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Free virtual desktop competes with VMware, Microsoft

Open Source VirtualBox, a free desktop virtualization software, has powerful features, is easy to use and install and you can't beat the price.

VMware, Parallels and Microsoft aren't the only players in the desktop virtualization space. Open Source VirtualBox has been slowly grabbing hold of the market, providing another desktop virtualization alternative that is hard to pass up because it's free. Yes, you read that correctly, it's FREE.

I have always been a fan of VMware Workstation, but had an issue with the price. In my opinion, it's the price point that keeps the mainstream from using desktop virtualization. With 8.5 million downloads of VirtualBox to date, it seems others would agree.

VirtualBox is an open source, lean virtualization technology that runs on 32-bit and 64-bit platforms and supports Windows, Linux and MAC OS X hosts. It is a true cross-platform technology. Installing VirtualBox is a snap; you can virtually get a guest OS running within 20 minutes.

VirtualBox key features

A big buzzword these days with desktop virtualization is "seamless" desktop computing. This means is that, by taking advantage of desktop virtualization using a product such as VirtualBox, you can run Windows Vista and Mac OS X side by side on your desktop. The lines are blurred as to what OS you are running because the desktop of the guest OS is transparent. You can also run applications seamlessly from a task bar that's placed on the host OS. VMware has a similar feature called Unity, which produces seamless desktop computing. Microsoft acquired Kidaro to take advantage of this as well.

Snapshots are a feature I can't live without when using a desktop virtualization solution. A snapshot allows you to take a picture of the current state of a virtual machine and save it. You can then develop or test a product several times by reverting to the snapshot. VirtualBox has the ability to perform snapshots similar to VMware.

Another feature that is offered in your free download of VirtualBox is the ability to dynamically resize a virtual desktop on ar host computer. If you'd like the virtual machine (VM) to appear bigger, drag the corner of the screen and make it larger; it will resize automatically. This is better than having to resize a VM using a scroll bar to view the entire virtual desktop. It's also an enhancement that vendors, such as VMware, boast when you buy their feature-rich desktop virtualization product. VirtualBox also offers advanced networking. Four separate network adapters are available to configure: Network Address translation (NAT), Not Attached, Host Interface and Internal Network. For the basic users, NAT will allow any virtual machine you create to connect to your network, providing Internet access.

Similar to other desktop virtualization products, once you load the OS, you must load tools that extend the functionality of the product. Just as VMware has VMware tools, the Guest Additions toolset is available for VirtualBox. Once the additions are loaded, you can copy and paste text between the host OS and guest OS. Not only does this provide better video support, but you also obtain better mouse control that allows you to navigate seamlessly between the host and guest OSes.

Creating a virtual machine

I took VirtualBox for a test drive and created a Windows 7 VM to test the functionality of Microsoft's next-generation OS. After running through a simple interface and mounting an ISO image of Windows 7, I was loading the OS. Eighteen and a half minutes later, Windows 7 was running. Not bad for a free 36.1 MB download.

Steven S. Warren, is a freelance writer with a passion for learning. He is the author of The VMware Workstation 5 Handbook and is a Microsoft MVP. When he is not writing, he is spending time with his family and friends. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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