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Virtualizing the Embedded World: Vista Over Linux in a Cell Phone?

Motivation for Running a Hypervisor on Embedded Systems

June 9, 2008

While you probably won't run Vista as a virtual machine on your cell phone, there are many viable use cases of virtualization for embedded applications. The most simplest, cheapest, feature rich is using Linux and KVM.

Servers and desktops are not alone, virtualization is also a perfect fit for embedded devices too.

Virtualization benefits are well understood for the traditional server consolidation purposes. Hypervisors, aka virtual machine monitors (VMM) are common in almost every data center, saving equipment, power and management costs. Embedded applications, ranging from terabit routers, hardware appliances, media-rich set-top boxes to cellular phones and media players can all benefit from virtualization.

At a glance it may looks like an over kill to run virtual machines on embedded systems (see Figure 1). Embedded systems might be resource limited, having limited memory/CPU/latency/scheduling. They are also often tailor-made to match specific hardware/software combinations. Deeper insight reveals many advantages of virtualization for embedded:

  • Consolidation--Expensive custom-made hardware increase the motivation to consolidate several physical devices into a single one. Consolidation also helps to reduce complexity for distributed environments--All the virtual machines live on the same physical server, there are no risks of network partitioning, hardware failures are atomic and a common high availability (HA) solution deal with them while collapsing many scenarios.
  • Security--Breaking into the cellular phone management/java stack won't jeopardize the communication stack and the main cell if each of them is run in a different virtual machine (VM). The VM environment is a big sand box for untrusted code.
  • Reliability--Isolate privileged code and prevent/reduce entire device failures
  • Management and rapid development--Even if running RTOS for managing the hardware, there is no need to settle for its limited management capabilities. A management VM running Windows can run the user interface, making both users and developers life easier.
  • Hardware virtualization--VMM is an exact fit for hardware virtualization, dynamically divide and unit physical resources along with their virtual controller. Large, distributes embedded machines such as routers can be split and unite along with the router engine machine, executed as a VM.
  • Efficiency--In the multi-core era many physical cores are under-utilized, some not even initialized since the embedded software was uni-processor
  • New exciting features--Sophisticated features like snapshots, live migration, external hibernation can enhance embedded products that tend to demand high availability, upgradability (even remote kernel upgrades), etc
  • Law--Unlinkage of the GPL code from proprietary code can be easily obtained using virtualization

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