Review: VirtualBox 5.0 vs. VMware Workstation 11

VirtualBox 5.0's new features add ease and flexibility, but VMware Workstation 11 leads in performance and convenience

At a Glance
  • VMware Workstation 11

  • Oracle VirtualBox 5.0

Oracle VirtualBox and VMware Workstation have been duking it out for several years now. VirtualBox occupies the “free and open source” corner of the ring, while VMware Workstation is a proprietary commercial application. For the price, Workstation has generally led in features and performance, while also providing close integrations with the rest of the VMware virtualization line.

Fundamentally, though, the two products are quite similar. Both run on Windows or Linux hosts, and both support a broad range of Windows, Linux, and Unix guests. (VirtualBox also runs on OS X, whereas VMware offers Fusion for Macs.) Both VirtualBox and Workstation let you create large VMs and complex virtual networks. Both let you take as many snapshots of VMs as you can store, and they give you a graphical timeline to navigate among them. Both support linked clones, which base copies of VMs on snapshots to save disk space.

In short, VirtualBox and Workstation are the most capable ways to run virtual machines on the desktop. With version 5.0, VirtualBox closes some of the gaps. How high has the bar been raised? High enough to keep VirtualBox competitive at the low end of the VMware Workstation market, although not enough to make it a one-to-one substitute for users wanting Workstation-level performance.

Oracle VirtualBox 5.0

VirtualBox has generally distinguished itself as the free alternative to VMware Workstation, even if its feature roster wasn’t as full or its performance as snappy as that of its commercial competitor. With version 5.0, the new features are mainly aimed at making day-to-day work a little smoother.

That isn’t to say performance improvement wasn’t on the agenda at all. VirtualBox 5.0 adds paravirtualization support for Windows and Linux guests. Paravirtualization allows guest OSes to perform certain actions directly on the host hardware through an API exposed on the host, although the guest needs to be paravirtualization-aware for this to work. The good news is that the major OSes -- Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD, for instance -- can all do this. The user can choose which paravirtualization interface to go with for a given VM (such as Hyper-V or KVM) or allow VirtualBox to decide automatically.

How much of a performance boost comes from this feature? A modest one, from the looks of it. Running in a Windows 7 guest, emulating four cores and 4GB of RAM on an Intel Core i7-3770K CPU, PassMark Performance Test 8.0 generated between 1,270 and 1,460 for the overall score depending on the paravirtualization mode used. Oracle notes that “the current paravirtualization functionality is mostly [for the sake of] improving timekeeping (cheaper TSC access)” and “a small improvement can be expected but wouldn't be significant." In other words, don’t expect much -- and in most cases, you'll want to let VirtualBox automatically figure out which paravirtualization mode to use for best results anyway.

Another new feature, in roughly the same vein, is broader support for which CPU instructions can be used by the guest, bringing improved performance to applications that rely on floating point, encryption, and random number operations. Yet another new and longed-for hardware addition is USB 3.0 support. Guests can directly attach to and work with USB 3.0 devices found on the host and operate with them at full 3.0 speed. (VMware Workstation has supported USB 3.0 since version 9.)

VMware Workstation has long held the lead in terms of support for host hardware, and these additions do little to change that. For instance, VMware Workstation 10 added support for orientation sensors, provided they’re present on the host (that is, the Microsoft Surface Pro) -- useful for testing applications on tablet hardware. VirtualBox added support for touchscreens back in 4.3, but doesn’t yet support other mobile-hardware features. One hardware addition that landed in VirtualBox 5.0 is support for SATA hot plugging -- useful if you want to simulate live swapping of storage in a VM (for example, to test the robustness of an application that might deal with such events).

Oracle VirtualBox 5.0

Most of the new features in VirtualBox 5.0 are minor but useful, such as the ability to perform drag-and-drop copying between host and VM.

One improvement that will have an immediate impact, regardless of what applications are running, is drag-and-drop support. Files and folders can now be moved between host and guests by dragging and dropping them to or from the guest VM’s window. No more setting up clunky file shares between guests and hosts, and no unexpected quirks, either -- it simply works between all host platforms and supported guest OSes (Windows, Linux, and Oracle Solaris). Sure, it’s another catch-up feature (Workstation has had drag-and-drop support for ages), but an indispensable addition.

