The virtualization of computers has been going on for years in the enterprise to save on hardware and software costs, decrease power consumption, and generally improve efficiency. Commercial virtualization software is widely available. Now you can virtualize a handset, as Open Kernel Labs has announced software that brings the benefits of virtualization to cell phones.

Virtualization takes a computer and uses software to make it look and act like two or more “virtual” computers. Most CPUs are generally underutilized, meaning they have excess computing capacity. Virtualization software partitions the computer so each virtual machine can run a different operating system (OS) or application program. Most virtualization is associated with servers and PCs.

Server virtualization, for example, lets one high-power server act as two or more servers, reducing cost, space, and power consumption. Desktop virtualization saves OS and applications software costs. Network virtualization partitions bandwidth. And, storage virtualization divides storage capacity into segments or pools it into one. Now this concept is coming to the embedded CPU in a cell phone.

The 2009 Mobile Access to Enterprise Applications Research Report indicated that corporate end users and IT professionals believe mobile access to enterprise applications growth will outpace the growth of mobile e-mail over the next two years. IT departments usually control such access via a virtual environment on employee laptops. Yet corporate users are expecting this access to be available on their handsets. OK Labs is making that happen.

The OKL4 microvisor software sits between the processor and the OS and applications, providing virtualization as needed for the device and company. Known as the Secure HyperCell, the microvisor divides the memory into protected areas with enforced address space isolation. It then provides scheduling, isolation, and communications services between OSs and applications as desired. OKL4 works with any OS like Android, Linux, Symbian, or Windows as well as with multiple OSs.

Motorola’s Evoke, a slider-type touchscreen phone, has been virtualized (see the figure). OKL4 made it possible to eliminate one processor, allowing a single powerful ARM926ejs to do the work of two. Both Linux OS and a real-time OS (RTOS) are partitioned to work with the related applications. The result is smart-phone capability at a feature-phone price. The design provides the desired “openness” but with security and reliability.

OK Labs is working with Citrix, an enterprise virtualization software company, to bring about Mobile to Enterprise (M2E) virtualization on handsets. Their goal is to broadcast enterprise application content, Web or Windows, to mobile handsets. And, users will be able to use their own handset, or they can bring your own device. This way, enterprise employees have open access to personal applications along with secure controlled access to enterprise applications.

The HyperCell sets up isolated virtual machines, one for a personal world and another for a corporate world. There are separate regions of trust within isolated memory-protected domains of the device. The Citrix Receiver software client makes it possible to access virtual desktops and applications on the cell phone. OKL4 provides the two core tenets of virtualization, which center around security: the isolation and concurrency of multiple users on one device.

Open Kernel Labs