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Mobile virtualization is here, but limitations may hinder adoption

There's no question surrounding the viability of desktop virtualization, but that isn't the case with mobile virtualization. IT pros wonder whether the technology has a place in the enterprise.

Mobile virtualization has been one of the next big things in IT as far back as 2008. Yet virtualizing phones to separate work and personal profiles on one device hasn't caught on the way industry watchers expected.

That could be because three years ago, enterprises relied mostly on BlackBerry. Android and iPhone mobile devices were only in the early stages of adoption. But things have changed and now, employees use consumer devices for work and personal life.

The BYOD trend gives vendors hope that 2012 will be the year that IT pros embrace mobile virtualization.

"It is unreasonable to ask IT to individually manage those devices," said Hoofar Razavi, VMware Inc.'s director of product management for mobile. "The way to solve this problem is to separate IT from the device."

Several IT departments managing mobile devices said they would be open to mobile device virtualization, but haven't had a chance to practically test it yet.

"[Mobile] virtualization could be a solution as long as it doesn't slow down the experience," said Steven Hughes, clinical engineer for the Veterans Administration in Boston.

Vendors said mobile virtualization technology is ready for the enterprise.

Approaches to mobile virtualization
Mobile virtualization platform developers including Citrix Systems, Red Bend and VMware Inc. take similar -- if not slightly different -- approaches to virtualizing mobile phones.

All three companies offer a cloud-based interface with personal configurations, applications and data that users can switch back and forth from on a single device. The personal profile is stored locally on the phone and the enterprise profile (along with any other profiles) is stored virtually.

VMware's Project Horizon is based on its Mobile Virtualization Platform -- a Type II hypervisor that runs as a layer on top of an existing operating system.

VMware works with individual phone manufacturers to build its hypervisor onto their devices, focusing only on Android at this point. VMware and LG Electronics introduced a virtualized Android phone in December that is expected to ship sometime early this year.

Citrix and Red Bend are working with manufacturers as well. Both companies platforms are built upon a Type-I hypervisor or "bare metal" -- which means that virtualization is integrated into the hardware of the device. The advantage is optimization of the device drivers first and then the OS to offer multiple profile configurations.

Type-I hypervisors are also faster and have less latency than Type II. The difference for the end user is they won't feel any lag and the virtual environment will feel like a natural part of the device, said Roger Ordman, director of product marketing, for Red Bend's vLogix mobile virtualization platform.

Why not mobile virtualization?
Even if the technology is available, it doesn't mean the solution will be adopted. Just 9% of respondents to TechTarget's Global  IT Priorities Survey said mobile virtualization would be a priority in 2012.

Low interest in this technology is understandable, being that it is in its infancy. In addition, the solutions to virtualize mobile devices basically begin and end with Android devices.

Today, VMware's Horizon mobile platform is limited to LG and Samsung smartphones running Android on the Verizon and Telefonica networks. Red Bend's solution is also limited to Android devices (the company wouldn't otherwise discuss pending deals or sales) and Citrix's mobile virtualization strategy also has hardware limitations -- it's currently offered on the Droid4 and that's about it. That said, the Citrix Receiver app is available across all mobile OS platforms.

VMware, Red Bend and Citrix said they either don't have Apple support or are currently collaborating with Apple. Because Apple tightly controls both the software and hardware of the iPhone, it's likely to never have virtualization as envisioned by these companies, industry watchers said.

As long as Apple's iPhone isn't included in a mobile virtualization program, most IT professionals said they felt it would never see wide adoption.

The mobile virtualization use case
Part of the overall BYOD quandary is the problem of how to manage an array of devices that IT departments encounter. Mobile virtualization could give IT a simpler way to manage mobile devices together with virtual desktops. But the reality is it solves device management for only a small percentage of devices, so IT departments probably won't adopt it.

Jonathan Dale, director of product marketing for Fiberlink, a mobile device management provider in Blue Bell, Penn., said mobile virtualization solutions could be viable in the future -- or it could simply fall into a niche category.

"It's too early to tell" how mobile device virtualization will evolve, he said, because the product offerings haven't yet come to market and the use cases don't exist in abundance.

IT wants to implement a single solution for securing, accounting for and managing all of the smartphones and tablets in their enterprises. Many said they are happy with the solutions already available.

Let us know what you think about the story; email James Furbush or follow @slyoyster on Twitter.

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