When you consider virtualization platforms, two probably come to mind: VMware and Hyper-V. There’s a good reason why — both platforms are excellent. VMware vSphere ESXi and Hyper-V are type-1 (or bare-metal) hypervisors, meaning they don’t require a standard operating system to run on. These platforms are great for large-scale virtualization where you want to dedicate all system resources to the virtual machines.

VirtualBox, on the other hand, is a type II hypervisor; VirtualBox requires a standard operating system to serve as a bridge between it and the hardware. This means your hardware will be dedicating resources to the underlying platform, the VirtualBox host, and all virtual machines.

At first blush you might think VirtualBox or any type II hypervisor has no place in the data center, but that assumption would be wrong. Let me see if I can change your mind by laying out reasons why I believe VirtualBox does have a place in the data center.

1: Small data centers with small(ish) needs

For smaller data centers, VirtualBox really shines. Chances are, you’re not going to be deploying hundreds of servers, each offering a different service. More realistically, you need virtualization for easily deploying a few instances of a server or a turnkey solution and the snapshotting of those server platforms. With VirtualBox’s simple to use GUI management tool (that can also be used remotely via web browser), these tasks are a breeze.

Naturally, this simplicity isn’t such an issue if you’re dealing with an enterprise-level company, but for smaller companies that would still like to gain the benefit of a data center, VirtualBox can certainly fit the bill.

If a GUI is not required, VirtualBox can also be run headless, thanks to the vboxmanage command.

2: Testing

If you’re in need of a solid testing platform to test server deployment rollouts, upgrades, client environments, desktops…you name it, you cannot beat VirtualBox. Spinning up various environments is incredibly simple to do, be it a server or a desktop.

With VirtualBox, you can easily create an entire testing lab using NAT to replicate an entire network (which is also great for troubleshooting) with ease. With the help of VirtualBox’s built-in snapshotting tools, you can easily roll back to a previous instance of your testing environment and start again.

And with the help of memory ballooning (built into the Guest Addons starting with version 3.2), you can change the amount of memory a host has available, while the host is running. This is a great feature for a development environment.

3: Platform variety

One of the biggest strengths of VirtualBox is its ability to host nearly any type of platform, including Linux, Windows, OS X, Solaris, Android, Chromium OS, and more. The ability to run virtual desktops of all sorts can offer significant flexibility for a small data center.

Imagine you need to temporarily run an instance of an OS X or Linux desktop, and you don’t want to have to dedicate the extra hardware for the cause. Spin this up on VirtualBox, serve it up to the department or employee that needs it, and you’re good to go.

The ability to run nearly any platform is also a boon to the developers in your company, especially the ability to virtualize Android and Chrome (for testing those mobile apps).

4: Cheap failover

You may be using VMware or Hyper-V for your primary virtualization environments and have both set up for failover, but where do you turn when you have a bare-metal meltdown? Do you have a backup server running another identical instance of VMware or Hyper-V to serve as your failover?

You could create a failover using VirtualBox. It would be cheaper and far easier to run using standard hardware, as long as it has the necessary specs to run what you need. It may not run with the strength of your primary setup, but it could serve as a great temporary failover solution.

I know this isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison, but when you’re desperate for a quick, easy, and cheap solution that will have you up and running until you can return the big iron back to a working state, VirtualBox can pull its weight.

5: Cost

I saved the best for last. If your small company wants to gain some of the benefits of having a data center, you cannot beat the cost of VirtualBox: free.

If you’re looking into VMware vSphere, you’ll have to purchase a license for that (Standard edition is $1,268 USD), and you’ll need a license for VMware vCenter (Standard edition is $7,254 USD for a 1-year license). That’s a significant hit to the budget for a smaller company looking to add a bit of data center magic to their company.

VirtualBox can be had for free. If you’re running a host that requires a license fee (such as Windows), you’ll have to pay for that as you would with all other solutions. But if you’re running a Linux virtual environment, why not go all in for free? Small companies have small budgets and need to save big. This could be a good starting point.

Not a drop-in replacement

I’m not saying that VirtualBox is a drop-in replacement for the likes of VMware or Hyper-V — this is an apples to oranges comparison. Although VirtualBox will never stand toe-to-toe with the enterprise-ready virtualization solutions, it can serve you well. With a bit of clever planning, you can plug VirtualBox into your data center.

Have you deployed VirtualBox in your data center? If so, for what purpose? If not, what keeps you from making use of this solution? Share your experiences and thoughts in the discussion.