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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols on September 22, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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Sun has released the first update to its recently purchased desktop virtualization program, now called Sun xVM VirtualBox 2.0. While not a major update, it does bring improved performance and 64-bit operating system support to the popular open source virtualization program.

VirtualBox, now part of Sun's xVM series, runs on a wide variety of host operating systems, including 32- and 64-bit versions of Linux, Mac OS X, OpenSolaris, Solaris, and Windows. However, while the manual claims that it supports 64-bit Mac OS X, the program doesn't actually support it yet. That said, VirtualBox runs a remarkable number of operating systems on any of these platforms, from MS-DOS and Windows 98 to OpenBSD and OS/2.

In my tests, I limited myself to hosting VirtualBox on openSUSE 11 and Windows XP SP3. The openSUSE system runs on a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion a6040n Desktop PC with a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6320 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 320GB SATA hard drive. For XP, I used a Dell Inspiron 530s with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4600 CPU with 3GB of RAM and a 500GB SATA hard drive. On both systems, I installed Ubuntu 8.04 and Fedora 9 as guest operating systems. On the openSUSE PC, I also installed XP SP3.

In every case, my installations of VirtualBox and then the guest operating systems went flawlessly. However, other users might run into some quirks. For example, VirtualBox works on any PC with an x86 architecture, and it supports Intel's VT-x and AMD's AMD-V hardware virtualization components; however, it doesn't check for these architectures, nor does it support either by default. If you have the right chip set, you can turn on support manually via the program's control center.

On Linux, you'll also need to add users to the vboxusers group before you can use the program. VirtualBox creates this group when you install it, but it doesn't add any users to it -- not even the user who's installing VirtualBox. When you install VirtualBox and try to run it for the first time, you might get the "VirtualBox kernel driver not accessible, permission problem" error message. That's because the current user isn't a member of vboxusers. Once you add that person to the group and have him log in again, he should be able to run VirtualBox.

VirtualBox is a lean, mean hypervisor. It only takes up approximately 30MB of hard drive space. However, to use it, you'll need multiple gigabytes of disk for the virtualized operating system and its files. You can choose to either set up a fixed amount of space or allow VirtualBox to take up more drive space as needed. In my experience, it's better to let VirtualBox manage its hard drive requirements.

You'll also need enough RAM for your base operating system and every virtual machine (VM) instance. For example, to run Linux as a host with XP as a guest VM, you'll need at least 1GB of RAM. For Vista as a guest, you'll need at least 4GB. My general rule of thumb is to only run guest operating systems on computers with at least double their minimum RAM requirements. On my systems, all the guest operating systems ran at what appeared to be their full hardware speeds.

If I had high-end graphic cards or networking interface cards on either system, it would have been a different story. VirtualBox is a paravirtualization virtual program, which means the VM accesses some system devices as virtual devices. So, for example, no matter how fancy your graphics card is, you're only going to get 16-bit VESA-grade video. That's good, but no one is ever going to call it great. VirtualBox also uses a virtual AMD PCnet family Ethernet card for the guest operating system's networking needs, regardless of what's actually installed on your PC.

Despite the potential for graphics confusion, switching back and forth from the host to the guest operating system is as smooth as silk. Had I been running 3-D Compiz Fusion graphics on openSUSE, however, it would have been a different story. You should be fine as long as you stick with plain-Jane graphics.

For reasons beyond my understanding, several of VirtualBox's most useful functions, such as setting up the Shared Folders common drive space for trading files smoothly between the host and guest operating system, are not installed by default. Instead, they're in VirtualBox's Guest Additions.

The documentation implies that VirtualBox Guest Additions is a standalone ISO disc image. It's not. It's actually included in the VirtualBox program, but to get it, you must first set up and start a VM. Then choose Install Guest Addons from the Devices menu on the VirtualBox window that frames the running VM. This mounts the Guest Additions program's ISO file.

Once it's mounted, open it and run the appropriate program for the guest operating system. For Linux, that's a shell program with the .run extension. Then shut down the VM and set up a Shared Folder using the VirtualBox Details window. Finally, mount the new Shared Folder using net use drive-name \\vboxsvr\NameOfSharedDirectory for Windows. In Linux, make a mount point for the drive using mkdir -p /cdrive, then mount the shared folder with mount -t vboxsf c_drive /cdrive.

