Cincinnerdi Tech Stuff

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OpenSource VirtualBox better than its proprietary competition

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I remember my first experience with Firefox when I noticed that it was free AND better. Wait, something free should have some tradeoffs, right? Well I’ve had that experience again, this time with VirtualBox. Read on or just go get it now! Yes, it runs in Vista, XP, Linux and Apple (beta.)

How I got to VirtualBox

It was early ’06 when my friend Mark Wash said I’d better get up to speed on virtualization technology. I yawned. I don’t get it; who need to run a machine inside a machine? Suffice it to say, I soon “got it.” So, I set out to find which would be best for my needs (multi-OS, need for sandboxing, etc.) and my budget (oh so low). Microsoft’s was out since I wanted multi-OS. I liked VMware’s functionality and experience. The trial version showed its stuff. The availability of the VMPlayer was great. The beta versions were ridiculously slow.

Then, there was Parallels. Can you say “carbon copy?” It seemed to be identical. But little by little, the gaps in what it could do became more apparent. Many VMWare features were listed in Parallel’s support forums as “maybe someday” features. But the price! How could I go wrong? Without making this a Parallel’s bashing post, it was clear that using an Ubuntu guest within an XP was somewhat frustrating since the guest tools didn’t really work, nor did USB support. And an XP guest within an Ubuntu host? Don’t even go there! I suppose the version for Macintosh is more reliable.

It was as I was lamenting these issues in an Ubuntu forum that someone asked if I’d tried VirtualBox. No, never heard of it. Turns out it only came out in January, 2007 as you can see in their progress log . Having worked with various open source projects, one tries not to set high expectations, but off I went.

Eureka! A “just works” experience

I can’t even guess how complex it must be to program a VM, but VirtualBox makes it look easy. It just works! The availability of a version for the most recently released version of Ubuntu was a nice touch. Installing this was amazingly easy for a Linux application. The interface is clean, new VM setup a cinch and maintenance of VMs is easy to monitor. Oh, and want to move a virtual drive from one OS to another? Just put it in an accessible spot, go to the virtual disk image manager and add it, then create a virtual machine linking to this disk. I setup a fat32 partition so these can be accessed from either OS without being moved.

The feature set of VirtualBox is impressive, providing a much more ambitious goal than Parallels. Taking snapshots (not an option in Parallels) works slick. Click to close the guest window and it can save the state of the machine very quickly. Just try stuff like the host + A to automatically resize your guest screen. So slick.

Figure 1-Note Shared Clipboard can have copy / pasting going in either direction, both or disabled.

You can have a remote display allowing you to setup a virtual machine on a remote server and send all only the KVM info across to your client machine. There’s a complete CLI functionality that provides for an amazing range of control. (These last two I’ve not explored yet.)

Issues

  • VirtualBox now supports using VMDK files so that you can take a disk image created under VMWare and just start using it in VirtualBox (a wish list item in Parallels I might add.) Though I didn’t need this ability, I tried grabbing an old VMDK image I had backed up to try it. I received a nasty error message, perhaps because there were snapshots on that VM?
  • Initially upon installing v. 1.4.0 into a Vista host, I found that after my Ubuntu guest auto-activated my mouse in the window, my keyboard was gone and the mouse was confined inside the edges of my Ubuntu guest! This required a hard reset of the machine. I uninstalled VirtualBox, reinstalled and have not had the same disconcerting issue.
  • The default “host key”, the right Ctrl key, is not my first choice and so I change this to my scroll lock key. Now don’t laugh: It’s probably obvious to most, but when they say host + F they mean “hold down the host key while pressing F” Somehow, it just seemed wrong to hold down the Scroll key and this led me into wondering why no hot keystrokes worked.
  • Note that when Ubuntu auto updates the Linux kernel, the VirtualBox will abend upon running after the next reboot. I panicked and changed the grub menu default to us the prior kernel at boot time until a nice forum poster named onero gave easy instructions for an update.
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Written by scottledyard

2007, July 1st at 9:38 pm

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