Sun’s VirtualBox is a welcome treat

Since Jonathan Schwartz has taken the reigns, Sun has been on increasingly friendly terms with the open source world. Witness the recent work of opening the Java language, the purchase of MySQL AB (the company behind the ubiquitous open source database), and of course the much lauded Microsoft Office suite alternative OpenOffice.org.

VirtualBox, Sun’s entry in the crowded virtual machine market, is an interesting addition to the company’s growing line of OSS products. VirtualBox supports a wide array of host OSes (the usual Windows, Linux, Mac OS X + OpenSolaris, being a Sun product), and guest OSes. One key characteristic is VirtualBox is completely open source, GPL-licensed in fact.

Naturally, other open source VM solutions exist, but in general they aren’t intended to be used as mainstream end-user applications that compete with existing commercial products such as VMWare and Parallels. It goes without saying that virtualization technology is becoming more and more commoditized, and open source solutions such as Xen, KVM, and VirtualBox only serve to increase this trend.

In my own experience, VMs have been a Godsend for cross platform software development. While having an array of 20 (physical) test machines with different platforms and configurations is nice, it’s not always financially practical. Thus, deploying server-based virtual machines for handling the tasks of automated builds and test suites across all supported platforms is essential. Desktop VMs are also useful for manual testing.

I downloaded the latest version 2.0.4 for OS X, and gave it a spin. The UI and installation procedure for new VMs are top notch. I installed the latest version of Ubuntu, Intrepid Ibex (8.10), as a guest OS. VirtualBox supports most of the features of the commercial VM apps. In my admittedly unscientific test, VirtualBox seemed much more responsive and usable than either VMWare Fusion or Parallels. There were a few bugs or missing features:

  • no support for 64-bit guest OSes on Mac OS X
  • the installation process for the guest OS completely froze Mac OS X the first time, and I had to do a hard reset (could have been because I was simultaneously running Parallels..)
  • resizing the guest OS window is a bit slow and doesn’t preserve the window size, at least in my test with Ubuntu

Other than these few items, I was impressed with the capabilities of VirtualBox. I look forward to seeing new features and enhancements in updated revisions, and also to the promising future for open source virtualization.

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