Yet another useful catch-up feature is drive encryption. Previously, if you wanted to run VMs with encrypted virtual disks, you had to implement that on your own, either by way of drive encryption on the host or by running an OS that had native support for it. Now VirtualBox can encrypt drive images by itself using the AES-128 or AES-256 algorithms, and encryption can be performed either via the command line or in the GUI. Note that VMs have to be shut down to perform encryption or decryption; drives can’t be encrypted on a live VM.

VirtualBox has not had a history of integration with server- or cloud-based virtualization products akin to VMware Workstation’s integration with VMware vSphere and vCloud Air. Despite Oracle’s talk of becoming a cloud company, there is no sign VirtualBox is being made into a front end for any kind of cloud-based virtualization solution. The closest option in that vein so far has come from a third party. Hyperbox, an open source project, “aims to provide a free alternative to commercial products like VMware vCenter/ESXi” using VirtualBox as the hypervisor.

On the plus side, VirtualBox users can draw on handy integrations with tools such as Vagrant and Docker. And VirtualBox’s built-in support for a variety of virtual disk formats -- VMDK (VMware), VHD (Microsoft), HDD (Parallels), QED/QCOW (QEMU) -- make it handy for trying out a wide range of virtual machine types. There’s no need to download a separate conversion utility, which is required for VMware Workstation.

VMware Workstation 11

VMware Workstation has long stood out by dint of three characteristics: its performance, its close integration with other VMware products, and its raft of convenience features for making the process of setting up and working with VMs more automatic. The latest revision of Workstation mostly polishes and updates those aspects of the program and a few others, but introduces little that’s revolutionary.

With Workstation 11, VMware revved its hardware emulation functions, customary for each new version of the program. Version 11 adds support for the new instructions in Intel’s Haswell processor, a new xHCI controller emulator, and new networking drivers. VMware claims “up to 45 percent improvement” for programs that use Haswell instructions.

Many of the other changes to Workstation 11 are feature touch-ups. VMs can now use up to 2GB of video memory, provided the host has enough to spare; VirtualBox still tops out at 256MB for video. And Workstation 11 now supports EFI booting -- a capability VirtualBox has had since version 3.1, albeit only in an explicitly experimental form. VMware and VirtualBox both claim better support for high-DPI displays in their latest release.

VMware still reigns supreme in performance, certainly in terms of graphics. Workstation 11 racked up 683 and 1,030 for its Passmark 2D and 3D graphics scores, where VirtualBox eked out 395 and 598, respectively. CPU speed on Workstation 11 was also faster, as it claimed a 6,774 CPU score to VirtualBox’s tally in the 4,500-to-5,500 range, depending on which paravirtualization mode was in use (Default produced the best results).

VMware Workstation 11

VMware Workstation 11 brings welcome touch-ups and improvements to a number of features, but no revolutionary advances over its predecessor. It still delivers better overall performance (at least with Windows guests) than VirtualBox.

Another area where Workstation remains tops is in ease of setting up and running VMs. Workstation 11 streamlines the installation of many common OSes, including Windows and various big-name Linux distributions. Provide a few details upfront, like the OS’s license key, and Workstation handles everything else automatically, including the client additions. It’s a great timesaver and a feature I’ve always wanted VirtualBox to add.

Finally, Workstation’s integration with the rest of the VMware universe makes a compelling case for VMware shops. Workstation 9 provided integration with VMware vSphere (including ESX/ESXi and vCenter Server), allowing you to create, edit, and run VMs on remote VMware hosts. Workstation 11 adds vCloud Air integration, allowing Workstation to serve as a front end to VMware’s public cloud. Some of Workstation’s other features that aren’t echoed in VirtualBox, like physical to virtual conversion, are also part of this whole.

If you’re in an organization that has an existing investment in VMware or you have money to burn, VMware Workstation remains the sensible choice. It offers a more polished look and feel, greater ease of use, and better performance.

VirtualBox has its advantages, not least of which is that it’s available free under an open source license. With the addition of support for paravirtualization, USB 3.0, and drag-and-drop copying between hosts and guests, it’s a closer match to Workstation than ever. For those on a budget, its remaining minor shortcomings are easy to overlook.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Features (20%)
Ease of use (20%)
Performance (20%)
Integrations (20%)
Documentation (10%)
Value (10%)
Overall Score
VMware Workstation 11 9 10 9 9 9 9 9.2
VirtualBox 5.0 9 8 7 8 7 9 8.0
At a Glance
  • VMware Workstation 11

  • Oracle VirtualBox 5.0

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