Virtualization to supercharge new tablets, smartphones

Next-generation smartphones and tablets will run multiple operating systems and powerful cloud applications like high-definition gaming thanks to the growing use of virtualization on mobile devices, experts said this week.

A new generation of mobile devices containing faster processors could help applications run faster, while virtualization could help consolidate applications without wasting resources, said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at Linley Group, during the Linley Tech Processor conference in San Jose.

Virtualization has already been widely adopted in data centers, where the technology has helped consolidate servers and cut energy costs. The technology is now having an impact on handheld devices such as smartphones, helping run critical tasks in real-time and securing disparate software environments.

Users should be able to start enjoying the benefits of these powerful next-generation mobile devices later this year. LG Electronics, for example, has already announced the Optimus smartphone with a dual-core Arm processor running at 1GHz, which is also capable of playing 1080p video. The phone will ship in the fourth quarter. It's one example of more powerful mobile gadgets that could take advantage of virtualization.

Virtualization could also result in cheaper smartphones with longer battery life, said Steve Subar, CEO and Founder of Open Kernel Labs, which develops virtualization technology for embedded devices. Virtualization saves on the cost of chips inside a smartphone by requiring less RAM and Flash, for example.

But until now, smartphones were stymied by limited processing power, which allowed devices to run only a specific set of applications. But as mobile devices gain more processing power, virtualization will also enable users to load and run multiple operating systems and take advantage of powerful cloud computing applications on their mobile devices.

Smartphones and tablets are primarily a means of communication and receiving video, data and other Internet services from the cloud. A virtualized environment could be established for a specific cloud service, or for data exchange with a PC, said Les Forth, field applications engineer at Freescale Semiconductor.

For example, users will be able to establish a remote connection with home PCs to run applications or play back multimedia files in real time. Using a separate environment, virtualization could also help users play high-definition multiuser games in the cloud, Forth said.

Many applications are written in code that may not be compatible with a mobile device's operating system, which is why a virtualized environment needs to be established.

In fact, virtualization is already helping execute some real-time communication and network functions critical to smartphones. Virtualization is helping load multiple operating systems, and create separate environments to securely run software.

"You can have a real-time operating system running on one virtual partition to ensure you always get a real-time response to critical tasks and have Android running in another partition," Gwennap said.

But running too many operating systems and other advanced software could drain battery life.

An important aspect of virtualization is the hypervisor, which isolates operating systems and various software processes. Software-based hypervisors used on many smartphones could burn CPU cycles by spending a lot of time scanning through object code and enforcing virtualization protocols, which could squeeze battery life out of devices, Gwennap said.

Device makers may consider loading OSes and software over multiple cores until there are battery life improvements, Gwennap said.

Freescale's Forth agreed, saying that putting two operating systems on separate cores could minimize the effect of battery life on devices. Many smartphones and tablets today come with single-core Arm processors, on which an OS would need to be stripped down to the bare minimum to work alongside a fatter OS, like Android, without affecting battery life.

"In a sense it's the large classical machine problem, except it's now projected down to these very small machines," Forth said.

Hardware is already being improved to support virtualization technology in low-power devices. Mobile processors are being designed with extensions to implement virtualization technology, which could help reduce the number of CPU cycles. Arm earlier this month announced the Cortex-A15 MPCore chip design, which includes extensions to run virtualized operating systems.

But OKL's Subar pointed out that some smartphones already run multiple OSes on separate cores, which actually raises system costs and consumes battery capacity. Virtualization, on the other hand, cuts down on redundant hardware to save costs.

Moreover, with multicore mobile CPUs, virtualization performs load management, enabling wholesale shutdown of CPU cores, which could help reduce energy consumption, Subar said.

But peeking into the future, observers said that virtualization technology could change the way handheld devices are used in three to five years.

"We ultimately will be handling handheld computers with the [capability] of today's PCs," Forth said.

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