Oracle revs Sun's VirtualBox hypervisor

Great McNealy's Ghost! It's still free!

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It has been only three weeks since Oracle kicked out the 3.2.12 maintenance release of its Oracle VM VirtualBox hypervisor for x86 and x64 PCs and servers, and today, the company is launching a new VirtualBox 4.0 version that supports more hardware, has more features, and comes with a new packaging of the hypervisor.

Not everyone is going to be happy with what Oracle has done in terms of packaging, but there is only so much complaining you can do about a product that is free for personal use. Starting with VirtualBox 4.0, there is a base product that is covered by the GNU GPL v2 license and that is available as open source software as was the case with prior versions and releases of VirtualBox since it was open sourced nearly four years ago in January 2007. But starting with Version 4.0, VirtualBox now has what Oracle calls extension packs, which bolt on extra functionality to the base VirtualBox hypervisor.

At this point, there is only one extension pack, but it is not hard to imagine there being more of them in the near future, and furthermore, it is easy to envision Oracle charging money for these extension packs to cover the costs of maintaining VirtualBox and generating some revenues from the millions of users that have downloaded the freebie hypervisor.

Between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009, more than 20 million downloads of VirtualBox were pushed out by Innotek, the creator of the software, and Sun Microsystems, which acquired the German software company in February 2008. Sun, of course, was bought by Oracle in April 2009 and the deal closed this past January. Oracle said that VirtualBox now had over 26 million downloads back in May; it has probably added another 9 million or so since them, if the download rate of 40,000 per day has held.

With VirtualBox 4.0, as you can see from the changelog, Oracle has stretched the hypervisor so that 32-bit hosts can support more than 1.5 or 2 GB of memory on guests (the amount depends on the guests and hosts). The hypervior now also has support for Intel's I/O Controller Hub 9 (ICH9) chipsets for machines sporting Pentium, Core 2, and Core 2 Duo chips and Intel's HD Audio for guest operating systems.

Oracle says it has also done a "major rework" of the user interface for the hypervisor, which is now called VirtualBox Manager and which allows for lists of VMs running on a host to be sorted and which allows for virtual machines (including snapshots and their saved states) to be nuked completely off a box. The improved deletion function can also take disk images affiliated with a VM out behind the barn and give then the Old Yeller.

VirtualBox 4.0 continues to build on the Open Virtualization Format (OVF) compatibility that was first added with VirtualBox 2.2 back in April 2008. Tweaks in the new version include performance improvements when exporting or importing VMs from one format to another; while the VMDK format is popular, VirtualBox can now support VDI, VHD, and HDD formats for importing, and with the 4.0 update, it can package up the disk image files and the associated XML descriptions for the VMs into the Open Virtualization Format Archive (OVA) format. With the new version, users can cap CPU time and I/O bandwidth for a VM image. On storage front, VirtualBox 4.0 supports asynchronous I/O for iSCSI, VMDK, VHD, and Parallels images and can resize VDI and VHD images as the VMs are running.

VirtualBox does not require Intel's VT and Advanced Micro Devices AMD-V chip features to work, but can take advantage of them to speed up the performance of the hypervisor and the guest operating systems that run atop the hypervisor. VirtualBox is a type 2 or hosted hypervisor, which means it runs on top of an operating system and then allows VMs to run atop that OS, tricking the VMs into thinking they own the underlying and virtualized iron.

This is in contrast to a type 1 or bare-metal hypervisor, which loads directly on the iron, usually with a skinnied-down operating system kernel just to boot the hypervisor. The bare-metal approach allows for more isolation between partitions and from underlying operating system and errors it might encounter, causing the whole whirling mess of virtual OSes to come crashing down.

As you can see from page 13 of the VirtualBox user manual, a wide variety of Windows operating systems, including desktop and server variants, can host VirtualBox 4.0. So can Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 so long as they are running on Intel-based Apple boxes, as can the last three or four generations of the popular Linux distributions - that's Ubuntu, Debian, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora, Oracle Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux, Mandriva, and Gentoo.

Solaris 10 Update 8 and higher and Solaris 11 Express can also host VirtualBox. The hypervisor can run VMs for a much wider array of operating systems, including DOS; Windows 3.X, 95, 98, and ME; OS/2 Warp, Windows NT, 4.0, and 2000; Linux 2.4 distros; FreeBSD and OpenBSD; and Mac OS X Server.

All of this is in the basic package. The extension pack that comes with VirtualBox 4.0 adds support for virtualized USB 2.0 peripherals, for the Intel PXE boot ROM for the E1000 network card, and VirtualBox Remote Desktop Protocol. The latter feature, which Oracle says is a "backwards-compatible extension to Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol," was available in the base VirtualBox in earlier editions, but now it is in the feature pack. Presumably, Oracle is not letting any of the code in the extension pack out under the GPU license, but for now it is free. You can download the base and extension pack code here and give it a spin.

An Oracle spokesperson told El Reg that Wim Coekaerts, vice president of Linux engineering at Oracle, was unavailable to take questions on the new packaging because he had left on holiday already. But Coekaerts wrote up a short blog post before he left, and in that he pointed to an online poll at Lifehacker, and half of those polled ranked VirtualBox as their favorite hypervisor (11,261 out of 22,167 votes).

Slightly more than 30 per cent said they like VMware's hypervisors (which were lumped all together, even though they are radically different), with hypervisors from Parallels getting 13 per cent of the vote. Microsoft's Virtual PC got 3.6 per cent of the vote, and QEMU got just under 2 per cent. It is hard to believe that Xen and KVM didn't do better, so take this poll with a grain of salt and maybe a whole lot of ketchup.

Support for VirtualBox when used in production environments costs $50 per PC per year; on servers, it used to cost $500 per year for every four sockets in the box, but the support is not available in Oracle's online store for VirtualBox (at least as far as Oracle's search engine is concerned). The price may have changed for all we know. ®

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