Ubuntu Virtual Machine: Guest and Host

Monday Apr 1st 2013 by Matt Hartley
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Thinking about running an Ubuntu virtual machine? Here are some things to consider.

If you’d like to run an Ubuntu virtual machine on your PC, you’ll need to weigh a series of considerations. To be sure, the use of virtualization is commonplace in the IT industry these days. Still, before you decide to run an Ubuntu virtual machine, you must consider whether you fully understand the benefits of setting one up in the first place.

In this article, I'll explore virtual machine hosts and guests on Ubuntu, why virtualization is a better bet than relying on WINE and how to ensure that you are selecting the best virtual machine solution for your Ubuntu desktop.

Virtual Machine: Ubuntu or Other OS?

One of the most important considerations you must take under advisement is whether you're going to be running a virtual machine under Ubuntu or another operating system.

Generally speaking, it makes very little sense to run a virtual machine of Ubuntu under Windows. If you're relying on Windows and looking to run Ubuntu also, it would make much more sense to look into a dual-boot environment or consider using the Windows installer for Ubuntu. An alternative to using the Ubuntu Windows installer would be to use a bootable USB drive loaded with Ubuntu already. This is useful in that it would provide you with a dynamic Ubuntu experience without ever needing to touch your existing operating system's installation.

For most people, Ubuntu makes for a great host operating system, and running Windows as a guest provides the best value overall. An example of this would be if you needed a legacy Windows application, but would rather use Ubuntu as your default operating system. Using an Ubuntu PC with ample CPU power and RAM, you could run an instance of Windows and access the legacy program under Ubuntu quite easily. Depending on the virtual machine software you decide to use, you could even run your guest desktop in a "seamless" mode where the guest OS's software visually appears to be running natively on Ubuntu.

In order to setup an Ubuntu host with Windows running as a guest operating system, I recommend the following:

  • Use a PC with ample resources. I recommend using a computer with as much RAM and CPU power as possible. Ideally, I prefer to give a guest operating system like Windows 2 GBs of dedicated RAM to work with, with at least another 2 GBs of RAM for the host operating system.
  • Consider whether running a virtual machine is the best approach to using multiple platforms. If you're looking to play video games in a Windows guest on an Ubuntu-host PC, you're going to be very disappointed. When it comes to running video editors, video games and CAD programs, you really need to consider a native operating system environment. Trying any of the above with a virtual machine isn't going to work well at all.
  • Consider whether using an open source software title be a better alternative. In many instances, using an open source software application will provide the same results as using a proprietary Windows application. While some users will disagree with this, it has been my experience that in many cases open source alternatives can offer most if not all of the functionality found in proprietary software. After doing some initial testing, you may discover that you could be using a natively supported open source application. This would mean that you could avoid relying on a virtual machine altogether.

Selecting Virtual Machine Software

When it comes to choosing the right virtual machine software for your Ubuntu installation, you must first decide which factors matter the most to you.

VMware Player – Most enterprise users will want to start with VMware Player because it balances lower resource usage with advanced functionality. For serious virtual machine usage, VMware Workstation might be a good choice for those needing more enterprise-friendly functionality, like advanced network configurations. Both products are proprietary software, and you will be required to register to use them.

VirtualBox – For casual usage, I've come to rely on VirtualBox as it allows me to run virtual machines for Windows or various Linux distributions on my Ubuntu host system quickly and easily. VirtualBox boasts many of the same features as VMware, such as USB device pass-through and simple-to-setup virtualization tools. But one area where VirtualBox differs is with its fantastic, easy-to-navigate user interface. VirtualBox is available both in an open source edition and a release with proprietary components.

Next up, I'll share the virtual machine applications that I've been less impressed with. Your own experiences may vary with these virtual machine software titles; however, I've found them to be lacking for regular usage.

Parallels Workstation – I've never been very impressed with Parallels when using Ubuntu as the host operating system. It literally does nothing better or different than the two options above. Worse, Parallels is also proprietary software and requires registration. If Parallels Workstation appeals to you, consider VirtualBox instead. Based on my own experience, the only differences between Parallels Workstation and VirtualBox is the price.

Qemu – I'm fairly sure I will get a lot of grief for claiming that there is anything wrong with Qemu, considering how customizable and powerful this virtual machine application actually is. But putting aside those positive factors offered by Qemu, the fact of the matter is that it's really not that great with resource usage. Even idling, it's a bit heavy on resources. As for using Qemu, I also think it's a bit too complex for most casual users. I'd happily recommend it to those who wish to study its documentation; however, for anyone else, I would suggest VMware instead.

WINE – I know, WINE isn't virtual machine software. And WINE also isn't an emulator, either. But considering that WINE is often mentioned in articles like this, I thought I'd share my thoughts on why I choose to avoid it at all costs. Despite the fact that you can run some Windows software without needing to bother with a Windows OS installation, entirely too many software titles don't work as expected. Or worse yet, they work in one instance and later break after a WINE update. I've found that WINE works okay for some Windows video game titles and select Windows Office suite releases. Outside of this, I would suggest looking to a virtual machine instead, as you will find it's much more reliable overall.

Ubuntu Virtual Machine: Additional Considerations

When it comes to using virtual machines on Ubuntu, there are no absolutes. You simply need to consider the points made above, what functionality you're looking for and why you want to use a virtual machine in the first place. I would also like to point out that many of you will flat out disagree with some of my recommendations or perhaps feel I've been biased somehow.

For those of you who feel I might be mistaken, I will remind you of the following: everything above is based on my experiences using the listed virtual machine applications running Ubuntu as the host OS with Windows 7 as the guest. When evaluating both cost and ease of use, there can be no question that for the casual user VirtualBox is a clear winner, while VMware is the absolute best choice for the Ubuntu enthusiast looking for extra functionality.

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