Desktop Virtualization Revisited Part One: Sun’s xVM VirtualBox

Server virtualization is cool. VDI is not. Desktop virtualization is hot.

Not everyone has a server-class system lying around waiting for conversion to a virtual server host and furthermore, you don’t really need one. If you run Linux but need a Windows system or run Windows but like Linux, you can have both with desktop virtualization. Desktop virtualization is where it all began with the original release of VMware in early 1999. Our own Jason Perlow did a review of it for the “On the Desktop” column when it first came out. With VMware Server, VMware ESX/ESXi, and XenServer, why would you want or need a desktop virtualization product at all? That’s an easy one: Resources.

For Microsoft fans, there’s Microsoft’s Virtual PC. For those of you who like to ride both sides of the fence, there’s Sun’s xVM VirtualBox, VMware’s desktop products, and Parallels Workstation. For those of you who are really naughty, Parallels and xVM VirtualBox also run on the Mac. I’m trying to eat lunch (and keep it down) while writing this so I can’t discuss anything Mac.

This four-part series on Desktop Virtualization explores each of these related but different approaches to the same problem: Running two different operating systems simultaneously on the same hardware.

Due to licensing issues with installing Windows guests, I’m using a Windows computer (Windows XP) as the host with Linux guests. I’ve selected Debian 5.0 running XFCE for the standard Linux guest VM.

VirtualBox Essentials

Sun’s xVM VirtualBox software is a good place to start for this series. It’s multi-platform (Windows, Mac, Linux—but not Solaris), it’s free, it’s very easy to use, and it’s very small (~59MB Installed). The installer file is a mere 37MB and downloads very quickly. Windows installation is fast, simple, and complete with only a few clicks—no advanced knowledge of virtualization required.

Setup a New VM

Once installed, xVM VirtualBox is ready to host a VM. My choices are in parentheses. To setup a new VM, click New->Name your VM (For example, Debian5), select the Operating System (Linux), and Version (Debian). Click Next. Set the VM Memory (256MB). Click Next. The Virtual Hard Disk prompts you to create a new virtual hard disk or select an existing one. Since this is a new installation, select New and the Virtual Disk Wizard steps you through creating one. Click Next. Choose Fixed size for better performance. Click Next. Select a virtual disk size and location. Choose a size for your disk—8GB is the default (2 GB). Click Next and Finish. You’re returned to the Virtual Hard Disk Screen. Click Next. Select your Disk from the dropdown menu. Click Finish. Figure 1 shows you the new VM (Debian5) and its configurable components.

Figure 1: Fresh VM and its Configurable Components
Figure 1: Fresh VM and its Configurable Components

You’ll notice from Figure 1 that the CD/DVD-ROM drive isn’t mounted. Before you’re able to install a new operating system into the VM you’ve just created, you have to specify an installation source (CD/DVD or ISO). To do this, click CD/DVD-ROM in the righ pane, Select Mount CD/DVD Drive, and then select the physical CD/DVD Drive that contains a bootable operating system image or select ISO Image File. Browse to and select your ISO image by clicking the Browse icon, remove VMAdditions.iso, click the Add button, find your ISO image, click the Select button, and click OK to return to the main xVM screen.

Install the Operating System

You’re now ready to power on the VM and start the installation. Click Start to power on the new virtual machine. A console screen appears in a separate window and the installation begins. If you need to release your mouse and keyboard focus from the VM’s console screen at any time during the installation, press the Right Ctrl key on your keyboard. Clicking inside the console will return focus to the console. The installation proceeds with or without mouse and keyboard focus. Page through your installation until it’s complete. I used all default values for this demo VM installation.

Enjoy Your New Virtual Machine

The new virtual machine is fully functional and ready to serve. This VM is just like any guest VM on a virtual server host system. Install or remove software, setup Internet services, write an OpenOffice.org document, play a game, or open a browser and surf the Internet.

To customize your system’s hardware, you’ll have to shut it down just as you would a physical computer. Please note that by default your new VM’s network setup uses NAT, which means that it uses your host computer’s network adapter to connect to outside resources (Internet, Software Repositories, Other Systems) but those connections look as if they originate from your host and not the VM. If you want to SSH to your VM from the host or other remote computer, shut down the VM, click the Network link in xVM’s right pane, use the dropdown selection, Attached to:, and select Host Interface. Click OK and start the VM. The VM automatically obtains an available IP Address from your DHCP server (For example, your router).

