Open Source

VirtualBox: Everything the pros need to know

The VirtualBox GUI and command line tool makes it easier to work with virtual machines and appliances. Find out how to get and use this open source virtualization tool.

VirtualBox has been enabling open source enthusiasts, IT admins, and tech writers to host various operating systems on a host machine for years. Anyone that wants to test out new platforms, develop, or manage virtual machine (VM) servers can turn to this free, open source tool to strengthen their skills or expand their company's services.

This smart person's guide is a quick way to get up to speed on VirtualBox. We'll update this resource periodically when news and updates about VirtualBox are released.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is VirtualBox? VirtualBox is a general-purpose virtualization tool for x86 and x86-64 hardware, targeted at server, desktop, and embedded use, that allows users and administrators to easily run multiple guest operating systems on a single host.
  • Why does VirtualBox matter? VirtualBox makes it possible for administrators and developers to quickly spin up full-blown operating systems without having to use dedicated hardware, thereby saving precious budget dollars on hardware.
  • Who does VirtualBox affect? VirtualBox affects anyone who needs to easily deploy a VM to be used as a server, desktop, testing environment, or teaching tool.
  • When is VirtualBox available? VirtualBox was first released January 15, 2007 and has been in constant development since. The platform's 5.1.28 iteration was released September 14, 2017.
  • How can I get VirtualBox? VirtualBox can be downloaded and installed on Linux, Windows, or macOS. On the Linux platform, VirtualBox can be found within the standard repositories, so installation can be done using your distribution's package manager.

SEE: Virtualization policy (Tech Pro Research)

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What is VirtualBox?

VirtualBox is a GUI and command line tool that makes it possible to deploy servers, desktops, and embedded operating systems as VMs. A single VirtualBox host can deploy as many guest VMs as the host hardware can handle.

VirtualBox consists of hosts and guests. The host houses the VirtualBox software that can then deploy the guests. A guest is any supported operating system running as a VM. A VirtualBox host can be run on Linux, Windows, or macOS, whereas a VirtualBox guest can consist of any Linux distribution, Solaris, macOS, BSD, IBM OS/2, or Windows. In order to run macOS or Windows as a VM, you must have a licensed copy of the operating system in question.

The host can run as many guests as the hardware will support, while still leaving enough resources for the host to operate. Each individual guest can be started, stopped, and paused from either the GUI or the command line and can function on a network as if it were running on its own hardware.

VirtualBox can be run from either a user-friendly GUI or from the command line. Thanks to the command line option, VMs can be deployed on a server with or without a GUI, making the software highly flexible.

SEE: Riding the DevOps revolution (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

When using VirtualBox as the host platform, administrators can deploy hosts from ISO images or from VDI/VMDK/VHD images. If deploying guests from an ISO image, the guest operating system is installed in normal fashion—only as a VM. With VDI/VMDK/VHD images, it is possible to quickly deploy a virtual appliance without having to go through the steps of installing the operating system as the guest. A great place to find virtual appliances for VirtualBox is TurnKey Linux.

To make VirtualBox even more appealing, the VirtualBox Extension Pack is available, and it adds support for USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 devices, VirtualBox RDP, disk encryption, NVMe and PXE boot for Intel cards. There is also the Guest Additions, which expands the VirtualBox feature set to include mouse pointer integration, shared folders (between guest and host), improved video support, seamless windows, generic host/guest communication channels, time synchronization, shared clipboard, and automated logons.

Additional resources

Why does VirtualBox matter?

VMs gives administrators an easy route for testing and developing platforms. VirtualBox makes this not only easy, but affordable. Since VirtualBox is free, anyone can use this software to extend the capabilities and offerings for their business. With businesses growing more and more dependent upon Linux, it will be crucial for administrators to be capable of working with the platform; VirtualBox makes it easy to deploy Linux guests without having to use expensive hardware. With VirtualBox admins can even emulate a network to either improve their skills or test deployments.

