InfoWorld review: Desktop virtualization for Windows and Linux heats up

VMware Workstation 7 is still king for developers and techs, but innovative VirtualBox 3.1 and easy-to-use Parallels Desktop 4 gain ground

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Sun VirtualBox 3.1
Everyone loves a freebie. Whether it's free beer, a free checking account, or a free-because-you-paid-to-attend tablet PC at a tech conference, getting something for nothing always feels good. However, none of us expects these freebies to be of a particularly high quality. The beer is watered down, the checking account has hidden strings attached, and that tablet PC is either underpowered, loaded with crapware, or both.

So when we do come across a genuinely compelling freebie, we tend to shout its name to the rafters. And after years of wallowing in obscurity, VirtualBox -- the desktop virtualization solution of choice for FOSS groupies and similar anti-establishment types -- is causing quite a ruckus.

[ VirtualBox is one of InfoWorld's "Top 10 tools for IT pros" and among InfoWorld's top picks for "The best free open source software for Windows." ]

It all began when Sun Microsystems acquired the product from little-known German developer Innotek. With Sun's engineering resources behind it, VirtualBox quickly grew from its role as "the little VM solution that could" to today's technology leader in desktop virtualization scalability and manageability. In fact, VirtualBox has evolved so quickly, it's almost hard to recognize it anymore. Features like 32-way virtual SMP support are unrivaled, while the inclusion of branched snapshots finally brings it on par with its commercial competitors.

But the real shocker with VirtualBox 3.1 is the capability to dynamically move running VMs between VirtualBox host systems. Similar to VMware's VMotion technology, this new feature, which Sun has dubbed "Teleportation," adds a whole new wrinkle to the VirtualBox story. Suddenly, this once shy, awkward desktop VM solution is sporting speeds and feeds that seem more at home on a VMware ESX or Microsoft Hyper-V datasheet.

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VirtualBox 3.1 supports up to 32 virtual CPUs per VM and has a much-improved snapshot mechanism with full branching support.

All of which begs the question: Just what the heck is Sun up to with VirtualBox? It's one thing to round out a product's capabilities to make it more competitive. But this latest development takes VirtualBox in an entirely new direction, one that leads directly to the corporate datacenter and the lucrative rack space turf carved out by the commercial virtualization heavyweights. If VirtualBox proves to be as capable and scalable as its latest incarnation seems to indicate, it could have a dramatic effect on the balance of power among the raised floors set. After all, nothing upsets the apple cart like an unexpected interloper offering free produce.

In the meantime, VirtualBox's loyal fan base can smile knowing that there's some serious VM muscle lurking underneath their favorite product's pedestrian exterior -- something that an Innotek executive intimated to me years ago. At the time, I dismissed his comment as nothing more than prideful boasting. However, I now see that this guy wasn't kidding, and that Sun's decision to gobble up this diamond in the rough is looking less like a compatibility play for OpenSolaris and more like a clever way to acquire a potentially class-leading VMM (Virtual Machine Monitor) with which to pry loose VMware's stranglehold.

Kudos to Sun for seeing VirtualBox's potential and for keeping it FOSS so that the rest of the world can enjoy the benefits of its robust virtualization engine. This is one freebie that breaks the mold and delivers more, not less, than you're expecting.

VMware Workstation, Parallels Desktop, and Sun VirtualBox at a glance

 VMware Workstation 7Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows and LinuxSun VirtualBox 3.1
Pros
  • Excellent help desk and software developer features
  • Improved scalability and performance
  • Tight integration with VMware vSphere
  • Good scalability and performance
  • Easy-to-use interface inspired by Mac version
  • Some advanced features, including timed snapshots
  • Excellent scalability and performance
  • Improved usability, including branched snapshots
  • Teleportation feature shows off underlying VM muscle
Cons
  • No longer leads in scalability
  • Expensive
  • Value proposition challenged by the free VirtualBox
  • Requires host with hardware-assisted virtualization
  • Not as easy to learn and use as VMware Workstation or Parallels Desktop
  • IDE integration biased heavily toward open source tools
Bottom lineVMware Workstation 7 gives loyal customers more of what they love: better snapshot support; tighter IDE integration; and the ability to run vSphere 4 as a guest OS. Given the core market for the products (help desks, software developers), its falling behind Parallels and VirtualBox in scalability is more of a public perception issue than any real indictment of the product.Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows and Linux delivers a solid, all-around virtualization experience. Its support for up to 8 virtual CPUs and 8GB of RAM per VM provides excellent scalability, while its friendly interface -- borrowed from Parallels' Mac product -- makes it exceptionally easy to use.With support for up to 32 virtual CPUs per VM, VirtualBox is now the class leader in terms of raw virtualization muscle. The introduction of branched snapshots is a major usability upgrade from version 3.0, while the new Teleportation feature (live VM migration) means that VirtualBox is now poised to challenge VMware and Microsoft in the datacenter.

This story, "InfoWorld review: Desktop virtualization for Windows and Linux heats up," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in virtualization, Windows, Linux, and open source, including the latest InfoWorld Test Center reviews, at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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