Sun Microsystems' VirtualBox desktop virtualization software is a surprisingly full-featured, no-cost alternative to VMware Workstation and Parallels Desktop that's well worth the consideration of software developers looking to test on multiple platforms and of IT managers who are evaluating the strategic value of desktop virtualization.
I tested VirtualBox Version 1.6.4, a July 30 maintenance release that addressed a handful of issues such as startup problems on AMD-V-enabled chips. The application's major 1.6 release in May was the first release of this software since Sun acquired VirtualBox originator Innotek.
Open-source VirtualBox is backed and promoted by Sun, making the project a viable choice for IT managers who must also consider support and ongoing development support for tools that they bring into the organization.
In my tests on PCs running both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices chips, as well as on a Mac Mini equipped with Intel chips, VirtualBox performed well running a variety of Windows and Linux operating systems and applications.
From running business productivity applications to playing downloaded videos, VirtualBox performed without error on my test systems. All in all, VirtualBox proved an able hypervisor for running guest OSes with a minimum of fuss and even less money.
VirtualBox is a Type 2 hypervisor, which means that it is software that installs on top of the operating system installed on the physical host system. Type 2 hypervisors usually have slightly lower performance than Type 1 hypervisors that interface directly with the physical hardware, such as Microsoft's Hyper-V or VMware's ESX Server. However, Type 2 hypervisors are easier to install and can run on top of your workstation operating system.
I downloaded VirtualBox in just minutes from www.virtualbox.org. I was up and running on my test PCs and the Mac inside of 15 minutes. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with VM creation should be able to create one in under 5 minutes. And aside from being dead easy to install, VirtualBox supports a broader range of host operating systems than any desktop virtualization product of which I'm aware, with support for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux and Solaris.
Running VirtualBox on a Hewlett-Packard ProLiant ML115 with an AMD 64-bit processor with hardware virtualization extensions enabled was no problem, as promised by the fixed items listed in the VirtualBox change log. After loading VirtualBox on a Mac and PC I moved on to building a few virtual machines.
VirtualBox does a good job of ensuring user success when configuring VMs, with tools that more or less resemble those of VMware Workstation 6. Each time I created a VM using the VirtualBox Virtual Machine Wizard, the product ensured that a virtual hard disk was either created from scratch or selected from among the existing hard disk images on my physical system. Both products can create virtual hard disks that grow to a maximum size specified during VM creation.
VirtualBox defaults to NAT (Network Address Translation) for the virtual machines it creates, but I had the option of switching to a bridged or internal network adapter, or of enabling no networking for my VMs at all. VMware Workstation 6 asked users to make this choice at installation time. While both methods result in fast VM creation, the interface and process used by VirtualBox was streamlined and more efficient.
After creating my VMs, I installed copies of Windows XP, SUSE 10 and Windows Server 2003. VirtualBox supports a broad range of guest operating systems, including Fedora, Mandriva, Red Hat, NetWare and Windows-from 3.1 to Vista and including Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008. Of course, the missing guest OS was Apple's OS X, as Apple doesn't allow its OSes to run on non-Mac hardware.
Once the guest operating systems were in place, I installed onto my VMs the Guest Addition software that's supplied with VirtualBox to make it easier to work with guests by smoothly integrating mouse and display functions. On my test systems, the Guest Additions enabled the guest display to change size with the window frame when I resized the window on my desktop.
In VirtualBox with Guest Additions installed, the mouse is active in whatever part of the screen it is used, be that any of the Guest OSes or the Host OS, without having to press a special combination of keys to release the mouse from Guest control. What's more, I was able to use my Guest Additions-enabled VMs in a "seamless mode" that made my VM-hosted applications appear more or less native to my Windows host machine.
The beta of VMware Workstation 6.5 includes a similar feature, called Unity, and VMware's desktop virtualization application for OS X hosts, Fusion, already boasts this feature.
I was able to use my SanDisk Cruzer Titanium USB 2.0 flash drive with no problem on all of my test systems. This particular flash drive has SanDisk encryption software that sometimes makes it tricky to use on PCs because the decryption software has to run to enable the flash drive to appear as an available drive in Windows Explorer.
By default, VirtualBox makes all host USB ports available to its guests, but the product also offered me the option of filtering which USB ports I made available to particular VMs.
VirtualBox sports the VM snapshot capabilities that should be familiar to anyone who's used a desktop or server virtualization application. While the product's snapshot management tools were effective, I missed the support for creating multiple branches from a common snapshot root to which I've become accustomed in VMware Workstation.
eWEEK Labs Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at email@example.com.