If that seems too complicated, well, it is. Since I run a serious network, I tend to replace this functionality with Samba-based shared network drives. But if you're using only one or two PCs, you'll find it worthwhile to set up a Shared Folder.

You may want some other functionality that's available only in a version of VirtualBox that contains proprietary software. This bundle includes a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) server, USB device support, USB over RDP support, an iSCSI initiator that lets you use iSCSI drives, and a virtual SATA controller. In my experience, the fully open source version of VirtualBox does include some USB support. For example, I was able to use a USB mouse without any problems.

VirtualBox runs extremely well. Over the course of almost a week of constant work on the systems, I couldn't find a single Windows or Linux program that didn't run correctly on a VirtualBox guest.

Even with the Shared Drive setup headaches, VirtualBox is equal to the purely proprietary VMware Workstation and better than most other open source desktop virtualization programs -- although Parallels Desktop remains the best desktop virtualization program for Mac users. For the rest of us, though, open source VirtualBox is the desktop virtualizer of choice.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the operating system of choice for PCs and 2BSD Unix was what the cool kids used on their computers.

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on VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.99.115.245] on September 22, 2008 09:22 PM
VirtualBox Rules!!! Thanks for everybody making this outstanding great product.

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 84.112.165.45] on September 22, 2008 10:19 PM
VirtualBox is great. I've been using it for some time and it really is easy to set up, fast and free (your choice of beer with more functionality or speech which sacrifices some functionality but no usability and is still a great product)

The article however contains two blatant misunderstandings about how virtual box and virtualization in general works.

- USB support: It is definitely not available in the free as speech version. The author could use a usb mouse because the mouse device is virtualized. That does not work with printers, scanners or pretty much anything but mouse and keyboard.

- Shared Folders: How could Virtual Box install shared folders by default if they are a feature of the uest system. Of course the necessary drivers must be installed in the guest system to use them.

Having said that it would be nice to have an easy way to mount virtual volumes created by virtual box when no virtual machine using them is running. But that's a completely different story.
And while I'm in wishlist mode: Is it still a hassle to set up a tunneling network card? A wizard/script to do this would be great.

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Re: VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.6.12.49] on September 22, 2008 10:28 PM
Just what I was going to say about USB support. Also, there's no problem with using Compiz on the host operating system, I do it on my Ubuntu box. Actually, if you set up screen-side mouse bindings to switch workspaces and you install the guest additions, you can run the host system in a fullscreen window and switch desktops without having to use the keyboard, which is very handy.

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Re: VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 79.178.160.154] on September 23, 2008 03:10 PM
correct, there is no USB support.
I have xp running inside xp - for software checking, Its great until the lack of USB support.
That feature is missing since I wanted to install my phone-driver\iTunes only on the guest xp, and manage my phone\iphone only there. those apps are BAD for a healthy computer.
Unfortunately, a fully USB support is not valid yet in that amazing Software.

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Re(1): VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 205.203.104.9] on September 23, 2008 04:38 PM
I'll have to assume that you are talking about the USB support not working with this new version. I have it installed on Fedora and run XP virtualized (VirtualBox 1.6.2). I have USB access to my printer/scanner, ipod, and memory sticks. It was a bit confusing to get it working--out of the box you won't have access if you are running it as a normal user. This is due to the ownership or the USB devices on Linux. You need to head over to the device folder and make sure to set group ownership to the vboxuser. You also need to add an entry to the fstab to set the devgid on new USB mounts. Check the forums on the VirtualBox site. There are some FAQs on getting USB enabled.

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Re(2): VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.6.12.49] on September 23, 2008 10:16 PM
> I'll have to assume that you are talking about the USB support not working with this new version.

No, this is with VirtualBox OSE (Open Source Edition), current and previous. The proprietary (free as in beer) version does have USB -- this must be what you're using.

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.97.183.114] on September 22, 2008 10:49 PM
Of course VirtualBox does add the users that installs it to the vboxusers group. VM's shouldn't be run as root, and root should be installing VirtualBox....

