VirtualizationWhat Is an Embedded Hypervisor?

What Is an Embedded Hypervisor?

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An embedded hypervisor is a software or hardware layer that facilitates the concurrent operation of multiple computing environments within a single System on a Chip (SoC). It grants system designers the ability to unify distinct operating systems (OSs) and applications, each carrying specific functionality.

For an embedded hypervisor to function effectively, it must fulfill three vital conditions for virtualization: equivalence, resource control, and efficiency.

In this article, we’ll delve into the notable role of embedded hypervisors. We’ll discuss how these solutions combine various OSs, enhance hardware efficiency, and bolster system security. From dynamic updates to vehicle diagnostics and industrial sensor management, we’ll examine their influence across diverse applications.

How does an embedded hypervisor work?

An embedded hypervisor commonly houses multiple virtual machines (VMs), each emulating a hardware environment where virtualized software operates. This emulation can replicate the actual underlying hardware, leading to seamless compatibility between embedded code running on the real machine and its virtual counterpart.

Once a VM establishes a virtual platform, the process of porting guest software to operate within this environment becomes essential. Fortunately, owing to the virtual platform’s independence from the native hardware, guest software originally tailored for such a virtual setting can be smoothly executed across a diverse range of hardware platforms the hypervisor supports.

What are the roles of embedded hypervisors?

Embedded hypervisors play a pivotal role in aiding product development teams to efficiently create, test, and certify new versions of safety-critical products. These hypervisors enable the reuse of tested, reliable software in virtual environments, leading to cost reduction, smaller device size, and improved power efficiency by minimizing the number of SoCs.

Additionally, they maintain fast boot-up and real-time performance while seamlessly integrating new features that align with specific OS, such as multimedia applications on Android.

The benefits of embedded hypervisors

The advantages of embedded hypervisors are multifaceted and include improved security, optimized resource usage, enhanced reliability, and increased system flexibility.

Enhanced security

Among the foremost advantages offered by embedded hypervisors is their capacity to establish a robust barrier between guest OS, software components, and functions within an embedded system. This segregation serves as a formidable defense against potential malware and security breaches, safeguarding the overall system from extensive damage and compromise.

Optimized resource usage

Embedded hypervisors play a pivotal role in maximizing the use of hardware resources within embedded systems. By abstracting the underlying hardware, these types of hypervisors facilitate the integration of legacy code, enable the simultaneous operation of multiple OSs, and effectively contain faults to prevent cascading effects across various system components.

Elevated reliability

Incorporating embedded hypervisors contributes to the reliability of embedded systems by creating secure, encapsulated subsystems as defined by developers. Such encapsulation ensures any compromised subsystem remains isolated and unable to disrupt other subsystems, thereby significantly mitigating the potential for system-wide failures.

Improved flexibility

Embedded hypervisors bolster both efficiency and security within embedded systems by partitioning system operations. This partitioning ensures glitches occurring in one section of the system remain confined and do not propagate to other segments, thus preserving the overall system’s stability and performance.

Support for multiple isolated VMs

A fundamental capability of embedded hypervisors lies in their support for multiple isolated VMs. This feature empowers system designers to consolidate disparate OSs and applications, each with distinct reliability, safety, and security demands, onto a single SoC. This consolidation not only streamlines system architecture but also enhances the synergy between diverse software components.

Embedded hypervisor features

Here are some of the versatile attributes — from security and reliability to hardware optimization and performance — that make embedded hypervisors an essential component in augmenting the functionality of embedded systems:

