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VirtualBox Seamless Mode: The only way to virtualize

For many new users, VMs are nothing more than another stumbling block to understanding how PCs are used. Jack Wallen takes a look at VirtualBox's Seamless Mode and shows how this exceptional feature removes some of those barriers to acceptance.

I've been putting off writing about VirtualBox for a while now (mostly because other topics have come to the front of my mental queue.) But when I finally started poking around at some of the nuances of this tool, I realized that I had to bring it up here on TechRepublic. One of those "nuances" (if you can actually call it that) is Seamless Mode. To sum it up, Seamless Mode is amazing. If you've not tried it (or VirtualBox) you are missing out on a feature that can help to make the guest operating system seem, well, seamless within the host.

But seamless isn't something new. VMWare started it with their "Unity" mode (which in turn is a direct copy of the "Coherence" feature in OS X's Parellels Desktop.) But VirtualBox does all of this under the GPL 2 (If you're using VirtualBox OSE) and for free.

I have used plenty of virtualization tools. I started using VMWare back when it was first released. I had to do this when working in an environment that required I use a certain template for documents that I had trouble using in Linux. With the help of VMWare I was able to use this template in a guest Windows operating system on a Red Hat host. Back then there was no "Unity", "Seamless", or "Coherence" (heck there wasn't an OS X at that point.) so I was always working in a window within a window within a desktop. When other users would see this it would confuse them...very common reaction to new users trying to work with virtual machines. The very concept of VMs escape them. Imaging having to explain to an new user they are working on a "program in an operating system within an operating system". For the average user this is too much information. And that's why the VirtualBox seamless mode is a perfect solution for a problem that could easily plague admins.

Figure 1

Take a look at Figure 1. This is Windows XP running as a guest operating system on a Ubuntu 9.04 desktop installation. As you can see XP is running in Window'd mode so it is an "operating system within a window on a desktop". Sure users can make use of it but for new users it's going to be one more stumbling block amid an already seemingly insurmountable amount of stumbling blocks.

Seamless Mode strips this one stumbling block away from the new user by incorporating the guest desktop in with the host desktop. Take a look at Figure 2 which shows the guest Windows XP running in Seamless Mode on the Ubuntu 9.04 host. What this does is strip away all of the windows that confine the guest operating system so it seems that the guest operating system is running natively on

Figure 2

the computer. It's not actually running natively of course. The big giveaway to this is the Windows XP taskbar sitting innocently on top of the GNOME task bar. Outside of that you would think you were running Windows XP.

In the image you can see Internet Explorer and the XP start menu. You can also see Firefox and The GIMP as well as the GNOME panels. It truly is a seamless integration of operating systems that will help to remove confusion from the new user when they are having to work within a virtual machine.

How to do it

Switching back and forth between Seamless and Window'd mode is simple in VirtualBox. But before you can do it you have to install the Guest Additions. Installing Guest Additions is simple: Click the Devices menu (While your Virtual Machine is running) and then select "Install Guest Additions". You should not have any trouble with this installation. Once it is installed you will have to reboot your guest os. After the reboot is complete you can switch to Seamless Mode by clicking and holding the right Ctrl key and then clicking the "L" key. To get back to Window'd mode you use the same key combination.

Final thoughts

If you haven't giving the Seamless Mode in VirtualBox a try you should. Seamless mode removes some of the boundaries many users have when trying to work within a virtual machine. As a bonus, VirtualBox is one of the easiest of all the virtualization products available.

What do you think? Have you used VirtualBox's Seamless Mode? What do you think? Share your experienes with your fellow TechRepublic readers.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

12 comments
izharaazmi
izharaazmi

Yeah! The seamless mode is really awesome. But I guess, it would have been more seamless if we could just launch the guest applications individually, without having to bother about the OS which is running it. Like the MS guys has implemented in the XP Mode for Windows 7. I suppose this is the enhancement of the seamless mode concept though, its pretty more awesome experience. Hope that V-Box to launch this as Ultra Seamless Mode soon!! Cheers! :-)

me
me

The seamless mode isn't all that seamless - you can't move a window from one workspace to another, or from one monitor to another... so basically it is no different to working in fullscreen minus the windows desktop.

ireaneus
ireaneus

What would be awesome if we can setup seamless like RDP is setup to launch a program instead of the taskbar and start button, it is close with it being seamless and not seeing the desktop.

