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Options for Open-Source Virtualization on Desktop PCs

written by: Bruce Tyson•edited by: Linda Richter•updated: 9/2/2010

As virtualization revolutionizes the I.T. industry, many people and businesses are left on the sidelines because they can't foot the bill for commercial solutions such as VMware and Microsoft Hyper-V. Here you learn about open-source virtualization on desktop PCs and what it can do for you.

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    Virtual Box

    Wikimedia Commons, Computer n screen by Free Software Foundation Distributed by Oracle, Virtual Box is an open-source virtualization on desktop solution that can run on 32- and 64-bit Intel and AMD x86 CPUs using the Windows, OpenSolaris, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems. Virtual machines created with Virtual Box can run just about any operating system from the present or past. Virtual Box is said to be the only professional virtualization option available right now that is completely open source. Also, because it is open source, new modules can be written to augment the core system as needed.

    Virtual Box stores machine descriptions in XML format, keeping them independent of the local machine, meaning that its virtual machines can easily be ported to other hosts. Also, a software development kit for Virtual Box is available, meaning that you can easily create new interfaces without any need for hacking. Shared folders in Virtual Box make it easy to share files among hosted machines to simplify the distribution of resources throughout the virtual environment.

    Users who need additional advanced features that include virtual USB controllers, Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), and USB over RDP will have to use the "full" version of Virtual Box, which is free for individual use but must be purchased for business use through an Oracle sales representative. The exact cost for the full version of Virtual Box remains unknown until you get a quote from Oracle.

    One special feature is included with the open-source version of Virtual Box: Virtual Network Computing (VNC) server. This powerful feature allows you to connect to hosted virtual machines using any VNC client. The "full version" of Virtual Box does not include VNC support.

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    Xen Hypervisor

    Virtually any CPU architecture is emulated using Xen Hypervisor virtualization, making it an ideal solution for consolidating server farms or for providing virtual infrastructure services.

    Xen Hypervisor differs from Virtual Box in that it runs directly on the hardware platform and handles all the interaction between guest operating systems and I/O, CPU, and other resources. Because virtualization does not depend on a host operating system, Xen Hypervisor allows multiple guest operating systems to run completely independent of each other. Xen Hypervisor even supports advanced features such as Paravirtualization and Hardware Virtual Machine (HVM), although special accommodations are required for each.

    For those wishing to try Xen Hypervisor, a "live CD" can be downloaded for evaluation purchases. This CD boots the computer to Xen without requiring it to be installed on local drives.

    Because of the leanness of the Xen Hypervisor solution, most platform resources remain available to guest operating systems.

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    Virtual Box vs. Xen Hypervisor: The Choice is Yours

    Both solutions for open source virtualization on desktop presented here, Virtual Box and Xen Hypervisor, are sufficient to consolidate multiple machines on one platform. The best thing to do is try each one to see which option best meets your needs.

    Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that advanced virtualization options are available to individuals and businesses that save money without compromising capabilities and features.

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons by Free Software Foundation