  • Enhanced VM security: By segmenting various functions, hypervisors significantly heighten security for each component. Moreover, some embedded hypervisors possess the capability to detect and counteract potential malware infiltrations across VMs and OSs, fortifying overall security.
  • System reliability: Embedded hypervisors establish a protective barrier to ensure non-time-critical parts of a system don’t impact the real-time functioning of vital components. This separation bolsters the system’s overall reliability, maintaining consistent operation across different functions.
  • Optimized hardware utilization: Utilizing embedded hypervisors can cut down on hardware expenses, size, weight, and power usage. By reducing the number of SoCs in the design, these hypervisors enhance system efficiency while conserving resources.
  • Rapid communication: Embedded hypervisors prioritize fast communication between different VMs, crucial for real-time systems requiring rapid response times. This ability promotes smooth interaction among various components within the system.
  • Native performance: Embedded hypervisors can closely replicate the speed, real-time responsiveness, predictability, and energy efficiency of the underlying hardware platform. This ensures the system maintains its top performance attributes.

Embedded hypervisor use cases

Embedded hypervisors provide numerous applications for different systems, such as supporting multiple OSs, facilitating dynamic updates, improving vehicle diagnostics, and optimizing industry sensor management.

Dynamic updates

IT can use embedded hypervisors to seamlessly integrate dynamic updates, enhancing system efficiency. The hypervisor facilitates targeted deployment of updates to individual VMs without causing disruptions to the entire system. As a result, the system remains up-to-date with the latest software enhancements and bug fixes, maintaining uninterrupted operation.

Vehicle diagnostics

Embedded hypervisors have practical applications in vehicle diagnostics, facilitating issue identification and resolution. Operating diagnostic software within a separate VM, the hypervisor isolates and analyzes the vehicle’s systems without interfering with normal operation. This streamlined troubleshooting leads to enhanced vehicle performance and reliability.

Industrial sensor and actuator management

In industrial contexts, embedded hypervisors assume a pivotal role in managing sensor input and actuator output, optimizing performance in complex environments. The hypervisor allocates dedicated VMs for specific sensors and actuators, ensuring efficient and reliable data acquisition and control.

This segregation enhances security by containing issues within their respective VMs and facilitates real-time capabilities for precise industrial process timing and synchronization.

3 top embedded hypervisors

Here are a few of the best embedded hypervisors currently available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

General Dynamics icon.


The OKL4 Hypervisor is a real-time, Type 1 hypervisor that extends its support to Linux, VxWorks, and Android distributions. It boasts a reputation for secure, highly optimized performance, delivering robust security measures. 

With its inclusion of granular policies, this hypervisor allows meticulous control over the virtualized environment. Additionally, it seamlessly integrates with ARM TrustZone, a hardware-based security extension providing a safeguarded execution environment.

Xvisor icon.


Xvisor is an open-source hypervisor catering to ARM, MIPS, and x86 architectures. Engineered for lightweight, secure, and swift virtualization tailored to embedded systems, it accommodates high-performance operation across x86, 64-bit, and ARM 5 through ARM 8 processors.

Furthermore, its versatility extends to virtualization on older ARM chips lacking ARM virtualization extensions, with wide-ranging guest OS support amplifying its adaptability.

Project ACRN icon.


ACRN is an open-source hypervisor adept at addressing diverse applications, encompassing IoT, automotive, and industrial domains. It offers a modular, customizable virtualization solution finely tuned for embedded systems.

The component consolidates multiple computing environments, ensuring both isolation and security. Its hallmark lies in its flexibility to align the hypervisor with specific use cases and requirements, all while optimizing performance and resource utilization within embedded systems.

Bottom line: Embrace a virtualized future with embedded hypervisors

Embedded hypervisors are emerging as transformative tools in various industries. These solutions enable smooth operations between various OSs, optimize hardware usage, and elevate system security and reliability. Their impact stretches across dynamic updates, vehicle diagnostics, and industrial sensor control, showcasing their versatility and significance.

In essence, embedded hypervisors hold the key to unlocking enhanced efficiency, flexibility, and security in embedded systems. By bridging the gap between software diversity and hardware limitations, these hypervisors guide us toward an innovative virtualized future.

If you want to outsource your hypervisor setup to a managed virtual environment, here are the best server virtualization solutions to help you get started.

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