Sunday, July 18, 2010

Using VMware Workstation; Time to Try VirtualBox?

A year earlier, I had tried using VirtualBox in place of VMWare Workstation as a virtualization solution.  I wondered whether I should try it again now.

I ran a search for recent comments and reviews.  A number of people had good things to say about VirtualBox.  It sounded like it had been progressing well in the year or so since Oracle bought it.  Rob Williams at Techgage listed some pros and cons.  A month after my previous try, an InfoWorld review said that VirtualBox had been gaining ground really quickly.  More recently, just a few months before this post, ZDNet's Jason Perlow did a comparison of VirtualBox 3.2 and Workstation 7.1.  Perlow said this:

In virtually all of our tests, [Workstation] matched or exceeded the performance of Oracle VM VirtualBox. Windows XP and Windows 7 32-bit and 64-bit performance was extremely snappy, and close enough to native that when we were running it in full screen mode, we couldn’t perceive the difference between “On the metal” and virtualized on our test system.
That reminded me that, once again, I was looking at a "professional" review by someone who comes in, tries the software on a fresh system, does their benchmarks, and then closes the doors and turns out the lights -- not sticking around for a few months, that is, to see how the thing holds up in everyday usage and abusage.  Perlow admitted that VirtualBox, not VMware, was his workaday tool.  But for me, by contrast, VMware Workstation 7.1 was huffing and puffing, and it had never approached the performance of a native Windows XP installation.  (Perlow also noted that VirtualBox performed well in his tests, but failed miserably when using Windows rather than Linux as the host.  I was not concerned about that; I would be using Ubuntu Linux as my host.)

These sources reminded me of the issues that had become par for the course in my use of VMware Workstation.  There were quite a few, as readers of my many posts on VMware would know.  One, as just noted, was the slowness.  There were things I couldn't do in VMware, like video editing, because of the poor performance.  Another kind of problem was hardware-related.  While I had worked through many of those issues, as noted in previous posts, there were always others.  VMware would recognize only some USB devices, including my multifunction printer/scanner, and/or would recognize them imperfectly (i.e., permitting only some functionality).  VMware would slow to a crawl if I tried to get it to use multiple processors.  It had originally seemed to handle at least a couple of open VMs at the same time, but more recently would become unusably slow if I had more than one VM open.

On the other hand, I knew that a switch to a new virtualization platform would require some downtime and many hours of tinkering, as well as some lost work in the process of making mistakes and learning how it worked.  I was also curious about what was going to happen with VirtualBox.  When Oracle bought Sun in 2009, some were predicting that this was awful news for open-source projects like VirtualBox.  It may be.  But Oracle has recently come out with a relatively significant new release of VirtualBox.  Before making the leap, I would like to let more time pass, so as to see whether the naysayers are wrong or whether, instead, Oracle was just cleaning out the closet, putting the last of its in-process improvements into production before marking the VirtualBox product for shelving or sale to some other tech company.

A quick check also suggested that transitioning from VMware to VirtualBox would probably entail creation of new VMs from scratch.  While there are surely countervailing opinions, what I got from the first few hits of a search on the matter leaned toward "the Fat Bloke's First Rule of VM Migration," which he stated as follows:  "Don't, if you can help it. If you can create a new vm from scratch on the new virtualization platform, you probably should."  Wand Weaver likewise said that graphics issues made it "tricky to import existing VMWare machines into VirtualBox."

I had other fish to fry.  I was in no rush to get myself into a new mess, dealing with creation of new VMs for VirtualBox at this point.  It seemed to met that the better strategy was to watch and wait, to see whether VirtualBox (or possibly some other virtualization program) would become the champ or would instead fade away.  This seemed especially advisable since a recent effort to free up some space and relocate the paging file in one of my WinXP VMs seemed to have improved performance.  So before dabbling with VirtualBox again, I decided to see what I could do to improve VMware's performance.