Is Apple ruining everything for mobile virtualization? Or are they saving us from it?

We're on the cusp of having several different virtualized mobile phone offerings on the market from VMware, Cellrox, and Open Kernel Labs. While these solutions have each have their own strengths and weakness, they all face one huge challenge.


We’re on the cusp of having several different virtualized mobile phone offerings on the market from VMware, Cellrox, and Open Kernel Labs. While these solutions have each have their own strengths and weakness, they all face one huge challenge: there’s very little chance that Apple will ever allow iOS devices to be virtualized, which means that all these products will only work with Android phones. So is it Apple’s fault for spoiling the the mobile virtualization party for everybody? Or is Apple saving us from it?

Mobile virtualization and its alternative, dual-persona mobile app management, both have the same goal: to safely insulate and control the interaction between corporate and personal apps and data on mobile devices.

How virtualization achieves separation

Mobile virtualization products achieve this by having completely separate user environments for work and personal apps. The techniques range from full type-1 hypervisors to type-2 hypervisors and virtual profiles. You might be thinking, “There’s no way a phone would ever have enough power to do this!” But there are a few reasons why mobile virtualization isn’t quite as resource-heavy as it might seem. First, the obvious one: Android phones are becoming more powerful. While virtualization was a stretch a few years ago, there’s just more horsepower to spare now. Second, despite running multiple OSes or profiles, the multitasking scheme is usually the same as with an ordinary phone—there’s still only one foreground app running at any time, so the device doesn’t actually have to do that much more work. Third, all of these products utilize guests VMs that are the same OS as the host, and in the case of “lighter” solutions, much of the OS is shared between the virtual environments anyway.

It’s easy for IT to manage apps and settings, because they can have full control over the corporate environment, just like a regular corporate device with mobile device management software. And while a locked-down environment might be unacceptable for personal devices, it’s okay here, because the user’s personal environment can remain completely unmanaged, if desired. IT can keep the list of approved apps as restricted as needed. These work apps are free to do their thing in the secure corporate environment without any app wrapping or other modifications, because all the dangerous user-installed apps are in the personal environment, and any communication between the two can be controlled as well.

Sounds great, right? We know that we have to deal with this being Android only, but there are some other issues, as well.

First, you can’t just install a guest VM on any random phone—all of these solutions require devices with highly-customized versions of Android. Since most users wouldn’t like the idea of IT replacing their whole OS—even if it did contain a personal environment that IT couldn’t touch—mobile virtualization solutions depend on cooperation from the device manufacturers themselves. The idea here is that phones will ship with the virtualizable version of Android already in place, and then IT can use special APIs in the OS to provision and manage the corporate virtual environments. (In this respect, mobile virtualization solutions are much like other OEM-specific MDM APIs, such as Samsung SAFE and 3LM. OEMs release devices with the APIs, then MDM providers create the management products that can interface with them.)

Alternatively, users could buy the device on their own and then create a work VM to surrender to IT to manage with traditional MDM, instead of giving up the whole device. (That should be one of our FUIT posts: “Don’t want your company to manage your personal device? Give them a VM, instead!”)

Second, since mobile virtualization will be dependant on certain compatible devices from specific OEMs, the overall choice of devices will be very limited. That hot new Galaxy S III in your hands? Yeah, that won’t work when your company decides to adopt one of these products. Instead, we’ll have to wait for the mobile virtualization vendors to create partnerships with the OEMs. All this does not bode well in a world where users are accustomed to using any device they want. There is one area will this will be okay, though: corporate-issued devices. In high-security or compliance-bound industries, a device that contains a freewheeling personal environment that IT doesn’t manage is certainly an attractive alternative to a Blackberry or a completely MDM locked-down Android or iPhone.

Third, there are still a few issues with IT having full control over the work environment. For example, if one app needs to have a very high level of security, then unless they’re doing some management at the app level, then the entire environment will have to live under that high level of security. So that 16-character password that protects sensitive financial data? You have to put that in when you want to do a quick glance at your inbox, too. Cellrox in particular can address this issue by setting up multiple linked work personas, with different levels of security.

Finally, we’re just barely seeing this stuff come to market. VMware has been working on Horizon Mobile for four years, and it’s just now about to have its first limited release, but not in the US. Cellrox is coming soon, I’m told, and Open Kernel Labs seems to still be a ways away from its dual persona product.

The dual-persona MAM approach

I’ve written quite a bit about the concept of managed and interconnected corporate apps on unmanaged devices, so if you’re not familiar with the concept, check out the article Defining dual persona MAM: Corporate and personal stuff side-by-side on the same device for some background information.

The main advantage here is that MAM works on any device, including all the phones your have in their pockets right now. All the security features are on the app level, which means that corporate data can be safe on completely unmanaged devices (This is just one extreme, of course. There’s a whole MAM to MDM spectrum between this and locked-down managed devices.)

Another big thing that MAM has going for it is its prevalence. There are dozens of companies that offer some form of app management, and a growing handful that provide all (or almost all) of the components of a complete dual-persona MAM environment. Most important is that all this is shipping today, while we’re still waiting for any mobile virtualization availability to even be announced in the US, let alone ship.

But dual-persona mobile app management has its own big catch, too: you can’t let just any random app be part of your system. Generally, there are four sources for apps:


  • Apps from the MDM provider itself: These will often be email clients, secure browsers, and file syncing apps.
  • App wrapping: This allows MAM systems to incorporate apps from third-party vendors. The problem is that you have to get these through a special arrangement with the vendor and sign them yourself. App wrapping doesn’t work with apps users download from public app stores.
  • MAM SDKs: These allow all the management hooks for an MAM system to be incorporated in homegrown corporate apps.
  • Select public apps. Some commercial developers may partner with an MAM provider to make their publicly-available apps compatible with corporate MAM.


What about Apple?

Even after years of hipsters and bloggers saying that Apple has sold out and jumped the shark after every new product release, Apple continues to have very tight control over its products. This means as much as anybody might hope, mobile phone virtualization vendors still little chance of ever touching iOS, and mobile virtualization will remain Android-only. 

The vendors excuse this by saying that we don’t need virtualization for Apple because it’s more secure. But even with iOS, you still have to find a way to keep corporate and personal apps and data separate, and for right now, MAM seems to be the only way to do it. But what about Android being less secure? There are a lot of phones with older versions of Android that have fewer security features floating around, but this is more of a concern if you’re trying to manage the whole device using MDM, and less of a concern with MAM. To varying degrees, MAM vendors argue that managed apps can be “self defending.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you have an old, insecure version of Android, because you can build most of the features you need right into your app, instead.

Is there a place for both?

Let’s recap the arguments: mobile virtualization doesn’t require any special apps, but you’ll be limited to just a few Android devices, and on the other hand, dual-persona MAM is open to all devices, but not all apps.

Ultimately, there’s probably a place for both solutions. Personally, I’m a bit torn. The gadget geek in me thinks the idea of a virtualized phone is cool, but I’d be hesitant to give IT control over the whole device, even if they can’t touch the personal side. For MAM, I like the idea that any phone can be completely unmanaged yet still access a rich world of corporate apps and data, but I also acknowledge that getting apps into the system in the first place could be difficult.

Which scheme would you prefer for your own device? How about for your users? And do you think Apple is ruining mobile virtualization for us, or saving us from it?




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