VirtualBox makes it possible for anyone from end users to enterprise IT staff to work with virtualization. The GUI tool requires very little in the way of a learning curve, so it won't get in the way of learning about the guest platform. Considering that container technology has risen to the forefront of IT, VirtualBox makes it incredibly easy for admins to test tools such as Docker, especially thanks to distributions, including boot2docker.

Additional resources

Who does VirtualBox affect?

VirtualBox affects administrators and end users, as well as people that make use of the technology brought about by VMs. Anyone who wants to test out a different operating system (such as Linux) will find VirtualBox an easy route to success.

Developers are also affected by VirtualBox, as it enables them to develop on a variety of platforms and create virtual networks to further test their software.

Businesses are on the receiving end of VirtualBox benefits. Although most people assume VMware is the only in-house virtualization solution capable of business-level VM deployment, VirtualBox is quite adept at serving on such a level.

SEE: What is DevOps? An executive guide to agile development and IT operations (ZDNet)

For commercial use, Oracle offers Enterprise licenses at $50.00 USD/per user. The Enterprise license includes better Extension Pack management. Although VirtualBox is released under the GPL, the Extension Pack is proprietary. The Extension Pack can be used, free of charge, for personal use, but it requires a license for commercial usage.

Additional resources

When is VirtualBox available?

The first iteration of VirtualBox was released on January 15, 2007, by Innotek GmbH (a software company located in Stuttgart, Germany) under a proprietary software license. Innotek did make one version of VirtualBox available free of cost for personal evaluation. In 2007, under the guidance of LiSoG (Die Linux Solution Group), Innotek released an open source edition of VirtualBox (licensed under GPL version 2).

In February 2008, Sun Microsystems acquired Innotek. In January 2010, Oracle Corporation acquired Sun and rebranded VirtualBox as Oracle VM VirtualBox.

Currently, VirtualBox is in its 5th iteration, and development of the product is steady.

Additional resources

How can I get VirtualBox?

Anyone can download and install VirtualBox. Linux users will find VirtualBox in their distributions' default repositories, so the software can be installed via the operating system's package manager. For Windows and macOS users, you must use the official installer files: Windows or macOS. Once installed, VirtualBox is ready to deploy VMs from your downloaded Linux ISO images, from your licensed Windows or macOS install disks, or from any number of virtual appliances.

Viable host candidates include the following.

Windows

  • Windows Vista SP1 and later (32-bit and 64-bit)
  • Windows Server 2008 (64-bit)
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 (64-bit)
  • Windows 7 (32-bit and 64-bit)
  • Windows 8 (32-bit and 64-bit)
  • Windows 8.1 (32-bit and 64-bit)
  • Windows 10 RTM build 10240 (32-bit and 64-bit)
  • Windows Server 2012 (64-bit)
  • Windows Server 2012 R2 (64-bit)

Note: Windows 10 Fall Creators Update will require an upgrade to VirtualBox to the latest release.

Apple OS X

  • 10.9 (Mavericks)
  • 10.10 (Yosemite)
  • 10.11 (El Capitan)

Linux

  • Ubuntu 10.04 to 16.04
  • Debian GNU/Linux 6.0 ("Squeeze") and 8.0 ("Jessie")
  • Oracle Enterprise Linux 5, Oracle Linux 6 and 7
  • RedHat Enterprise Linux 5, 6, and 7
  • Gentoo Linux
  • Fedora Core / Fedora 6 to 24
  • openSUSE 11.4 to 13.2

It is important to note that your host machine will need to have enough extra resources (storage and RAM) to run guest VMs as well as the host. Minimum system requirements are:

  • Reasonably powerful x86 hardware (how much RAM will depend upon how many VMs will be deployed, but 16 GB is a good minimum)
  • Storage: VirtualBox requires only about 30 MB of hard disk space. You will need enough storage to house your VMs, and VMs can easily start at 10 GB each.

Additional resources

About Jack Wallen

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 jackwallen.com.

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