Oracle and VMware have both been busy with their respective desktop-focused type II hypervisors, with each vendor releasing updates in the last month. Focus on Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 and Windows server 2012 is inevitable, but that aside both vendors continue to drive their respective products in clearly defined directions with no real regard for competition. Oracle’s updates to VirtualBox have added significantly to its appeal, but leave it trailing behind VMware Workstation in both its finish and feature count. While VMware has done much to optimize Workstation to work with the forthcoming Windows 8, many of the other updates that VMware has released could be thought of as gilding the lily, offering features such as Thumbnail Actions that allow virtual machine power state to be controlled from the taskbar.
VMware Workstation 9
VMware Workstation 9 was announced just before VMworld 2012 in San Francisco, with VMware giving away licenses to many attendees. As indicated above VMware has placed a lot of emphasis on Windows 8. Workstation 9 has been designed both to run on Windows 8 and run Windows 8 virtual machines, extending as far as providing support for multitouch-enabled hardware. VMware Workstation Unity provides support for the Windows 8 user interface (formerly known as Metro), allowing for “Metro” apps to run seamlessly on the host desktop, an experience that takes some getting used to.
To the benefit of Windows 8, VMware has made substantial changes to the graphics virtualization infrastructure in Workstation 9, including a display-only graphics driver that can render 3D Windows 8 without hardware acceleration. Linux users have not been left out either; VMware has released an OpenGL graphics driver to X.org for inclusion with current Linux distros that eliminates the need to install VMware Tools to deliver the optimum graphics experience. Improved rendering for graphics applications like AutoCAD and SolidWorks is also included.
Hyper-V has been added to the Workstation 9 guest operating system list, allowing the installation of Hyper-V Server and allowing Windows 8 to be run with Hyper-V enabled. However VMware has stamped this feature with prominent virtual warning labels, being at pains to point out, though, that this is more of a science project than anything else. Hyper-V is not supported on VMware Workstation in any form, and without a change to Microsoft’s support policy for nesting its hypervisor, is unlikely ever to be so.
Workstation 9 further improves integration with vSphere, extending the support offered with Workstation 8 to include the ability to download virtual machines from vSphere. This ability to exchange virtual machines with vSphere will no doubt be popular with enterprise admins, and may be enough to encourage many current Workstation 8 customers to upgrade. One of the new features likely to be popular with enterprise admins suffering from the side effects of virtualization sprawl is a new disk management option that can simply and easily recover disk space.
VMware has introduced a new web interface in Workstation 9. The WSX interface enables users to access shared virtual machines via a web browser without installing any additional applications or plug-ins, making it particularly suited to use with mobile tablets. At present WSX is a prototype technology only, requiring an up-to-date browser with WebSockets support – Progress with Internet Explorer 10 is currently lagging that of both Google Chrome and Apple Safari. VMware has made significant commitments to developing tools that will render both desktops and remote applications using HTML 5, and WSX offers a good indication of progress to date; however, it should not be considered production-ready by any means.
Other incremental updates include support for USB 3.0, improvements to display remoting, and optional password protection to secure configuration settings of virtual machines before they are distributed.
Meanwhile, Oracle has continued to update its free desktop hypervisor, with VirtualBox 4.2 shipping last week.
VirtualBox 4.2 offers a significant set of updates over the previous 4.11 release. Aside from access to the latest bug fixes, the major benefit of updating to 4.2 is the support for several new operating systems. Most significantly, this includes better support for Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012, along with Apple’s OS X 10.8 (a.k.a. Mountain Lion). Others might be more interested in UNIX-related platforms where 4.2 offers the inclusion of support for Oracle’s own Linux 6.3, Solaris 11, Ubuntu 12.04, and Fedora 17. VirtualBox 4.1 predated the availability of Windows 8, so while it was possible to run Windows 8, there was no support within the GUI. VirtualBox 4.2 provides out-of-the-box support of Windows 8 and offers the benefit of significantly improved stability, especially when running multiple instances of Windows 8 under heavy load. For the moment, at least, VirtualBox still lacks support for multitouch, although from a practical perspective this is not likely to impact many potential users today.
Oracle has made significant updates to the hypervisor, delivering improved performance overall and better 3-D support, and offering support for up to 32 virtual NICs per VM when used in combination with the Intel ICH 9 chipset configuration; this is up from just eight NICs per VM in the previous release. Other updates are of lesser importance. Including parallel port passed through the Windows hosts and addressing bugs in SMP support for OS/2 and other older operating systems will have little real world value. Significant improvements have also been made to the management GUI, possibly the most worthwhile of which is the introduction of “VM Groups”. This, as the name suggests, lets admins manage multiple VM’s simultaneously both from within the GUI and through the VirtualBox APIs. There are no restrictions on grouping of virtual machines–VMs may be grouped according to the administrators’ need based on project, version, etc., making it easy to spin up entire virtual environments at a stroke. The only significant limitations with VM Groups are that it is not possible to nest VM Groups or assign a PM to multiple groups. The ability to spin up an entire virtual infrastructure from a single click will certainly appeal to many, especially the less technically adept who might be reluctant to explore scripting options. Partial support has also been provided for starting guest VMs during system boot. Support is offered on Linux, OS X, and Solaris variants, but not yet for Windows. The other major GUI improvement is the introduction of experimental support for drag-and-drop between the host and Linux guests, with plans to extend support to additional guest operating systems in a later release.
Even so, VirtualBox still has its issues: the update from 4.11 was marred by the auto update service’s inability to recognize the existence of 4.2, necessitating a manual update to install 4.2. The GUI default choices are not what might be expected given the new features included in 4.2. For example, the wizard for creating a new VM still defaults to the older virtualized PIIX3 chipset, and in many cases when creating multiple guest VMs at the same time the wizards do not remember changes from default settings, making missteps too easy. Even relatively simple activities such as creating multiple linked clones suffers from this shortcoming.
I have been working extensively with Pano Logic’s Google Chrome-based Pano System for Cloud for the past few weeks, comparing its performance with Windows-based VDI and RDSH systems as well as both physical and virtual Chrome OS-based systems running on servers and re-purposed desktop PCs. After completing testing, I repeated some early testing using both VMware Workstation 9 and VirtualBox 4.2. Unfortunately, testing VirtualBox 4.2 with Chrome was not entirely trouble-free; on several occasions I had problems where one or more Chrome instances would lock up, which was then followed by VirtualBox starting multiple copies of the management console. I was never able to reproduce the problems with Chrome locking up in VMware Workstation 9, and performance appeared to be marginally better, although not enough to affect usability. However at the same time, Chrome worked ‘out of the box’ when tested on VirtualBox, while getting Chrome connected to a network with VMware Workstation 9 took a little more effort.
All things being equal, there is little doubt that VMware Workstation 9 is the superior product. However while that may be true, making a recommendation of one product over the other is not as clear-cut. VMware Workstation has the benefit of more features and greater polish, but at a list price of $249 it should have. Compare that to VirtualBox, which is available for download free of charge and it is easy to overlook its shortcomings. When testing with both Chrome and Windows 8, the only things that make any appreciable difference to the testing experience, were the simplicity of working with VirtualBox’s VM Groups which was offset by the frustration of having to overcome the idiosyncrasies of the VirtualBox guest creation GUI.