Open source virtualization program VirtualBox has reached version 4, and the developers are hailing it as a major milestone. VirtualBox is one of the many projects Oracle found itself with when it purchased Sun earlier this year, and this is the first major release by the company.
Technically known as a hypervisor, VirtualBox allows users to create virtualized instances of operating systems running on top of their existing OS. There are versions of VirtualBox available for Windows, Intel Mac, Linux, and Solaris, and it's possible to virtualize those operating systems too, although only the Server edition of OS X is supported.
This time around there are big changes to VirtualBox's licensing system, although arguably for the better. Previously users could choose between the Open Source Edition (OSE), which was available as source code and which needed to be compiled before use, and the main VirtualBox release, which was covered by the Personal Use and Evaluation License (PUEL) and which was
available as a standard, ready-to-go installer.
Only the main release had full USB functionality, beyond simple mouse support. It also featured Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to allow remote access of virtual machines.
With version 4, the OSE has gone. Instead, the base VirtualBox release is available in both source code and standard installer formats, and USB 2.0 and RDP support have been shifted to an "extension pack", released under the PUEL.
Full 1.1 USB support is now a feature of the base release. Everything but the extension pack is open source, released under the GPLv2.
None of this means anything for end users, who will notice no difference; both the base release and extension pack remain free of charge and freely available, although users will have to ensure they download and install the extension pack in addition to the main program if their existing virtual machines have USB 2.0 drivers.
The hiving off of the functions into an extension pack is strategic. It wouldn't be off the mark to suggest that Oracle hopes an app store for extension packs will arise, all of which add in useful functionality of some kind or another for a fee, and which will therefore allow Oracle to turn a coin on VirtualBox. This has proved difficult in the past because Sun (and subsequently Oracle) simply gave away VirtualBox to anybody who wanted it. Volume licensing was required for those who wanted to deploy VirtualBox across hundreds of machines, although the nature of virtualization deployment means this was rarely necessary.
Other major new features in version 4 include a completely redesigned user interface, plus support for up to 2GB of memory in guest OSes, and a handful of hardware additions within virtual machines, including Intel HD audio and the Intel ICH9 chipset, which brings PCI Express support to virtualized machines.
Although Oracle has not been keen on the open source legacy that Sun left it with, with VirtualBox it appears to have taken the sanest route forward. Nothing has changed practically for users and, from an open source perspective, VirtualBox is stronger because Oracle had to open-source the installers and user manual to put the new system in place.
VirtualBox remains the best choice for anybody who either needs a completely free of charge yet powerful virtualization option, or those who simply want to try out virtualization to see what the fuss is all about. It's available for download from Oracle's Website.
Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his
Twitter feed is @keirthomas.