Executive Summary:

Don't let the lack of a pricetag fool you: Sun VirtualBox 3.0 is an impressive virtualization product that competes well with the likes of VMware Workstation and Parallels Desktop.


When it comes to desktop virtualization software, VMware Workstation (for the PC) and VMware Fusion / Parallels Desktop (for the Mac) tend to get the most attention. All three products work well, but they're not the only games in town. VirtualBox 3.0 from Sun Microsystems does most of what these packages can do, and has one huge advantage over them all: It's free for personal use. Enterprise customers who wish to deploy VirtualBox 3.0 to multiple desktops will still need a commercial license, but Sun's Personal Use and Evaluation License (PUEL) is fairly broad, offering free use by individuals for business purposes, as well as home and academic use.

Full-Featured Virtualization on the Cheap

Like its aforementioned competitors, VirtualBox 3.0 is a desktop virtual machine application using a "Type 2" hypervisor that requires a compatible host operating system (Linux, Windows, Macintosh, or OpenSolaris) and x86-based computer hardware to function. Using VirtualBox, you can create guest VMs that use a different OS than your host. During my testing, I created VMs running Windows 7 RC, Windows XP SP3, and Ubuntu 8.10, but VirtualBox also supports huge variety of guest OSes; you can find a full list of supported guest OSes on the VirtualBox website at www.virtualbox.org/wiki/Guest_OSes.

Creating a VM is a snap, thanks to a VM creation wizard that takes you step-by-step through creating your VM. (See Figure 1.) Using drop down menus and sliders you can select your guest OS, choose your base memory size, and create a new virtual hard disk image to boot your VM from. Creating my first VM took less than a minute; after powering on the VM, another helpful wizard appeared to step me through installing the OS. I've been using Windows 7 RC for several months on my home PC running VirtualBox 2.2, and VirtualBox 3.0 was just as easy to install and run.

Figure 1: The VirtualBox 3.0 VM Creation Wizard

New Features: Improved 3D Support and Guest SMP

VirtualBox 3.0 does bring some new features to the table, namely: improved 3D support for Windows guests running Direct 3D 8/9 games and applications; and OpenGL 2.0 support for Solaris, Linux, and Windows guests. Guest SMP with support for up to 32 virtual CPUs has also been added, but only if you’re running Intel or AMD processors with VT-x and AMD-V support, respectively. VirtualBox 3 also provides support for USB 1.1/2.0, USB over RDP, serial ATA controllers, and RDP servers.

Usability and Performance

From a usability and performance perspective, VirtualBox 3.0 works like a charm. A new mini toolbar for full screen and seamless modes makes it even easier to switch between VMs, which is handy if you’re dealing with more than one or two VMs. During my testing Windows 7 RC and Ubuntu 8.10 seemed to run at full speed when running client-side apps like OpenOffice 3.0, Internet Explorer, and FireFox. I didn't get the opportunity to test VirtualBox 3.0 in a heavy load environment, but the performance seems on par (if not a bit faster) that similar testing I've done with VMware Workstation.

So what does VirtualBox 3.0 lack? Sun uses what it calls 'Guest Additions" to add additional functionality to Linux and Windows VMs, and support for Windows 9X operating systems in this department is limited. Cutting and pasting between VMs isn't supported, and the ability to flip between different VM states appears limited when compared to VMware Workstation.

Sun VirtualBox 3.0
PROS: Broad support for multiple OSes; excellent performance; feature list is competitive with more expensive offerings from VMware and Parallels; it's free!
CONS: 3D support works, but needs improvement; missing some features (like branch snapshots and cut and paste between VMs) that other products offer; some IT shops may prefer vendors with more traditional support offerings.
RATING: 4.0 out of 5
PRICE: Free (Commercial enterprise edition available)
RECOMMENDATION: Don't let the lack of a price tag dissuade you from taking a serious look at VirtualBox 3.0, as it competes well with far pricier offerings from VMware and Parallels. Sometimes the best things in life truly are free, and VirtualBox 3.0 is one of them.
CONTACT: Sun Microsystems • www.virtualbox.org

Despite my quibbles, Sun VirtualBox 3.0 is an impressive product with an unbeatable price tag. It's a perfect solution for quickly creating dev and test environments; for example, running Windows 7 RC in a VirtualBox VM has allowed me to get acquainted with the latest Microsoft client OS without having to worry about running pre-release software on my primary home PC. You can't beat free, especially when combined with an impressive feature set. For those reasons (and more) VirtualBox 3.0 earns a hearty thumbs up from me.