Sun xVM Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Easy to Install and Use
  • Small Footprint
  • Free
  • Multi-Platform
  • Supports Wide Variety of Guest OSs
  • Actively Developed
  • Remote Display Capability


  • No Solaris OS Support
  • Tricky Network Setup
  • Awkward CD Drive Management
  • No VM Cross-Compatibility

Despite some of xVM’s shortcomings, I like it. If you’re looking for a desktop-level virtualization solution that’s easy to use, quick to install, and priced right; xVM is definitely worth a try. Don’t expect it to be an enterprise-level solution or a replacement for something more robust, like VMware’s Workstation product, but for the money, you’d be hard-pressed to find something better.

Comments on "Desktop Virtualization Revisited Part One: Sun’s xVM VirtualBox"


Strange – I’m running xVM on Solaris to type this, so where does the statement “but not on Solaris” come from? I believe the author might have meant not on SPARC.


can i install Xen on windowsxp_sp2 or win_server2003


Yes, on Sparc. Sorry. Cool graphic by the way, how did you make that?

Yes. You can install just about anything in xVM.


I use VirtualBox on openSUSE 10.3 with an XP guest OS. Works perfectly, and the install was painless. I use it for my two ‘have to have’ Windows applications ( Quicken & TurboTax ). VirtualBox is a great product if your are just wanting a desktop VM, which I think is what most folks are looking for – and its free!


I’ve tried xVM on Linux and found it not easy to install, specially the network setup. Ii is not “Tricky Network Setup”, I found it quite difficult, specially for non technical people.
I finally installed VMware Server it is also free, got no “tricky setup”, and can be easily setup and administrated.
So I think that xVM is not an alternative of choice for Linux.

I still have to try XEN and QEMU. Can you write a review of these?



It’s misleading to say Solaris is not supported when it clearly is.

Obviously Solaris Sparc won’t work because VirtualBox doesn’t emulate the CPU like QEMU or Bochs.

PPC Macs won’t run VirtualBox for the same reason but you neglected to mention that…

Please correct your article.


Xen is different. It’s a bare metal hypervisor. That is Xen in a sense is the OS that you build VM’s on. It’s Linux based. VM products like VBox sit on a fully function host OS. The vm’s are guests on the host. Xen is not for the faint of heart or hobbyist. It’s more for the enterprise class server to host multiple virtual servers. Xen is owned by Citrix now. Go to the Citrix page to read more and give it a go.


There’s a wrong information in this article: VirtualBox DOES run on Solaris! :)


I found it really easy to install and setup on linux actually (debian and ubuntu). I just added the repo and installed it with apt. Getting it to capture the mouse took a bit of googling but everything else was a snap.


Does VirtualBox yet support USB connections? (in the OSS version)


Hmmm .. I like this site, and get the daily updates. virtualization is my speciality so this caught my eye and I clicked the email link to read it.

I got as far as this: “I’m trying to eat lunch (and keep it down) while writing this so I can’t discuss anything Mac.”

That kind of comment smacks of lack of professionalism, and bias against any OS *particularly* in an article about cross platform virtualization is totally out of place.

Perhaps it was my fault for expecting a higher standard? Regardless, you’ve helped reset my expectations to the correct level – I know that this is a site not to be taken that seriously.


Couldn’t agree more. About a year ago this was an “ok” publication.
It’s continued on a downward spiral with articles that are 2 or 3 years old being re-published as new. Crass comments such as khess asserts in his article coupled with obviously biased, prejudiced and out-dated opinions.

It seems such a shame that the editors can’t be bothered to check the copy before releasing it to the public. There’s about as much integrity in this publication as there is in “Hello”,”OK” or “FHM”. (Articles by Maddog excepted)

I’m fed up with it and shall terminate my subscription forthwith.


Never got linux working in Virtual PC (and even read somewhere that is not possibel at all, but did not bother to much with trying). And to be honest; i fail to understand that you can mention Virtual PC without troubles, but have big issues with Macs – not a fan of either of them – but even so…


Virtualbox is great! I use it for years with windows and linux guests.


