Oracle VM VirtualBox 4: An overview

It’s easy to overlook Oracle VM VirtualBox, with all the other hosted virtualization products out there. But your small environment can take advantage of many VirtualBox features.

Oracle VM VirtualBox is a hosted virtualization product along the lines of VMware Player, Workstation and Fusion

and Microsoft Virtual PC. But VirtualBox has some unique features and use cases of interest to server virtualization admins.

Oracle VM VirtualBox is a lightweight application that allows you to run virtual machines (VMs) on a variety of host operating systems. Following Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems, VirtualBox was officially renamed Oracle VM VirtualBox, and in February 2011, the company released version 4.0.4. VirtualBox is free and open source, but there’s also a free, closed source extension pack available with additional VirtualBox features.

Oracle VM VirtualBox features
Oracle VM VirtualBox is not a bare-metal hypervisor that can be installed without an OS. Instead, it installs like an application and requires a host OS. VirtualBox supports many different OSes, including recent Windows versions, most major Linux distributions, Mac OS X and Solaris 10 and 11. It has evolved over the years and has no shortage of nice features, including the following:

  • Multi-generation branched snapshots
  • Built-in support for connecting to iSCSI storage devices
  • Support for up to 32 virtual CPUs per virtual machine (VM)
  • Built-in remote display support that works with remote desktop protocol clients
  • Support for VMware’s virtual machine disk format and Microsoft’s virtual hard disk format
  • Seamless mode which suppresses the guest VM’s background
  • Teleportation which allows a running VM to move from one host to another
  • CPU hot-plugging, memory ballooning and RAM deduplication
  • 3-D and 2-D hardware graphic acceleration

Oracle VM VirtualBox use cases
Despite being a free, hosted product with a very small footprint, Oracle VM VirtualBox has many of the same features as VMware vSphere and Microsoft Hyper-V. These VirtualBox features are useful for virtualizing servers and applications, but you probably won’t find VirtualBox in many data centers because it lacks centralized management.

A command-line utility called VBoxManage allows you to mimic the functionality of the local management graphical user interface in a PowerShell-like environment. VBoxManage also allows for automation, but it cannot connect to remote VirtualBox servers. For this reason, Oracle VM VirtualBox is better suited for small environments where virtualization would be beneficial but budgets are limited. Some use cases for VirtualBox include the following:

Isolation. The Internet can be a hazardous place, even if you go to the most legitimate websites. And it’s possible to pick up malware even if your PC has the best protection software. Why not let an isolated, disposable VirtualBox VM take the bullet for you?

Multiple operating systems. In some cases, you need to run multiple OSes on a single server or PC. Sometimes older applications will not run on newer OSes, such as Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008, for example. Installing an older OS, such as Windows XP, with VirtualBox means you can use these legacy applications and still upgrade to the latest OS for other tasks.

Server consolidation. You can consolidate multiple VMs onto a physical server to maximize resource use.

Testing. Virtualization allows you to have a sandbox environment for testing and development without requiring additional hardware or affecting existing applications.

Disaster recovery. Some admins spend a lot of money on expensive replication and automated disaster recovery products. But for many, having a simple fallback plan is enough. Oracle VM VirtualBox allows you to set up a simple plan B by running VMs on almost any hardware, so you always have another physical machine to fall back on if needed.

Installing Oracle VM VirtualBox
Installing Oracle VM VirtualBox is quite easy, and the binaries for all supported host OSes are available on the VirtualBox website. There is only one version of Oracle VM VirtualBox to install on both 32-bit and 64-bit OSes. It’s possible to run 64-bit VMs on a 32-bit host OS, but you must have hardware virtualization features such as Intel VT-x or AMD-V enabled in the host’s BIOS.

Running the installation file will launch a simple setup wizard that allows you to customize Oracle VM VirtualBox features, choose any shortcuts you want created and specify an installation directory. An Oracle USB device driver and a VirtualBox host-only Ethernet adapter will also be installed. Once the installation is complete, you can launch the VirtualBox Manager and begin creating VMs.

But before you dive into the VirtualBox features, you might want to master the VirtualBox lingo. If you’re used to VMware or Microsoft terms, here are some major differences:

VirtualBox term VMware term Hyper-V/VPC term
RAM deduplication Transparent page sharing Dynamic Memory
Teleporting VMotion Live Migration
Guest additions VMware Tools Integration services
Seamless mode Unity mode XP Mode
Immutable images Non-persistent disks Differencing disks
VBoxManage vSphereCLI PowerShell
.vdi virtual disk file .vmdk virtual disk file .vhd virtual disk file
.vbox config file .vmx config file .xml config file

Despite the many VirtualBox features, this product has a few shortcomings. First, Oracle VM VirtualBox comes with greater resource overhead because of the full OS layer, which can decrease performance. Second, the lack of centralized management limits the number of hosts and can make it difficult to deploy in large infrastructures. Plus, Oracle VM VirtualBox supports few third-party tools and applications.

If you’re new to virtualization and want to gain some experience, give Oracle VM VirtualBox a try. It may not perform and scale like VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V, but Oracle VM VirtualBox still provides reasonable performance and features for admins who want to virtualize on a budget.

This was first published in May 2011

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