Sun's Free xVM VirtualBox 2.2 Improves Position Against VMware Workstation
Sun Microsystems' xVM VirtualBox, the no-cost virtualization tool that enables guest virtual machines to run on a desktop computer, continues to improve its position as a potential challenger to VMware Workstation.
With Version 2.2, xVM VirtualBox now offers support for the emerging virtual appliance standard Open Virtualization Format, host-only networking that broadens how virtual machines communicate, folder sharing, and OpenGL and 3D graphics support. With these new features, the free xVM VirtualBox is an even more compelling alternative to the $189 VMware Workstation.
The Open Virtualization Format, or OVF, is emerging as a platform-independent packaging and distribution format for these special virtual machines. OVF enables distribution of ready-made virtual appliances that include operating system, an application and a virtual disk.
VirtualBox 2.2-which could soon be part of Oracle's product lineup-now has the ability to import virtual machines that follow OVF guidelines. Although OVF Version 1.0-administered through the DMTF (Distributed Management Task Force)-was just released on March 23, OVF-compliant virtual machines have been in production for some time.
During tests, I was able to create OVF-compliant virtual machines in VirtualBox 2.2 and export them for use in other systems. I was also able to import virtual machines from various virtual appliance vendors, including a V-KBOX 1200 system management tool from KACE, relatively easily using the intuitive graphical user interface.
However, the VirtualBox 2.2 implementation of OVF has some first-timer shortcomings, such as the inability to create or import snapshots of a previous state of a virtual appliance. That said, the overall execution of the standard is full-featured and supports typical virtual disk image formats, including the widely used VMDK (VMware), VDI (VirtualBox) and VHD (Microsoft.)
Host-only networking is a new method of connecting virtual machines and is something like a cross between bridged and internal.
In bridged networking, the virtual machines and the host appear to be connected through a physical Ethernet switch. Internal networking is used when the virtual machines need to communicate only with each other and never with the outside world.
In my tests, I used VirtualBox 2.2 to create and fine-tune a new software interface that enabled all of my virtual machines to communicate but that also enabled additional bridged network connections so that some systems could connect to the outside world. This feature is intended to facilitate setting up preconfigured virtual appliances that are shipped together, such as a Web server and a database server.
It was easy for me to access the host-only network controls to enable DHCP service and IP address assignments-including IPv4 and IPv6 addresses. It was simple to add virtual machines to the host-only network by making a change in the networking panel on the system. This is the kind of feature that would benefit in the near future from more management tools to ensure that changes to the host-only network are quickly propagated to the participating virtual machines.
Sun Solaris and OpenSolaris guests can now share folders on the host system, along with Windows and Linux guests. Shared folders reside on the physical host and are shared with guests as either permanent or transient assignments. Samba is used to enable file sharing, and, as with most VirtualBox goodness, guest additions must be installed on any guest that will be accessing the shared folders.
Anyone working with a group of systems that are meant to be used together-for example, for demonstration purposes-will likely find the new file-sharing capability especially handy. It was a snap to move files back and forth between my virtual systems once the shared folders were set up.
However, it would be simpler to share folders if Sun would auto-mount the shared folder. In this version of VirtualBox, mounting the shared folder between my Ubuntu 8.10 host and an OpenSolaris 2008.11 guest was a manual process.
Support for OpenGL and host-based 3D acceleration hardware is now also available to Linux and Solaris guests in this version of VirtualBox. During tests using a Lenovo ThinkPad X300, I was able to run test graphics programs-including glxgears-at 290 frames per second with hardware acceleration enabled, compared with about 90 frames per second without acceleration enabled. (Note: Glxgears is not a benchmarking tool, and frame rates are affected by a wide range of factors. However, the program, running on a test system that was otherwise idle, provides an idea of the increased performance hardware acceleration affords.)
The enhanced graphics performance also means that visual effects eye-candy-such as animations, translucent windows and 3D desktop capabilities-can now be enabled in guests.
During tests, these kinds of effects worked well on my Ubuntu guest systems, but I encountered problems on my OpenSolaris guest system-primarily, impaired screen redrawing. Running the OpenSolaris guest in full-screen mode-where the guest takes over the full resolution of the physical display-did not improve operation.
The configuration of 3D acceleration and a host of other performance features designed to take advantage of any available hardware resources is left for the user to do manually. As these features can adversely affect guest and host performance, this makes sense.
eWEEK Labs Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at