Virtualization: A Dream within a Dream

CIOs have a tough problem to solve. It is typically their responsibility to maintain all of the applications within their network, safely and securely. This means CIOs have to say ‘no’ a lot. Lately, however, CIOs have been using a secret weapon that can help them reduce risks, bounce back from downtime and manage several times more computer resources at once. In essence, they are able to say ‘yes’ much more frequently. This is a dream state for both businesses and consumers and it is enabled by a technology known as virtualization.

Virtualization decouples the operating system from the underlying machine, allowing you to spin-up any operating system on demand. This makes competing operating systems more accessible than ever. This capability fueled the growth of infrastructure as a service which revolutionized IT resource management. This really is the foundation of cloud computing, which marked the beginning of the end for some software compatibility issues since many productivity applications that used to be [enter favorite OS here]-based are now appearing free, online and delivered through the browser. Further, the ability to spin-up Windows from Mac made it easier for a consumer to decide to purchase a Mac without giving up desktop software that needed to run on Windows. Consumers were liberated from vendor lock-in and had more choices. Virtualization was therefore a big win for consumers but has made it much more competitive for desktop operating systems that can no longer monopolize your overall experience.

With the relevance of the desktop OS eroding, many platform strategies started looking to the cloud and mobile to capture the shift in demand. The two forces combine to create a full spectrum of offerings beyond the benefits of a single device, which include specialized marketplaces, cloud storage, music synch, home entertainment device interop, lifestyle accessories etc… This is where virtualization becomes an intriguing wildcard.

Enter BlueStacks. BlueStacks uses an embedded virtualization approach that lets you run native Android applications within Windows. This capability merges two very large user groups and merges the benefits on both platforms. You can use BlueStacks on your Windows 7 computer to spare your mobile phone’s battery, save on mobile network data charges, or generally free yourself from device dependency. Maybe you want to configure your Android applications with a proper keyboard, like adding routes to a transit tracker or typing a shopping list into Springpad to synch to your mobile device. Maybe you need the Google Authenticator app to login to Google Docs on your laptop and you don’t have your mobile device handy. Or maybe your phone’s battery is dead. As the platform arms race heats up, this dual approach is compelling. Why lock into one platform when you can consolidate two?

Windows 7 desktop view. My selected Android applications loaded into BlueStacks.


 

Windows 7 desktop view. BlueStacks running the Android Chicago Transit Tracker


 

Going forward, the next logical step would be enabling the mobile device itself to swap between platforms. The iDroid project has demonstrated it can run Android on a jailbroken iPhone – in dual boot mode. Microsoft’s approach in their ambitious Windows 8 vision is more usable by switching between desktop and tablet mode, albeit both running proprietary instances of windows. Imagine that you would no longer need a specific device to get access to a specific application. You could port your own user experience with any device you have adapted to any interface you encounter. You just switch between virtual machine instances (VMs) on your device as needed. Imagine never having to configure an application again – the VM will have restricted OS access so you can pre-load all the settings required. Even still, you may ask why someone would really need to dynamically switch platforms (switching two instances of Android or switching Android with iOS). It’s not so much that you, the consumer, really needs it as much as you, the corporate citizen does.

Consider this – you work for a small company that is paranoid about security and won’t allow iPads because malware was once introduced to the internal network from being used by carefree kids at home. With virtualization on mobile devices, you can now purchase almost any device you want, but while at work, you get a pre-loaded virtualized, secured instance that allows IT to manage the safety of the devices on their network. Further, the VM can be preloaded with all of the productivity tools you are standardized on (e.g. Exchange email/contacts, Dropbox, Yammer, Salesforce etc…). Your iPad can now be used safely at home by the kids as designed, but your work assets are encrypted and physically inaccessible. This is exactly the type of abstraction that can help thwart network intrusions, whether introduced from downloads or usb-connected devices.

iDroid project’s dual boot screen on a jail broken iPhone 3G

Legal issues will likely prevent virtualization from becoming ubiquitous across mobile devices in these early days. After all, Mac OS X is not legally permitted to run inside of a virtualized instance on non-Mac computers (although you can run Windows from a Mac if you have a Windows license). As our mobile lifestyles evolve, the context of our problems will change. Within a single household, consumers will want platform independence and a consolidated way to manage all of their devices much like the CIOs of an enterprise today. So while some applications of virtualization may not be endorsed, virtualization is proven and is mostly limited by licensing with proprietary platforms.

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