Only one week after I had no success with running Virtualbox on my Athlon 64 system, a new version was announced. One of the important changes in Virtualbox 1.4 is support for AMD64 hosts, so this seemed exactly what I was looking for! To test new distributions and software, I have already been using VMWare Server for some time, which is free (read: it costs nothing), but a real Free (as in free speech) virtualisation solution always sounds interesting, especially as Fedora 7 always crashed VMWare Server and my host.
Installation of Virtualbox was very easy. It has been packaged and integrated in Mandriva, so a simple “urpmi virtualbox” sufficed to install it. Already a lot easier than VMWare Server, which comes in different RPM and ZIP files you have to download and extract. There was no hassle with licences, as Virtualbox is released under the GPL unlike VMWare Server for which you need to register on the site to request a licence key.
The kernel modules for Virtualbox were automatically built with dkms. This time, there were no problems with my x86_64 2.6.21-tmb kernel! Again this was easier than in VMWare, which often needs the installation of an extra patch if you are running a recent kernel.
Configuration is a bit different than VMWare, but actually very easy. The only thing which seems more complex than VMWare, is configuration of bridged networking, i.e. if you want to integrate your virtual machine directly in your real network like a real physical machine. According to the documentation it requires some manual bridge configuration on the host, but I did not try this. For simple NAT networking, I had not to do anything, this worked out of the box and was sufficient for me.
Virtualbox supports everything you would expect from a modern virtualisation system: ACPI, networking, cd/dvd drives (you can access a physical drive or use an ISO file, like VMWare) and sound. The sound implementation in Virtualbox is even better than VMWare, as it can use both OSS and Alsa. With VMWare I never succeeded in having working sound, because I’m using Alsa, and VMWare always complained that /dev/snd was in use. With Virtualbox and Alsa, everything is working great now. Virtualbox also supports creation of snapshots. In VMWare Server you can only create one snapshot, if you need to create more, you have to pay for another edition. Did I say that Virtualbox has everything you would expect? Well, maybe that’s not true. There’s one important thing missing: unfortunately it does not have USB support. This is an important omission which I hope will be added soon, as this works great in VMWare.
Unlike VMWare, Virtualbox does not have any problem with the fact that I am using frequency scaling on my processor (AMD’s Cool’n’Quiet with the powernowd daemon in Linux). In VMWare I had to disable frequency scaling, otherwise the clock of the virtual machine went too fast or too slow most of the time. But not with Virtualbox!
Virtualbox uses a nice QT interface, which integrates very well in a KDE environment. I don’t like QT’s open and save dialogs too much, but as this is a virtualisation product, and not a document editor, you won’t need these too much, so I can live with that. Virtualbox can use VMWare images, but unfortunately it is still not so easy to import your VMWare virtual machines as the virtual hardware is different. My Mandriva 2007 Spring installation in VMWare did not succeed to mount the root partition in Virtualbox, because of the different hard drive controller. With a rescue CD and some manual regeneration of the initrd, it should be possible to overcome this problem though.
Performance of Virtualbox is good. It feels at least as fast as VMWare, so there are no bad surprises here. Virtualbox is more of a workstation virtualisation product though. Unlike VMWare Server, you cannot run virtual machines in the background, and connect to the virtualisation server from the network. At least, I did not see this functionality.
So, in the end I have to say I like Virtualbox a lot! It has a lot of advantages to VMWare Server: it has better sound support, better time keeping, creation of snapshots and generally is a bit easier to install and configure. And it installs Fedora 7 without crashing my machine! If you need USB support or a client-server virtualisation solution, you still have to take a look at VMWare Server though.