Virtualization goes mobile

At CES, VMWare demonstrated what amounts to a virtual phone allowing a single smartphone to run a separate virtual phone that could be independently configured, monitored, and maintained.

I enjoy following the announcements that gush out of Las Vegas during the annual Consumer Electronics Show, hitting its stride as I write this. All manner of gadgets are announced with Vegas-style flair, ranging from the rather mundane (every third update this year seems to be another smartphone) to the massively expensive or esoteric. In the latter category, Victorinox, the makers of the ubiquitous Swiss Army Knife, have announced a high-speed flash drive embedded in a pocket knife, with the massive 1 Terrabyte version selling for a cool $3,000.

Nestled among the gadget news was an item from VMware that demonstrated what amounted to a virtual phone, allowing a single smartphone to run a separate virtual phone that could be independently configured, monitored, and maintained. Should this product come to fruition, rather than carefully planning and choreographing mobile device rollouts, you'd merely copy a file to an employee's smartphone of choice that would represent your corporate standard mobile device. Should the employee leave or lose their phone, you could send a signal to "self-destruct" the virtual phone, and all software and maintenance could be performed independent of the hardware.

Aside from being conceptually interesting and an obvious time and cost savings mechanism, it gets IT out of one more segment of the burdensome commodity business of hardware acquisition, deployment, and maintenance. Conceptually, this really isn't anything new. Most IT leaders have been exploiting or experimenting with the benefits of virtualization in the data center for several years. In the data center, virtualization separates the underlying hardware from the servers that run on it, allowing virtualized servers to be moved across hardware (and geographic boundaries) in a couple of mouse clicks. While the benefits are obvious, IT still has to devote resources to building and maintaining the boxes and wires.

Virtualization at the end-user level does a couple of interesting things. It strongly facilitates a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model while maintaining IT control over corporate software, security, and manageability concerns, and removes IT from hardware procurement. BYOD has faced understandable resistance from IT departments, since opening up networks to personal devices presents all manner of security risks. With a virtual phone, tablet, or workstation, users can choose hardware that matches their personal preferences and that can only interact with corporate services through the managed virtual device. In fact, it's not a huge stretch of the imagination to envision one of the fancy Swiss Army flash drives (or a duller equivalent, pun intended) that contains one's corporate desktop. An employee could plug it into a loaner workstation at the office, continue where he or she left off on their home computer, or email the entire virtual device to tech support should there be a problem.

VMware's CES announcement indicates the product is not yet production-ready, but a demonstration-ready product indicates we can't be far away from initial releases. Like most emerging technologies, I'd encourage IT leaders to spin this into a research project for a low-level employee who shows an interest in emerging and mobile technologies. Ask them to do some initial research and present their findings, and then keep you appraised on a regular basis. Passing the burdens of hardware maintenance to willing employees while preserving network security seems like a slam-dunk way to improve IT's image and to streamline the organization by dumping a commodity business-certainly outcomes worth paying attention to.