Desktop virtualization review: VMware Workstation vs. Oracle VirtualBox

VMware Workstation 11 has the edge in performance and polish, while VirtualBox 2.3.20 leads in platform support and price

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Few technologies have had a greater impact on business efficiency and IT productivity than virtualization. While most of the impact has been felt in the data center and in the cloud, virtualization has also transformed IT work on the desktop, where it retains an important role. Here I compare the two leading products in this category: VMware Workstation and Oracle VirtualBox.

The use cases for desktop virtualization are numerous and important. Most visible to the average consumer is the ability to run a different operating system on your local machine. This is especially common on Macs in order to run software designed for Microsoft Windows -- that is, desktop apps and games that haven’t been ported to the Mac. (The top products for running Windows on the Mac are VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop for the Mac.)

In IT, however, testing is one of the main drivers for adoption. Testing for portability was the original scenario that made desktop virtualization popular, and it remains one of the core uses. By running desktop VMs, developers can test code locally for portability before it’s checked into the source code management system.

Likewise, QA teams can test software in a VM that duplicates user or employee environments. In the event a defect is discovered, test engineers can take a snapshot of the VM, which they can then make available to the developers for remediation. The ability to take snapshots of running environments neatly solves the “unable to duplicate the bug” issue.

VMs are also very useful in training. If you’re going to train a large group of people on a piece of software, rather than have them download and install the software (and waste class time solving one-off installation issues), you can have attendees download the VM with the software already installed. Not only do you save time, there is an assured uniformity of student experience. In addition, any user errors in the VMs will have no lasting effects on their host desktops and notebooks.

There are other use cases. For example, I go through a VM when I want to be safe on the Web. I have a VM that I use only for browsing to sites where security is a paramount concern: banking and other activities where malware would be particularly damaging. Likewise, I use a VM when visiting potentially dangerous sites where the possibility of viral infection is higher. In fact, malware analysis is a niche where desktop VMs are particularly favored because of the safety they provide: A VM that is infected will isolate the infection from the underlying host.

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