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Sun's VirtualBox 3.0 exits betaland

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Update: This story originally said that Sun had not open-sourced VirtualBox. Sun does offer an open source version

Only two weeks ago, Sun Microsystems quietly kicked out two quick betas of its VirtualBox 3.0 desktop and sometimes server-virtualization hypervisor, and today, the product is ready for prime time.

That was a short beta program, wasn't it?

VirtualBox will go down in its history as one of the most popular programs distributed by Sun Microsystems just ahead of its $5.6bn takeover by software giant and hardware wan(not)abe Oracle a few weeks from now.

According to Andy Hall, the senior product manager at Sun who speaks for VirtualBox, Sun was trying to be low-key about the VirtualBox 3.0 beta, but thanks in part to El Reg and a few other trade rags that caught the beta slipping out, Sun got over 25,000 people to download the code in the past two weeks and give it a whirl.

All told, Sun saw over 1 million downloads in both April and May of this year, hitting 14.5 million downloads in total since VirtualBox was launched in October 2007 by German software company Innotek (acquired by Sun in February 2008). Product registrations have crested above 4 million. "The rate of downloads is actually accelerating, and so is the rate of registrations," says Hall, adding that the conversion rate is quite high. "We're really pleased by the snowballing effect."

Sun has not talked about the conversion that perhaps matters most: how many people have opted to pay the piddling $30 per year that Sun charges for tech support on VirtualBox.

As El Reg reported two weeks ago, VirtualBox 3.0 is a major upgrade of the product.

The most important new feature is virtual SMP support that now allows a single VirtualBox guest operating system to span as many as 32 virtual processors on x64 machines. A virtual processor in VirtualBox lingo, I've been told, is one core no matter how many threads it has supporting simultaneous multithreading.

This expanded virtual SMP support for VirtualBox partitions requires VT-x features on Intel's Core and Xeon processors and AMD-V features on Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon and Opteron processors - and with this expansion, VirtualBox will be able to easily create a single partition on the biggest four-socket x64 iron on the market.

Not that this is practical or desirable considering that a guest partition can only support 16 GB of main memory - 512 MB per core is not a balanced configuration on a 32-core server.

So it's reasonable to assume that one of the next feature Sun (or Oracle) will put into the next VirtualBox release is support for a lot more main memory per guest - at least 64GB and maybe as high as 256GB. Hall was mum on the subject.

VirtualBox 3.0 also has Direct3D 8 and 9 graphics support for applications, which allows design programs, modeling applications, and games to run in guests and make use of these graphics functions from inside guest operating systems. The software also includes support for OpenGL 2.0 graphics, which are supported in Linux, Windows, and Solaris.

VirtualBox is a type 2 hypervisor, rather than a type 1 (bare metal) hypervisor, which means it runs atop Windows, Linux, Mac OS, or Solaris (the host environment) and then slices up the CPU, memory, and I/O capacity of the machine to support multiple guest operating systems. (There are lots of different guests, but Mac OS is not one of them because Apple has rules about virtualizing its OS). Hall says that Sun has no plans to create a bare-metal version of VirtualBox, a project that its rival on desktops, Parallels, is taking on, and Citrix is working with Intel to create as well for desktops.

If Sun were not in the process of being subsumed into Oracle, which itself is picking over the carcass of Virtual Iron to make a beefed up version of the Xen hypervisor, Sun might have come to the realization that turning VirtualBox into a type 1 hypervisor is a better idea than trying to cook up another variant of Xen using OpenSolaris as the wrapper for the hypervisor. This is what Sun's xVM Server hypervisor was supposed to be, but now, it is something like nine months late to market and very likely never to see the light of day because if Oracle doesn't need one thing, it is three different Xen hypervisor stacks. The kindest thing to do might be to sell off VirtualBox and let it live by itself. Maybe Oracle will be kind and do that. (OK, you don't have to laugh that hard....)

Hall says that Sun doesn't track how customers are deploying VirtualBox but that anecdotal evidence suggests that it is seeing more and more action on servers. At the recent JavaOne trade show in San Francisco, Sun plunked down a bunch of racks of x64 servers running Solaris 10 and put VirtualBox atop of that Unix to allow it to drive virtualized Windows 7, Ubuntu, or Solaris images from Sun Ray thin clients. Anyone attending JavaOne got a smart card that let them log into the virtual desktop system, and they could pick whatever platform they wanted. Hall says Sun set up the infrastructure so it could generate and manage as many as 21,000 unique desktops over the course of the event, and some 16,000 desktops were created by attendees.

Even with the Oracle acquisition looming, Hall says the Virtual Box team is keeping focused and is getting set to kick off a community-driven Web console project for managing multiple guests across the network. Sun could have - and maybe should have - opted to use xVM OpsCenter, the management tool that was supposed to span all of Sun's different server and desktop virtualization products (dynamic domains, Solaris containers, and logical domains on Sparc boxes and Xen partitions, Solaris containers, and VirtualBox slices on x64 iron).

But with Oracle probably converging around a Xen stack once the Sun deal is done, it is probably time for VirtualBox to get its own management tools. Hall says that VirtualBox 3.0 already has some APIs that have been changed to expose management features and that it will be working with a number of independent projects that have already been started out there on the Web to create a single console written in Python. This project is expected to launch "in a few months," according to Hall.

Provided Oracle doesn't step on it, of course. With VirtualBox being open source, what Oracle does or doesn't do doesn't matter a damned bit. VirtualBox can live on. ®

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