Battle of Free Virtualization Tools: VMware vs. VirtualBox

Battle of Free Virtualization Tools: VMware vs. VirtualBox

July 31

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Thanks to a handy technology called virtualization, running multiple operating systems and applications on a single host machine is now the norm in IT environments of all sizes.

VMware has been the undisputed king of this space for quite some time, but numerous competitors have emerged to challenge its comfy position upon that throne. One of those competitors is IT software giant Oracle, who jumped into the virtual computing game in 2007 with the aptly named VirtualBox.

If you ask, “which is better”, “which should I go with”, or a similar question to knowledgeable IT professionals, most will say that it’s VMware hands down. Ask them to elaborate and they’ll likely tell you that VMware is the ultimate solution for server virtualization, while VirtualBox is best suited for virtualizing desktop environments.

These statements may have some truth to them, but the battle gets far more competitive when comparing Oracle’s VirtualBox to something more similar like VMware Player.

Cost and Licenses

VirtualBox and VMware Player are easily two of the most cost-effective options on the market of x86 processor virtualization software.

Oracle makes its solution available under version two of the General Public License (GPL), an open-source license that allows it to be freely distributed and modified at the source code level to accommodate individual needs in functionality. VMware Player, on the other hand, is only freely available for non-commercial usage.

While both applications are free, both can be upgraded to premium packages as well. For instance, VMware Player gets a functional boost when purchasing a commercial license of VMware Fusion Professional, which runs on Mac OS X as well as Microsoft Windows, Linux and other Unix-like systems. VirtualBox can also be upgraded by purchasing commercial licenses directly from Oracle, which gets you enterprise-level features and support for mission-critical usage.

When factoring in the dual-licensing component, I think it’s safe to say we have a stalemate here.

What to Like

VMware touts its Player software as the most efficient way to run Windows XP in newer operating systems such as Windows 7, 8 and 10. With a solid slab of up-to-date hardware, you can enjoy your legacy apps like XP never went out of style.

Additionally, VMware Player provides an ideal environment for effectively testing new apps right on your desktop, essentially eliminating the need to purchase or lease a server for the same purpose. It also supports restricted virtual machines, which is useful when you want to prevent unauthorized IT personnel from tampering with configuration settings.

VirtualBox’s greatest asset may be its portability. One of its more useful traits is the ability to create a fleet of virtual machines in one host environment and run them in another. For example, an administrator who appreciates the user-friendliness of Microsoft products can set up their VMs in Windows, and then run them in Linux where they are likely to enjoy better performance. Its portability is further enhanced by cross-platform capabilities that allow it to function seamlessly on Windows, Mac OS X, Solaris, and various Linux distributions.

Platform Reliability

If there is one area that sets these two products apart, it may very well be reliability. While Virtualbox is widely considered a rock-solid offering, there are a couple of shortcomings that might limit its value in production environments. For example, my installation occasionally ran slow during testing and basic features such as drag-and-drop seemed to suffer from the pesky bugs that plague a lot of free software these days.

VMWare Player, on the other hand, is renowned for the same stability and dependability associated with the vendor’s commercial products. In fact, this software scores high performance marks across both Windows and Linux platforms. However, it does lack some critical features that can help IT admins sleep easier at night, including snapshots.  Snapshots come in handy by allowing you to save a specific state of your VM and restore that state when needed. It’s a real time saver. Virtualbox makes creating and managing snapshots a breeze, and for some users, this luxury alone makes it a winner.

Even with the enterprise functionality and extra support, Oracle’s open-source product is going to have a difficult time competing with VMware all-stars like ESXi, vSphere, and Workstation Pro. In the case of VirtualBox against the more proportionate VMware Player, the playing field is about as level as it’s going to get between these two brands.

In the end, I think most IT experts will agree that both are excellent options for those who either have modest needs or are just getting started with virtualization.

What about the heavy hitters? Check out our take on VMware vs. Hyper V.