I use VirtualBox on Mac OS X with an XP guest OS. Works perfectly, and the install was painless. I use it for my ‘have to have’ Windows applications. I set it up with Mac OS connected via Wifi to one network and WinXP connected via cable to another network (I work in a school and there is a student network and a professor network). It’s great and then I can access all my applications on all networks at the same time!

BTW, I found it really easy to install and setup on Mac OS X, Windows and Linux actually (debian)!


Please, lighten up….good grief. Comments like that don’t make you sound more “professional”, it makes you sound like a bitchy “geek snob”. You can do better.


I love VirtualBox. Running on Solaris x86. Don’t see lack of SPARC/Solaris support as an issue for Desktop Virtualization. SPARC is a great server architecture, but it’s (relatively) slow single threaded performance, and cost, make it a poor desktop choice.

VBox Rocks!



* No Solaris OS Support
* Tricky Network Setup
* Awkward CD Drive Management
* No VM Cross-Compatibility

Sorry, not true on these points. This must have been written a year ago, or the research was based on other articles and the author never even tried running VirtualBox.

No solaris? No so. I have 3 OpenSolaris VMs installed and one XP VM running on an OpenSolaris notebook.

Tricky Network? It’s as easy as can be.

Awkward CD-Rom? Bahhhh. Hardware CD-Roms, USB, ISOs, whatever. They all work.

No cross VM? Not true. You can easily convert VMware VMs to xVM and back again – or better yet just load the .vmdk file in vBox – it supports it natively.


I don’t have a Mac, never had a Mac, will never have a Mac…no need to mention Mac. Sorry.


The Mac comments are to be taken a lighthearted humor. Sorry if it offends anyone. You should see some of my rants about the days of the one-button mouse. I am not particularly prejudiced against any one OS, especially now that Mac OS X is a blend of NeXT and FreeBSD. It’s actually pretty cool. I take stabs at Mac stuff because Mac people feel that Apple is a religion and it gets them riled-up as you can see here. Just a little fun folks–don’t take snarky comments so seriously.


Those were my experiences with the product. Your mileage may vary. I found the CD mounting/unmounting to be a little troublesome. The network is a bit tricky for newcomers–lots of complaints in that area.
OpenSolaris is x86, not Sparc. I work in an environment where we have Solaris 10 Sparc and I was trying to load xVM so that I could install a Windows guest for a project. No dice.
And, no, not written a year ago, I can assure you. This was the latest version (2.14) as of this writing which was a few days before it was published.


I have been using virtual box for quite some time now. I have tested several flavours of major linux distros including Ubuntu, Fedora, Ubuntu derivatives like Mint and GOS and even inx, Mandriva and PCLINUX as well as solaris. Currently, I have Intrepid as my host os and Mandriva as guest. My laptop has Fedora. I prefer nfs or samba to share files with virtual machine rather than the virtual box’s option. I have not tried any other virtualization alternatives, but I am happy with Virtual Box.


One thing:
Plan9 http://plan9.bell-labs.com/plan9/ runs very slow on VirtualBox (2.2.0 r45846) Host OS Ubuntu Jaunty).
I use VirtualBox with much satisfaction for years now. Especially Window XP runs blindly fast.


I’m have VirtualBox 2.2.2 r46594 installed and running Win XP SP2, host OS PCLinuxOS 2009.1. I ran into a few issues with networking, but was able to work them out — mostly I had to renew DHCP on all machines and reconfigure my network drives. My virtual windows box runs nicely once booted, but the boot seems to take an inordinate amount of time compared to a direct install on hard drive. Also, my Linux box boot hangs up for about a minute as it searches for an inactive vboxnet0 network interface — it fails the device and moves on. I haven’t found the solutions to those two issues yet. All in all, VirtualBox is a good desktop VM solution for those on a tight budget, love to run Linux, but need to run Windows apps as there are no equivalent Linux apps. I mainly use my WinXP VM to play Baldur’s Gate, Civ. III, and other Windows only games. I do most of my serious work on my Linux host. Beats dual booting anytime.


No, the open source version does not support USB. You have to download and install the closed source version from the VirtualBox website along with the guest additions software. Sun has DEBs/RPMs for all the major distros and a ‘.run’ file for those not listed.

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