Desktop Linux Virtualization Options

Monday Feb 9th 2009 by Matt Hartley
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Desktop Linux virtualization offers a handful of options, from the deluxe to the bottom end.

Virtualization was once thought to be something of a fad when it first began appearing on desktop PCs not all that long ago. And while no one ever said it outright, it was clear it was not taken seriously until its obvious cost savings – particularly in hardware costs – became self-evident.

Today, we see successes with virtualization from the server on down to the lowly desktop PC. Despite these successes, the question as to which virtualization or “VM solution,” is best suited for the job on the desktop front remains largely unanswered. I certainly find this to be relevant for desktop Linux users who remain stuck with specific legacy Windows applications that really do not play well with WINE.

Given WINE's shortcomings, it’s worthwhile to explore what desktop virtualization solutions work best with specific desktop Linux environments. Here’s what I came up with.

VMWare – At a price of $189 for the Linux Workstation version, some people consider this VM to be a costly option. Yet once potential users realize that VMWare Workstation is targeting professionals over the casual user, the cost suddenly seems like it has the ability to become a sound investment. VMWare Workstation provides a level of functionality for the end user unmatched by any other alternative out there to date.

Reasons for selecting VMWare over less costly alternatives include the fact that it offers mature code, provides consistently fast performance and advanced features that would likely not be sought after outside of the enterprise realm.

Key features include:

• 32 or 64 bit support. This translates into a solid experience regardless of the architecture you choose to run with.

• Virtual Machines or Virtual Teams. Unlike other lesser alternatives, VMWare is able to provide the enterprise user with the ability to simulate multi-tiered VM configurations.

• Scripting. Use commands for scripts thanks to the VIX Automation API.

• Advanced deployment. For those who need to deploy virtual machines in a highly effective, rapid environment. In other words, you can roll out pre-packaged VMs quickly and easily thanks to VMware's ACE authoring capabilities.

• USB 2.0 support. This is helpful when you need to print from a guest OS or even sync-up a devices into Outlook.

Best suited for?

Based on my experience with recent releases of VMWare Workstation running Windows on my desktop Linux boxes, I believe that VMWare is best suited for the enterprise user with support from their existing IT dept.

Despite my insistence of this product being best targeted at enterprise users, tech savvy non-enterprise users will find VMWare workstation to be a fine choice as well, despite its expense for casual home use.

VirtualBox – Matching expected features from portability with a price tag that will meet with anyone's budget, clearly VirtualBox is worth considering.

With all of the highlights and positive vibes aside, there is room for confusion however. Namely: the mixed licensing, as VirtualBox is considered both open and closed source. The confusion comes from availability of both a standard edition in addition to a "community" edition. Only the community edition is truly using open source code only, while the standard edition is a mixed bag.

Everything considered however, most users could care less so long as the product is free and works safely as advertised.

Key features include (assuming the non-open source edition):

• Guest installations made easy. For both Windows and Linux guest installs, I never had any installation issues to speak of.

• Virtual USB. Last time I checked, USB did work...with a little extra effort for Ubuntu host users. If you are comfortable with opening up a shell, this will not be a problem.

• Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). Despite not being a fan of RDP myself, it is a benefit to the end user as it provides a secure remote desktop option for those looking to connect to a remote VirtualBox machine.

• Shared folders. Again, like most VM software these days, VirtualBox does provide access to folders that can be used from both the guest and host OS.

• Support for VMWare images. Perhaps more accurately, they can be successfully converted to VirtualBox images fairly easily. In either case, this is a nice feature to have.

Best suited for?

For Linux users, it would need to be made clear that USB support does take some configuration before it is ready to roll out of the box. Outside of this concern, VirtualBox does provide the kind of environment that leaves many people wondering why anyone even bothers with costly alternatives.

For my money...or lack there of, VirtualBox remains best suited for SoHo or home users as it is just not stable enough for serious enterprise use, in my honest opinion. It's close, but seeing new issues cropping up with each new release leaves me thinking that most IT departments would rather see VMware solutions in place over troubleshooting the latest broken function caused by a VirtualBox update.

Next Page: Parallels and other Desktop Linux Virtualization options

Parallels – Before VirtualBox became a popular option, there was Parallels Workstation for the desktop Linux user. I have found that upgrades to new versions of this VM solution has seen less regression issues than with VirtualBox. But others will likely see this differently. I am merely speaking of my personal experience.

Features provided by Parallels Workstation generally mirror those of VirtualBox. Outside of the occasional report that it allegedly runs better with AMD CPUs than the VirtualBox or VMWare, I have found it to be generally lackluster based on my ongoing trials with it.

Key features include (Excluding features already mentioned with competing VirtualBox)

• Supports up to five network adapters at the same time.

• Support for Ubuntu 7.10 and Fedora 8. No, this is not a typo...according to Parallels, supporting outdated Linux releases is apparently a "feature."

• Change between Wi-fi to wired connections on the fly.

• NetBSD and OpenBSD are now able to be installed as a guest OS.

• Support for Windows 3.1 up to Vista supported for guest OS'.

While I cannot speak for everyone, I am less than impressed with the emphasis on outdated operating systems. Windows 3.1 and Ubuntu 7.10 support? Clearly VirtualBox and VMWare should be concerned...

Which virtualization solution is best for your desktop?

There is certainly no blanket answer for “best desktop virtualization solution.” That said, I would acknowledge the following – price, functionality and stability are king. This holds true for both the casual home user in addition to that of enterprise user. There are defining differences in who needs what, which brings us to the following conclusion.

For the home user and to some extent, most SoHo users, VirtualBox is a great fit. Cost effective, fast and generally stable to use with some initial tweaking, this VM option provides the kind of balance that most people in this user group will be looking for.

On the enterprise front however, there is no question whatsoever that VMware Workstation will remain king of this domain. From access to professional support for troubleshooting to enterprise level stability/predictability that allows the existing IT staff to better manage virtual OS installs with ease, VMWare wins the day for the enterprise, hands down.

Then we have Parallels Workstation, along with other virtualization solutions that I did not choose to mention today. I believe that Parallels will be a good fit for home and SoHo users that found VirtualBox was simply not meeting their needs. There is no question that this happens on occasion, so having a viable alternative does help make virtualization a feasible reality for those without a desire to jump into the VMware Workstation frontier.

What of the other solutions not mentioned? Qemu is one option for those who are very comfortable with getting into their Linux installation at a deeper level than required with solutions presented above. Also, an option like Win4Lin limits you to hosting Windows guest operating systems only.

Obviously, trying out what appeals to you based on price and features offered is the most logical course of action. In the end however, most users will find that VirtualBox is the logical choice for the masses at this point in time.

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