Saturday, September 08, 2007

VirtualBox 1.5: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Vía: Venture Cake

Seamless virtualization in VirtualBox 1.5

The new VirtualBox brings seamless virtualization to Linux. This puts Linux on par with the Mac - users can run their native desktop but still launch the odd Windows-only program when they need to. The VirtualBox manual doesn’t give much detail on the new feature, so here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of VirtualBox 1.5

Previously on VentureCake we’ve discussed using RDesktop’s seamless RDP to launch apps from a VM, but VirtualBox 1.5 makes the process a lot simpler:

  • Install the virtualbox package
  • Click ApplicationsSystem ToolsInnotek VirtualBox
  • Make a VM, pop in a Windows CD and install.
  • Windows, click DevicesInstall Guest Additions, click Allow lots, and let Windows reboot.

That’s all. So how does it work?

The good

  • Seamless virtualization just works (with one caveat - see below). Hit Ctrl L to launch seamless mode. The Windows desktop is replaced by the Windows taskbar sitting above the GNOME panel.
  • Virtualbox has two windows - one with the VM controls (start, stop, edit settings, etc), and one with the VM itself. The control window can be closed with the VM still running, so you just have the Windows taskbar without any config tools shown. It’s simple and works well.
  • Virtualbox provides packages for an insane amount of distros. You can update VirtualBox at the same time as all your other apps via their APT repositories. Something VMware (who still provide Workstation in RPM format only) could learn from.

The bad

  • The VirtualBox manual doesn’t mention this, but seamless virtualization requires desktop effects (GNOME’s desktop effects, Compiz Fusion, etc) to be be disabled. Otherwise minimizing windows apps will leave bits of the Windows desktop around. Since more Linux distribution will be turning this on by default, this needs to be fixed. In Ubuntu 7.04, click System PreferencesDesktop Effects. Compositing is an increasingly important part of the Linux desktop in 2007, and something many distributions are turning on by default - this needs to be fixed.
  • Windows apps show up on the Windows taskbar only, not the Gnome taskbar. More integration would be nice.
  • We’ve had major probs with VirtualBox 1.5 networking. The manual mentions that in the default NAT mode ‘the virtual machine receives its network address and configuration on the private network from a DHCP server integrated into VirtualBox‘. But the VM doesn’t get a response via DHCP, there’s no dhcp process running on the host, and we can’t find any files relating to dhcp installed by the virtualbox package. The problems may be caused by upgrading from a previous Virtualbox release, but really, this shouldn’t be hard. Here it’s VirtualBox that could learn from VMware, who makes NAT networking a snap.
  • There are no packages for the VirtualBox Open Source edition, and, oddly, it’s hard to find info about licensing the regular version for more than personal use. Hey VirtualBox, we’re happy to pay for business use - tell us where to send our money!

The Ugly

VirtualBox looks a little 1995. It’s a bit Gangsta’s Paradise, a bit Batman Forever, a bit, well, naff looking. If they can’t use GTK themes like every other app, they should at least make it prettier.


VMware server is more polished and has easier networking, but once your VM is up and working, seamlessness is an essential feature that makes VirtualBox the better platform for running that odd Windows app.

Now where’s a simple, good looking Xen GUI?

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