Oracle VirtualBox Controls Desktop Resources
Oracle VM VirtualBox 4.0 is now easier to install and has a cleaned up user interface as it enters the battle with VMware Workstation and Parallels Desktop. In this second release under Oracle's stewardship, VirtualBox retains its low-cost position, making it a tempting choice for budget-conscious developers and advanced users.
The advances in VirtualBox aren't enough to dispense with a hefty amount of reading and forum surfing to get all the bells and whistles up and running. Thus I had to download a VirtualBox extension pack to get USB 2.0, VRDP (VirtualBox Remote Desktop Protocol) and Intel PXE boot ROM support for the E1000 network card. While the VirtualBox documentation pointed to the open-source virtualbox.org Website as the source for this extension pack, I was able to download the bits from the Oracle Website.
While VirtualBox 4.0 incrementally advances the capabilities of Oracle's desktop virtualization offerings the product sets no new bar for performance or scale. For example, the product does not currently support Windows 7 Aero Peek in guest VMs as competitor offerings do. VirtualBox 4.0 became available on Dec. 22, 2010. VirtualBox is available at no cost for individual use and $50 per user for a commercial license.
In VirtualBox 4.0, Oracle restructured the VirtualBox to create an installable base product. Earlier versions of VirtualBox open-source edition were provided as a tarball with a GPL license that had to be compiled to run. The personal use/evaluation license version of VirtualBox could be downloaded as an installable binary that included non-GPL licensed drivers for such things as USB 2.0 support.
Now in VirtualBox 4.0 there is a single, installable base package to which an extension pack containing the non-GPL bits can be added. The basic extension pack available from Oracle enables VM support for USB 2.0, VRDP and Intel PXE boot using an E1000 network card. I downloaded the Oracle VirtualBox Extension Pack and added it to my base installation for my tests at eWEEK Labs. I was able to use my USB 2.0 devices including a Verbatim external hard drive with my VMs. Developers can create extension packs to add to the functionality of VirtualBox or to extend device support in VMs.
While the devices that I used with the extension pack worked and the actual configuration work needed to add the functionality was minimal, using the extension pack required me to spend a fair amount of time reading the documentation to ensure that I had all the proper components. It didn't help that while the user documentation pointed to the the open-source community site virtualbox.org as the extension download source, I was able to download from the Oracle Website. For a commercial-grade product, I would like to see greater consistency between the documentation and the downloadable extensions, especially since the extension pack comes with a fairly ominous warning against installing software from unknown sources.
Creating and configuring VMs and then providing them to other users is an important function on any virtual desktop tool. A good way to facilitate VM portability is by using the industry-adopted OVF standard. VirtualBox 4.0 has added support for an emerging feature called OVA (Open Virtualization Format Archive), which is basically a compressed OVF. I created a virtual machine, exported it while selecting OVA from a drop down list and created a compressed OVF version of the VM. I was then able to import the VM by selecting the .OVA file. VirtualBox was able to successfully decompress the files and import the VM disk and settings.
I had mixed results when using the newly added "delete all files" capability in the VirtualBox Manager. I was able to remove most systems with just a few mouse clicks. However, I got an error message when attempting to remove a Windows XP virtual machine. Although the VM details were removed from the VirtualBox Manager interface, the VM directory and files were left on my host system. Oracle engineers were investigating the problem at press time.
There were several important changes made to the VirtualBox 4.0 user interface that make it easier to manage VMs. There is now a preview window that shows the screen of a selected, running VM. The VM display can now be scaled by enabling "scale mode" on guest systems. I was able to view several different VMs that were running at the same time and scale the displays of each so that I could easily see what was running on each system. It was easy to change into and out of scale mode by using a hot-key sequence.
VirtualBox made incremental changes to resource management in the latest version. It is now possible to assign more than 2GB of RAM to VMs running on 32-bit physical host systems. I installed VirtualBox on a Dell Inspiron desktop system equipped with 4GB of RAM and was able to use the memory to support VMs that used 3GB of memory. Additionally, VirtualBox 4.0 is able to limit VM I/O bandwidth. Using the command-line-oriented VBoxManage interface, I was able to set up a bandwidth group that limited asynchronous I/O to 5M bps. I then assigned VM disks to the group. Thus, I was able to limit low priority VMs to a relatively low I/O usage, which the guest systems had to share between them.