The best free open source software for Windows

If you run Microsoft Windows, you owe it to yourself to try these 10 killer open source apps -- InfoWorld's top picks

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Double your OS pleasure with VirtualBox

VirtualBox has grown from a scrappy unknown wallowing in obscurity to a serious contender in the classic desktop virtualization space. Much of the credit goes to Sun Microsystems, which plucked VirtualBox from its underfunded developer, InnoTek GmbH, and gave it the technical resources and attention needed to reach its full potential.

The net result is a solution that now rivals -- and in some respects, surpasses -- VMware’s category-defining Workstation product. For example, under Sun’s guidance VirtualBox has expanded its host and guest OS platform support to include virtually all 32- and 64-bit variants of Windows, Linux, Unix, and Mac OS X. And while it lacks the sophisticated IDE or stand-alone VM authoring capabilities of its commercial competitor, it makes up for this by providing more brute processing power, including support for up to 32 virtual CPUs and 16GB of RAM per VM. (VMware Workstation 6.5 tops out at two CPUs and 8GB of RAM. See my comparison of Workstation 6.5 and VirtualBox 2.0.)

Unfortunately, if there’s an Achilles’ heel in VirtualBox, it has to be the clunky user interface. Another victim of the cross-platform development process, the VirtualBox UI features a variety of non-standard conventions and custom dialogs that look like they would be a better fit on a Linux or Unix system than any edition of Windows. And though VirtualBox makes an effort to streamline the guest OS configuration process -- for example, by flagging seemingly incompatible configuration parameters and suggesting corrections -- it doesn’t hold a candle to VMware’s Easy Install mechanism.

Still, the UI is just window dressing, after all. VirtualBox covers the basics well and, as of version 3.0, outshines VMware Worsktation in terms of CPU and memory scalability per VM. It will be interesting to see how VMware responds to this potent threat to its desktop virtualization hegemony.

Bottom line: Unless you need the very developer-specific features of VMware Workstation (IDE integration, Easy Install, robust snapshots with real-time playback), there really is no reason ever to pay for desktop virtualization software again. VirtualBox 3.0 is that good.

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Watch out, VMware! VirtualBox 3.0 now supports up to 32 virtual CPUs per guest OS session, making it the new class leader in desktop virtualization scalability.
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