What’s the story with Open Kernel Labs and their dual persona virtualized phone solution?

Open Kernel Labs has been around for several years doing virtualization for smartphones, but they've mostly been working with OEMs in ways that IT and end users never would have noticed.

Open Kernel Labs has been around for several years doing virtualization for smartphones, but they’ve mostly been working with OEMs in ways that IT and end users never would have noticed. But now, just like VMware and Cellrox, they’re now hoping to use mobile virtualization to create the ultimate dual-persona devices. 

First, let’s take a look at the background of Open Kernel Labs (OK Labs). About a month ago, they were acquired by General Dynamics. General Dynamics is known for everything from submarines to fighter jets to government-ready IT equipment, but recently they’ve been looking towards the enterprise space with General Dynamics Broadband. OK Labs itself was founded in 2006, with roots in earlier projects at Australian organization NICTA. Their main product is the OKL4 Microvisor, a mobile hypervisor that supports Android, Symbian, Linux, and Windows Mobile. Their technology has also been incorporated in some Qualcomm chips.

OK Labs says their technology is in 1.6 billion devices worldwide, but if you're wondering what these devices are (and why we haven’t been using dual persona phones for years if that’s the case) you’re not alone. Chances are, though, that you’ve already used at least one (or maybe a few) devices with their technology. Up to this point, OKL4 has mostly been used at lower levels on devices, making it easier for OEMs to port software between different hardware designs, or for specialized cases like in-car embedded systems and government-spec secure phones. The first fully virtualized phone using OKL4 was the Motorola Evoke, and there have been a ton of other Symbian, Linux, and Android phones since then. Again, this was nothing that was ever exposed to users or IT; instead it was more of a tool for OEMs to use in the design of their phones.

All this is pretty interesting from a geek perspective, but where does the dual persona part come in? You might remember that Citrix invested in OK Labs in 2009, right around the time VMware first announced Horizon Mobile. At that time before MDM and MAM, we only had a small inkling of what the dual-persona smartphone world would be like today. Back then, we had other ideas about smartphones—remember the Motorola Atrix and the Nirvana phone? OKL4 was involved in that, but in a “we’re using it to do some complicated things on the hardware” way, not in the way we think of virtualization for dual persona devices today. We may get there soon, though, as promised by VMware, Cellrox, and now OK Labs.

The product

At the heart of it all is OKL4, a type 1 hypervisor that runs full virtual machines, which can even be completely different operating systems. For comparison, VMware Horizon Mobile resembles a type 2 hypervisor, and Cellrox uses virtual profiles with a shared kernel. This different approach can allow OK Labs to claim the best security; though both VMware and Cellrox also claim that security is pretty tight. To add to security credentials, OK Labs—especially now as a part of General Dynamics—already has experience making products for the Department of Defense.

It was hard to get too many specific answers about how their dual-persona devices will actually implemented, because their go-to-market will be primarily through carrier or OEM partners. OK Labs announced a partnership with MDM provider Fixmo earlier this year, and Samsung and LG were mentioned as partners for dual persona devices, too. Like any of the other mobile virtualization solutions, IT can potentially run any mobile device management or mobile app management software they want inside of the VM, but over all we’ll have to wait for future product announcements to see how options for inter-VM communication, composing and deploying VMs, and environment switching will actually be implemented.

What does this all mean?

Right now we’re still a ways away from knowing about any actual products, so the comments we can make about Open Kernel’s dual persona mobile virtualization solution are pretty much the same as the comments we made about VMware Horizon Mobile and Cellrox: it’s probably going to be a niche product. When it comes down to virtualization versus the rest of the mobile management industry, the basic arguments go like this:

  • It’s nice that you don’t have to modify apps using app wrapping or SDKs in order to manage them—you can instead just manage the whole corporate VM, leaving the private VM alone.
  • On the other hand, since Apple won’t allow iOS to be virtualized, to make dual persona devices we have to figure out how to do mobile app management no matter what. If we can figure it out for one platform iOS, why not do the same thing for Android?
  • There are tons of companies already shipping mobile app management products for both iOS and Android while we’re still waiting for any mobile virtualization products to go GA.
  • Everybody has fears about performance, battery life, and limited hardware compatibility—we have vendor claims, but there’s still a lot of skepticism.
  • Just because it’s Android-only doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dead in the water or bad for BYOD—for users that happen to have a personal device that’s compatible, you’re all set; or it could be the ultimate corporate-issued device.

Open Kernel could have some extra pull with device OEMs because of the history of past integrations, and they do have their high-security pedigree. It’s also clear that VMware, CellRox, and OK Labs each have a different approach to dual persona mobile virtualization, each with advantages and disadvantages. For now, though, we just have to sit on our hands and wait and see what happens.

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