Tim.M
Tim.M

I use VBox every day for Outlook (unfortunately Evolution doesn't work for my corporate email) and for when I need to use other Windows-only apps. I haven't done much with vbox beyond the initial installation/setup of my WinXP virtual system, but this is pretty cool. I don't know that I would agree with it making virtualbox any easier for new users, but then again anyone using vbox in general probably is not your average user so I don't think that's a big issue. Note that this does not work with dual monitors under (nvidia) TwinView mode and you can only use it on your primary monitor, so if you enable Seamless mode with vbox on a second monitor, everything disappears! With vbox on my primary monitor, seamless mode works ok although windows can't be dragged onto my second monitor (a minor setback). So it looks like they still have some work to do, but I will most definitely be using this feature now and in the future. Overall I would say it's a big plus.

csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

Definatly going to have to play with that feature. Anyone else use the 3d extensions of VB 3?

kwolf
kwolf

try pressing Right CTL key + F to switch VB to full screen mode. This makes the guest OS "hide" the Host desktop and you do not have ready access to the Host system like seamless mode. I noticed when switching to seamless mode the task bar of the guest (Win7RC2) does cover up the Host desktop icons that are at the bottom of the screen (just above the Host's task bar) so one would have to be aware of that and position them accordingly.

alain.bequer
alain.bequer

Seamless Mode is excelent but it still have bugs when you enable transparency desktop effects over an Ubuntu host. Inmy personal experience I prefered to disable the desktop visual effects and keep the Seamless Mode of VirtualBox.

lefty.crupps
lefty.crupps

> It truly is a seamless integration of operating > systems that will help to remove confusion from > the new user when they are having to work within > a virtual machine. Having two overlapping application groups, with access to different file systems, running on different task bars using different [Start]-like buttons -- this is much more confusing to a new user than to just stick with one desktop environment (just KDE, or just Windows, or just GNOME). As useful as virtualization can be, in no way does meshing the real/host OS and the guest OS make the experience less confusing.

happyjedi
happyjedi

This release has improved beyond all recognition. A big thumbs up to the developers. VMware have some very stiff competition now, considering this is free, in every sense of the word. The suspend and resume are very fast, and installing OSes is now extremely simple. I use Unity mode a lot, so I will also use this mode. Cod

eldergabriel
eldergabriel

I've noticed some screen artifacts and display bugs as well. I'm suspecting that, in some cases, it's more related to problems with certain display drivers than to virtualbox itself. Either way, I hope those problems are resolved soon, because this technology is pretty cool.

eldergabriel
eldergabriel

...with as little as a 5-10 minute training session. I'm speaking from experience (being the person who has given the brief training sessions, of course ;). Additionally, the bottom panel on the gnome desktop can either be removed or stacked at the top of the screen along with gnome's primary default applications menu panel. In such a setup, just explain to the user that the linux "stuff" (panels, menus, etc.) is at the top of the screen, and all the windows stuff that they are already used to is at the bottom, as they would normally expect. The windows desktop could be run via a single-click from a panel launcher, or with a double-click on a desktop icon. If a user can't handle clicking on icons, then computing probably shouldn't be their hobby of choice. You could also have windows start automatically when they log in to their gnome or kde desktop. Not trying to belittle or take a negative tone towards your comment, as you do make some excellent observations and points regarding user interface considerations. Especially about the filesystem. That, along with the UI considerations are refinements that I expect will have to be made and will evolve as this operational paradigm matures. Just mentioning some other thoughts and considerations.

shryko
shryko

> As useful as virtualization can be, in no > way does meshing the real/host OS and the > guest OS make the experience less confusing. well said, however, I would say that for many, the concept of shared drives could solve that problem... really, this would be a power user tool, not a beginner tool... so, while we wouldn't put a new user at the helm of this, someone who is good with their machine would likely be better suited to it. (applications A-M are one taskbar, N-Z are the other, sorta deal)

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