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VirtualBox Review
Written by Dsio   
Sunday, 24 February 2008 17:11
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Since I have a bit more memory and CPU power available on my new laptop, I decided to give some desktop level operating system virtualization a go. The copy of Windows Vista Business that came with this laptop gave me a mountain of misery from the day I received the computer, but since it was removed completely in favor of Fedora 7 Linux, I figured I should put it to some use, and install it in a virtual state on top of my Fedora install.

There are many Virtualization technologies available for linux at the moment, including KVM, Xen, Virtuozzo, VMWare, and many, many others. Most of these are either overly complicated and obtrusive (VMWare, Xen), or restrictive, allowing only Linux virtual servers (Virtuozzo). None of these really fit my needs, which are that it be lightweight, lean, OS independent, and flexible.

A possible solution for this problem was suggested by someone, in the form of Virtualbox (www.virtualbox.org) which is made available for FREE.

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Virtualbox is a very lightweight virtualization technology, which supports the intel VT / AMD-V hardware acceleration features, sits more on top of the host operating system than inside it, and allows for very easy setup and configuration.

Virtualbox is a cross platform technology, and is supported on Windows, Linux, and OSX (beta). For Linux, multiple packages are available, for all major distros, including Fedora 7, Mandriva, RHEL 4/5, Debian 3.1/4, and the three most recent flavors of Ubuntu.

Installing Virtualbox under Fedora was quite a simple affair, with the rpm provided simplifying matters. All up the installation was only 30MB in size, and went without any difficulty. Once installed, a directory is assigned as storage for the virtual file systems, which are stored as regular files on the host system's hard drive.

A virtual hard disk is then created, which can be used to create a new instance of an operating system. There were several choices given for the guest operating system:

  • Microsoft DOS
  • Microsoft Windows 3.1
  • Microsoft Windows 95
  • Microsoft Windows 98
  • Microsoft Windows ME
  • Microsoft Windows NT4
  • Microsoft Windows 2000
  • Microsoft Windows XP
  • Microsoft Windows 2003 Server
  • Microsoft Windows Vista
  • Linux 2.2/2.4/2.6
  • OS/2 Warp 3/4/4.5
  • FreeBSD
  • OpenBSD
  • NetBSD
  • Novell Netware
  • Sun Solaris


 

Once the guest operating system is chosen, and the instance has been created, it can be booted. Virtualbox allows a CD or DVD to be mounted, and booted off as the guest OS instance is started to install the OS. With Vista, the Dell install DVD was picked up immediately, and the installer progressed inside a window, just as it would on the screen of a physical computer.

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The Vista installer saw the 20GB virtual hard disk, just as it would a normal hard disk, and installed, completely oblivious to the fact that it was not running on a physical computer. After the Vista installer, was completed, the Vista instance rebooted itself, went through the regular Vista first-boot procedure, and then came up with the desktop. It was, for all purposes, identical to a hardware Vista installation. Once Vista was up at the desktop, an 'install guest addons' option mounts a Virtualbox image as a CD, and installs a set of Windows drivers for the Vista guest OS, including a virtual video card driver.

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 All in all the ease of use, flexibility, and implementation of Virtualbox is extremely impressive, and it provides a great service to people wanting to shift to Linux of OSX, while retaining the ability run some windows only programs.

This is a bigger deal than it sounds, because in the past a major issue for people looking to migrate has been the fact that while Windows emulators like “Wine” allow most programs to run with varying degrees of success, many proprietary programs, particularly in the business / corporate world prove to be a stumbling block. This is not the case with Virtualbox, as the windows applications are genuinely operating in a real Windows environment, there is no software emulation or trickery involved, and your programs will act exactly as they would on a normal windows machine in every case.

The only exception is hardware features, primarily 3D video and peripherals such as drawing tablets, input devices and accessories. Due to the fact that the guest operating system does not have physical access to the underlying hardware these functions are not available, so Windows gaming in a virtual instance is sadly a non starter.

The reliability and usefulness of Virtualbox is such that in the office I work in, the four of us that use Linux machines all have Windows XP Home licenses so that we can do browser testing, and client support while still using our chosen Ubuntu or Fedora OS.

In summary, Virtualbox is a tool well worth trying, and while this article has been mainly from a linux perspective, it can be used in the exact same way to virtualize Linux on top of a Windows or MacOS machine if you're curious and want to have a go, but don't want to dual boot or switch completely.

 
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