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Sun revs VirtualBox to 2.2

Supports OVF standard, ready for Snow Leopard

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Beleaguered server and system-software maker Sun Microsystems wants to change the Big Blue subject big-time, if only so that someone could talk about the new VirtualBox 2.2 virtualization software the company is announcing on Wednesday.

We'll oblige.

VirtualBox, like many Sun technologies, was acquired rather than created as the company tried to build up its business - in this case, Sun acquired German desktop virtualization software provider Innotek for an undisclosed sum in February 2008. At the time, Innotek had seen 4 million downloads of VirtualBox, which was originally created to virtualize IBM's and Microsoft's OS/2 operating system.

Last summer, when Sun was slapping the xVM brand on everything virtual in its server house, VirtualBox got that brand. Now, however, it appears to have cooties - with VirtualBox 2.2, no one is saying diddly-squat about xVM. (But I will: whatever happened to xVM Server, Sun's implementation of Xen hypervisor using OpenSolaris as a host?)

The big news with VirtualBox 2.2 is that Sun is supporting the Open Virtualization Format (OVF), a standard that is being put forth by the Distributed Management Task Force as a standard for virtual machines and the appliances that run within them.

A virtual machine, at is core, is just a file on a server with a bit of it residing in main memory as applications run, and OVF is analogous to the Open Document Format that the word processor makers have come up with for documents, but for virtual machines.

According to Andy Hall, Sun's senior product manager for VirtualBox, the 2.2 release can export a VM from a development environment where a programmer or administrator builds it on their desktop, and then deploy it to a production environment, such as VirtualBox running on a server or, more likely, VMware's ESX Server or possibly a variant of the Parallels hypervisor.

With the 2.1 release last December, Sun was already supporting VMware's VMDK and Microsoft's VHD virtual machine disk formats along with VirtualBox's own VDI native format.

VirtualBox 2.2 doesn't support live migration of partitions from one physical machine to another, but Hall says that's coming later this year. Neither can VirtualBox yet have a virtual machine span more than one physical core in a server or desktop - but it can use multiple threads in a core, such as the HyperThreading available in some of Intel's chips and most recently in its "Nehalem EP" Xeon 5500 processors announced last week.

And speaking of Nehalem chips, the virtual-processor ID and nested page-table features for speeding up virtualization are used by the new VirtualBox to speed up performance. Combined with other tucks and tweaks, Hall says that performance on heavyweight applications such as Java applications will increase by 15 to 20 per cent (based on Sun's internal benchmarks) when compared to VirtualBox 2.1.

The 2.2 release also boosts memory per virtual machine to 16GB, up from a ceiling of 3.5GB with the 2.1 release. This will obviously help applications running in a VM to speed up if they're sensitive to memory capacity.

Hall says that in anticipation of Apple's upcoming "Snow Leopard" Mac OS X 10.6 release, perhaps slated for June, VirtualBox 2.2 has been altered to take advantage of the fact that the Mac OS X stack will be fully 64-bit from the kernel all the way out to the application layers with Snow Leopard.

VirtualBox 2.2 also supports the OpenGL 3D graphics extensions for Linux and Solaris guests - only Windows guests had this support in 2.1. Hall says that Sun is not interested in tying virtual machines directly to graphics cards to get native graphics performance, as some hypervisor providers are doing - Parallels, for example, with its Workstation Extreme hypervisor for Nehalem EP workstations.

Hall says that the way VirtualBox works is that the hypervisor intercepts OpenGL calls from the VMs and passes them directly down to the host operating system and its OpenGL library, where it does the work natively. "We think this is a pretty smart way to do it," says Hall.

VirtualBox can use a wide variety of Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and Solaris variants as its host platform. It has an even larger number of guest operating systems it can run, including OS/2 and NetWare if you float that way. Microsoft's future Windows 7 has already been certified as a host for VirtualBox 2.2, just as Apple's impending Snow Leopard has been.

VirtualBox 2.2 is available for free - you can download it here. Sun also sells 24/7 premium support contracts for VirtualBox for $30 per user per year. And if you want to get an OEM contract to embed VirtualBox in your own solution, Hall will be happy to help.

Sun's own virtual-desktop setup announced last week puts OpenSolaris on Sun's x64 servers running VirtualBox, which in turn host Windows XP or Vista or Ubuntu desktop images down to thin clients. ®

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