phone’s performance was snappy, and the transitions between the home screens and applications were smooth.
To launch the VM, you press an icon on your personal phone’s home screen that takes you to another home screen with your IT-sanctioned applications and email account. To revert back to your personal phone and applications, you press an icon on the VM’s home screen.
Those icons are the only way you can switch between your personal and corporate apps. The notification bar displays only information on the operating system that you are currently using and the applications on that OS. IT can also prevent copying and pasting from one operating system to another.
Challenges for MVP
Battery life, as with all smartphones, is a concern. Wasmer didn’t provide specific data, but he said the hypervisor consumes a minimal amount of power and can get through a normal work day on a single charge. Obviously, power users that run multiple applications or use a 4G network may not be so lucky, so your mileage may vary.
Android’s fragmentation is also a big challenge. Google depends on carriers and phone manufacturers to test and deploy Android updates to users. As such, there’s usually a significant lag between when Google distributes an Android build and when users receive the new firmware. In some cases, users don’t receive updates at all.
This situation could be trouble for VMware, and it may be MVP’s Achilles heel. VMware has no control over Google’s build cycle or when OEMs and carriers push out updates, which could break MVP’s functionality. Wasmer said that VMware is working with OEMs and carriers to stay ahead of the curve to ensure new builds work with MVP.
If you’re a prospective MVP user, you better hope VMware works with your phone manufacturer and carrier. If you’re an IT admin, good luck trying to explain to end users why they can’t access their email anymore. Ultimately, MVP seems like a novel idea, but it doesn’t seem too practical in its current state.