Can VMware Put a Virtual Machine On Your iPhone?

Steve Herrod wants to put a virtual machine on your phone. Even if your phone is an iPhone.

Herrod is the chief technology officer at VMware, a company famous for virtual machines - machines that exist only as software. VMware made its name in the data center, helping big businesses save both money and space by slotting myriad virtual servers onto a single physical server. But Herrod and company are intent on expanding their reach well beyond the data center, and this includes tools not only for desktops and laptops, but tablets and smartphones.

Their latest creation is a tool called Horizon Mobile, and it too is meant for big businesses. The idea is that employees can use a phone's native operating system for personal tasks, but then switch over to a virtual machine that runs a separate OS for business tasks.

"I have my life on my phone and I'm doing all my fun stuff, but then there's a bubble - a zone of protection - that my company owns," Herrod says. "When I'm in that bubble, I can only go to a corporate app store and all data is encrypted and all data transfers happen over a [virtual private network]." And when an employee departs, he adds, the company can remove business data and apps from a phone simply by zapping the virtual machine.

Due to reach the market later this year, Horizon Mobile is an effort to harness the so-called "BYOD" phenomenon. That's short for "bring your own device," and it refers to the many iPhones, iPads, and Android devices that employees are bringing into businesses without the explicit approval of their IT managers. VMware is just one of many outfits offering tools that help corporate IT departments get their own software onto these devices - and keep control of that software. But VMware's approach is unique - and rather bold.

Legendary Silicon Valley inventor Steve Perlman and his latest entrepreneurial venture, OnLive, are streaming Microsoft's Office apps onto iPads and Android tablets over the public internet. With its Citrix Receiver tool, VMware-rival Citrix lets businesses stream various applications onto mobile devices from corporate servers. And a startup called Enterpoid is offering a tool that divides a phone into separate business and personal "personas," an echo of Horizon Mobile. But VMware is the only one going so far as to put virtual machines on smartphones.

Getting a virtual machine onto a smartphone isn't easy. A phone has limited processing power, memory, and battery life, but that's not the half of it. Because a true virtual machine requires access to the guts of a phone, you can't install it on handsets without the help of phone makers and carriers. And even Steve Herrod admits that when the phone maker is Apple, your task is all the harder. "You can imagine, say, Apple not wanting to let Android onto the iPhone," he says, with a bit of a smile.

But at the same time, he believes VMware will find a way. Businesses, he says, need a secure way of managing software on Android devices and, yes, iPhones, and a virtual machine provides that. Two wireless carriers have already said they will offer Android phones equipped for Horizon Mobile. And Herrod argues that eventually, even Apple will embrace the tool - or at least something like it.

Beyond Virtual

To understand Horizon Mobile, you must understand VMware. The company grew out of a virtualization research group at Stanford University - a group that included Steve Herrod - and though it began by offering virtual machines on desktop workstations, running, say, Microsoft Windows on a Linux machine, its big success was virtual servers.

According to research outfit IDC, virtual servers now run close to sixty-five percent of all server tasks on earth, and a majority of these virtual servers are underpinned by software from VMware. Some estimates put the company's market share as high as 80 percent. VMware's "hypervisor" is running so many of the world's server taks, the company must look for ways of making money in new markets - though Herrod puts it a little differently.

"Now that we've crossed the majority point in [server virtualization]," he says, "we have an opportunity to do all these other things."

VMware now offers a wide range of developer tools for building software that runs atop its virtual servers, including the SpringSource Java framework it acquired in 2009 and the sweeping Cloud Foundry platform it built with an all-star team of engineers. But the company is equally intent on helping businesses oversee the software and services running on employee machines.

It offers various desktop virtualization tools as well an open source email platform known as Zimbra, and last spring, it launched a tool that lets businesses manage all of their various employee applications - whether they run on local machines or in the proverbial cloud.

This is the Horizon Application Manager, and Horizon Mobile is extension of this platform. "Horizon will become a universe broker for applications and data inside businesses," Herrod says. "Today, Horizon brokers services delivered to the desktop. It will soon handle containers on mobile phones. And you can imagine it handling various other platforms."

Horizon Mobile relies on VMware's good ol' virtualization technology, but at the same time, it's another way for the company to extend its reach beyond virtual machines.

VMware is already using Horizon Mobile with its own employees. U.S. carrier Verizon is slated to offer Android phones that work with the tool. And just last week, Spanish carrier Telefonica said that it will join the party too.

‘A Complete and Utter Waste of Time'

But there are hurdles. Many hurdles. James Bottomley - the chief technology officer at Parallels, a company that specializes in virtualization software for Apple's Mac OS - won't comment on VMware's strategy in particular, but he will say that getting a viable virtual machine onto a phone isn't easy.

"It is quite a technical challenge," he says. "Hypervisors are very resource hungry, because they do boot up two operating systems and you have to emulate the hardware, and since phone mobile platform are so resource constrained, you're faced with a juggling act just to bring up the hypervisor."

Beyond the technical challenges, there are political challenges - including the Apple issue. On mobile phones, says Chris Fleck, vice president of mobility solutions at Citrix, his company prefers to bridge the work-play divide with something like Citrix Receiver, which doesn't involve putting a virtual machine on the mobile device itself. "Apple is the driver behind this whole BYOD thing, and they're not going to enable [virtualization] anytime soon," he says.

"If you rely a virtualization tool, you won't have a solution for Apple, and if don't have a solution for Apple, you lose too big of an opportunity."

The ever outspoken Simon Crosby - the man who founded the XenSource project, an open source alternative to VMware's virtual servers, and now runs the stealth virtualization company Bromium - goes further. "This whole thing is a complete and utter waste of time," he says.

"Enterprise just got away from having to use their own version of Microsoft Windows. Do you think they're going to go back to that with Android and any other OS? Moreover, end users hate virtualization. Do you really think they want to go between my corporate OS and my personal OS? They just want one."

Apple of Their Eye

Crosby's words are no surprise to Herrod. He expects nothing less for VMware's old rival.

According to Herrod, VMware has already solved many of the technical challenges - at least on Android - and he says the cause will only be helped when chip designer ARM adds virtualization-specific instructions to the processors that run most of today's smartphones. According to Simon Crosby, this is will likely happen by the end of the year - though he questions how much it will help VMware.

Herrod also hopes to grease the logistical wheels by getting the company's virtualization tool into the core code for Google's Android operating system. That way, all official Android partners will get the tool automatically. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Herrod says the company has indicated it's amenable to such a setup.

He also says that VMware is already in discussions with Apple. Apple didn't respond to our request for comment either, but Herrod points out that the Apple once turned a cold shoulder toward VMware Fusion, the desktop virtualization tool that's now right at home on the Mac.

"Whether it's this exact thing we're doing with Android or some other approach," Herrod says, "we do think [Apple] will want to collaborate on helping put a more manageable corporate experience in the iPhone."

In other words, VMware may bridge the work-play divide on the iPhone using something other than a virtual machine. That wouldn't be much of surprise - for Apple or for VMware. Nowadays, VMware is about more than virtual machines.

Photo: JD Hancock/Flickr


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