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.97.183.114] on September 22, 2008 10:53 PM
Suppose I should proof-read... Of course I meant "VirtualBox doesn't add"

That combined with the lack of understanding why you would need to load drivers in the guest for shared folders, leads me to believe the author has very little familiarity with the technology he's reviewing.

The Guest Additions iso can be downloaded from virtualbox.org, or found locally on your hard drive where virtualbox is installed.

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VirtualBox for Netflix on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.31.106.34] on September 23, 2008 12:17 AM
I've been using VirtualBox for months to run XP on my linux laptop so I can use the Netflix 'Watch Instantly' feature. VirtualBox performance (with Intel VT-x support) is so good I can play full-screen streaming video in it perfectly. In fact, because of Vista's DRM checks and security crap, Netflix playback is actually faster on XP inside VirtualBox than if I boot my laptop to Vista.

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Never had any trouble with Compiz and VirtualBox XP

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.31.106.34] on September 23, 2008 12:19 AM
What are you talking about??

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Re: Never had any trouble with Compiz and VirtualBox XP

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 147.102.141.138] on September 24, 2008 03:48 PM
I for one am very happy with Compiz and DOS.

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 122.166.38.153] on September 23, 2008 08:01 AM
"VirtualBox is a paravirtualization virtual program, which means the VM accesses some system devices as virtual devices".

Isn't that the case with all virtualization applications? e.g. VMWare based virtual machines will _always_ have an AMD network card and an intel i440BX chipset. They cannot natively use the hardware present on your system. Apart from VT and other virtualization instruction sets that allow direct access to the processor, I'm pretty sure all IO access isn't native.

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 139.166.248.124] on September 23, 2008 11:06 AM
I would argue that you can comfortably use Vista on a host machine with less than 4GB of RAM. I have happily used Vista on a machine with 2GB RAM (half assigned to Vista), and even managed to get it running on a machine with 1.25GB RAM (750MB for Vista). I'm not suggesting the performance was amazing on the 1GB machine, but it was useable since Vista automatically disabled all the fancy graphics stuff when it detected I didn't have a 3D graphics card. Vista on the 2GB machine ran without any hitches.

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question on networking...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.113.189.122] on September 23, 2008 11:52 AM
from my experience with VB... they use a NAT'ed type of network interface for the VM's by default... is this still the case...?? i know you could setup a bridged interfaces for VM's but it is/was not a fun thing to get working when i played with it to test some servers...... with VMware's workstation and or server you can just selected it as an option.. vmware by default uses a bridged interface and you can select NAT or just internal as an option..

i will say this... if you have used VB it is easy to switch to VMware's server or workstation and/or vis-a-versa...... their UI's are pretty similar.. atleast the last time i tried VB..... maybe ill give it another shot soon...

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VirtualBox definitely has no USB printer support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.165.80.155] on September 23, 2008 03:04 PM
I thought it did and fought with it for a week trying to get XP working w/ an old printer and then gave up and setup vmware for it.
Just wanted to point this out so no one else wastes time with this.
Otherwise, Virtualbox runs windows great...nice and snappy.

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Re: VirtualBox definitely has no USB printer support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.215.127.29] on September 25, 2008 07:02 AM
I'm using virtualbox, and I certainly do have printer support. complete and quick with an hp1300 psc printer. even the scanner, photocard slots, etc. work just like they are supposed to. Only problem is that once it is 'captured' by the guest system, I can't use it in Linux without shutting down the guest system first, and then disconnecting and reconnecting the usb cable of the printer. no big deal
littlejoe5

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 189.39.42.4] on September 23, 2008 03:19 PM
"although Parallels Desktop remains the best desktop virtualization program for Mac users."

I beg to differ. After some real-world benchmarks, it's clear to me that VMWare Fusion is 3 to 4 times faster than Parallels - fast enough to run real-time audio applications in a virtual environment (and believe me, this is no small feat). I haven't tried this with VirtualBox yet, but one can only hope. :-)

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VirtualBox network cards

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 149.24.131.67] on September 23, 2008 04:46 PM
You get some choices when you setup your VM. Try clicking on *all* of the pretty buttons.

Under networking, one of them is "Adapter Type", and a couple of Intel PRO/1000 cards are available.
(They've been available since 1.5.7.)

