Desktop virtualization review: VMware Workstation vs. Oracle VirtualBox

VMware Workstation 11 has the edge in performance and polish, while VirtualBox 4.3.20 leads in platform support and price

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Few technologies have had a greater impact on business efficiency and IT productivity than virtualization. While most of the impact has been felt in the data center and in the cloud, virtualization has also transformed IT work on the desktop, where it retains an important role. Here I compare the two leading products in this category: VMware Workstation and Oracle VirtualBox.

The use cases for desktop virtualization are numerous and important. Most visible to the average consumer is the ability to run a different operating system on your local machine. This is especially common on Macs in order to run software designed for Microsoft Windows -- that is, desktop apps and games that haven’t been ported to the Mac. (The top products for running Windows on the Mac are VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop for the Mac.)

In IT, however, testing is one of the main drivers for adoption. Testing for portability was the original scenario that made desktop virtualization popular, and it remains one of the core uses. By running desktop VMs, developers can test code locally for portability before it’s checked into the source code management system.

Likewise, QA teams can test software in a VM that duplicates user or employee environments. In the event a defect is discovered, test engineers can take a snapshot of the VM, which they can then make available to the developers for remediation. The ability to take snapshots of running environments neatly solves the “unable to duplicate the bug” issue.

VMs are also very useful in training. If you’re going to train a large group of people on a piece of software, rather than have them download and install the software (and waste class time solving one-off installation issues), you can have attendees download the VM with the software already installed. Not only do you save time, there is an assured uniformity of student experience. In addition, any user errors in the VMs will have no lasting effects on their host desktops and notebooks.

There are other use cases. For example, I go through a VM when I want to be safe on the Web. I have a VM that I use only for browsing to sites where security is a paramount concern: banking and other activities where malware would be particularly damaging. Likewise, I use a VM when visiting potentially dangerous sites where the possibility of viral infection is higher. In fact, malware analysis is a niche where desktop VMs are particularly favored because of the safety they provide: A VM that is infected will isolate the infection from the underlying host.

Desktop virtualization for pros

For IT professionals, VMware Workstation and Oracle VirtualBox are the two leading options for creating and running VMs. (There are other options, such as the open source Xen and the proprietary Hyper-V from Microsoft.) All of these products have the same fundamental design, which consists of a hypervisor (that creates and manages the VM) running on a hardware-emulation layer. This combination is a Type 2 hypervisor that must itself be hosted on a system running a full operating system.

The value of a given product derives equally from its VM management capabilities as it does from the quality, range, and performance of the hardware emulation.

In terms of management, all products in this category enable users to build, clone, and take snapshots of VMs. A clone is a true clone of the VM. Snaphots are clonelike images taken at a particular moment in time. Depending on the implementation, they are typically a set of deltas to be applied to the base VM.

Both products let users spin up and manage multiple VMs, but the management capabilities are distinctly limited. VMware Workstation 11 enables you to manage some VMs remotely if they are running on VMware’s platform. However, once you manage more than perhaps a dozen machines, these tools begin to lack the administration capabilities an IT site would want. For those use cases, products such as VMware vCenter and other front ends to large virtualization servers become the tools of choice.

Finally, it’s important to note that both VMware Workstation and Oracle VirtualBox have sites (the VMware Virtual Appliance Marketplace and, among others) from which users can download preconfigured VMs (also referred to as “appliances”) that have been assembled by the community, frequently to provide a stand-alone service (Web server, database, and so on).

VMware Workstation 11

VMware Workstation 11 is the latest release of the product that started the current wave of interest in virtualization. Its precursors led directly to the cloud as we know it today. (However, virtualization as a technology long predates the modern computing era, having first appeared in IBM mainframes.) As mentioned previously, early versions of Workstation targeted developers and testers. From the traction it got with those users, it began to spread more widely into other areas of IT. Workstation runs on Windows and Linux and costs $200 ($120 upgrade).

VMware has regularly updated the product, with the latest release shipping in December of last year. Its primary additions when compared with Workstation 10 are the ability to construct truly massive VMs (up to 16 virtual CPUs, 64GB of RAM, and an 8TB hard drive), better performance, support for USB 3.0, and support for virtual sensors (accelerator, gyroscope, and so on) when running on Windows 8 tablets.

In terms of VM management, Workstation 11 offers encryption of a VM, restricted access, and expiration dates. It can also monitor VMs running on other VMware platforms, such as VMware ESXi or the VMware vCloud, and it can attach to other local VMs running in a different process.

In exchange for these gains, Workstation 11 now requires a host platform running a 64-bit operating system on a 64-bit processor. My tests were run on a Lenovo TS140 server with 16GB of RAM running Windows 7 x64.

VMware Workstation configuration

VMware Workstation's polished GUI makes it a snap to configure and run VMs. 

The software is nothing but intuitive. Its main screen makes it easy to start existing VMs or create new ones. Old VMs run well with Workstation 11. However, some older VMs require the use of a separate utility, the vCenter Converter Standalone product, to convert their formats to one that WS11 can load and run. Although the converter is a free download, I found this manual provision of software to be an annoying inconvenience. The converter should be included with the base product. To be fair, VirtualBox uses precisely the same inconvenient approach of relying on a separate downloadable converter.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Features (20%)
Ease of use (20%)
Performance (20%)
Integrations (20%)
Documentation (10%)
Value (10%)
Overall Score (100%)
VMware Workstation 11 9 10 9 9 9 9 9.2
Oracle VM VirtualBox 4.3.20 9 8 7 9 7 9 8.2
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