Once you tell your Guests what the Host has to offer, life gets nicer re: graphics and shared folders.
(Guess how? Hint, you have to *add* the info to the guest's OS.)

It's not about understanding the tech you're dealing with, really. I don't expect someone to grok virtual device space or be able to geek about how faking resources into an environment using networking hooks that can handle the volatile nature of the operation gracefully. Just be honest about what you did and didn't look at ("I didn't have time to go into all the options networking or guest additions offer, but they seem fairly detailed.") and that will at least give the reader a better picture of what's there.

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 216.220.32.196] on September 23, 2008 05:35 PM
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, your article needs revising.
First of all, 2.0 is a major update as stated on VirtualBox's forum:

"VirtualBox 2.0.0 (released 2008-09-04)

This version is a major update."

and the fact that the version prior to this release was 1.66.

Also, you are a bit late seeing as how 2.0.2 is released now.

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 210.151.30.16] on October 09, 2008 02:42 PM
Low quaility article I must say, not pointing out much but with flaws. The author seems to have slightly less clue on some topics.

About adding vboxuser, it's usually a package manager's job to add a new user, Ubuntu did that by default... so, don't know what's the problem, unless you are installing it by hand and manual should say to add it yourself, and you just should.

Also others pointed out, but why on earth do you need "at least" 4GB to run a Vista guest? Please run it once with 2GB of host RAM and claim it.

And then, it seems it's "beyond" the author's understanding, but it's quite obvious the guest needs some kind of drivers to talk to the host to have folders shared... so, that's where Guest Additions come in, among other useful features like mouse integration. Don't know what the big fuss was about just to enable shared folders, it was easy as pie.

Again, author blames that Guest Addition not being an ISO image, but what the VBox manual wanted to say was that it does act as an ISO image "inside" guest..., so, from the guest, you see the Guest Addition as a mounted CD to be used. No, it's not a separate ISO image download from VBox site =p

Also, it is NOT paravirtualization... Where did the author pull out the word to describe VBox is just confusing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paravirtualization

Read the first few paragraphs and you see VBox is not the one.
Also, while the term "hypervisor" describes anything that would run a guest OS according to Wikipedia, I'm more leaned to seeing the term where it's a thin layer between the hardware and the guest OS', instead of a host OS' application.

Also talking about USB device support just because a mouse worked means nothing like others pointed out, mouse is virtualized as a mouse device, not as a USB device to start with.

And lastly... what kind of flaming is "Parallels is best"? Has the author even tried VMware on Windows/Linux/Mac to start with? S/he hasn't even mentioned a single fact why it's better/best/bestest as blindly written.

More useful article would at least mention stuff like, shared folder not having good performance on Mac OS X host and using sshfs instead to the host would solve the problem and such. And introduce the VirtualBox community forum (http://forums.virtualbox.org/), so people could go and get their problems solved.

It's a lengthy article and starts out good on the first few paragraphs, but this is not a good article. At least check on facts, then hopefully add some useful insights than putting your own little preference as a shut off comment in the last section.

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 210.151.30.16] on October 09, 2008 02:49 PM
And a few more...

"first update"? Really? You mean "first update I've ever noticed"?
I've seen several updates on the 1.6 series.

Also funny that author links to compiz and parallels website, but the most obvious
http://virtualbox.org/
is never linked...

"not a major update"?

http://virtualbox.org/wiki/Changelog

They claim it is, but somehow you don't think so? Are you really trying to write an article to the mass or this your blog or what?

Next time, don't write it at 4am...

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VirtualBox update brings improved performance and 64-bit support

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.126.221.103] on October 14, 2008 07:39 AM
I had installed virtualbox 1.x on my vista home premium laptop and i was running ubuntu, XP sp3 and freebsd as guest os. Virtualbox 1.x was mean and i used to run two guest operating system on my 3gb, 2.2 ghz amd cpu and it worked flawlessly. but after upgrading treh virtualbox to 2.x, it started to slogg my pc to such an extent, i had to forcibly kill the virtualbox. in my opinion they have screwed the virtualbox 2.x on windows enviroment. i have downgraded my virtual to 1.6.6 and it rocks

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