Today, Sun announced it has signed an agreement to acquire a small, German company called innotek. innotek is the developer of the super slick VirtualBox application. I think his is a huge deal for xVM, and even Sun as a whole, and I wanted to take a minute and tell you why.
I remember the first developer desktop virtualization product I ever bought. It was 1994 and I was running a small Mac-only, boutique software development house. We wanted to port our most popular Mac application to Windows (heresy, I know!). I had limited desk space in my little office and I didn't want to buy a PC -- lest it fill up my entire desk. Instead, I bought a PowerMac 6100 DOS Compatible system. This crazy little computer was a standard PowerPC-based Macintosh with a funny half-height daughter card carrying a 486 processor. You could actually run Mac System 7 and Windows 3.1 AT THE SAME TIME and switch between them quickly. It was totally crazy, but I totally loved it. I was able to swap back and forth between these two OSs on the fly and test different versions of my app. In the end, solutions like this were pretty expensive, and the performance/$ sucked, so they died off. However, thanks to virtualization, the idea has resurfaced in much more viable software-only form in recent years.
VirtualBox is software designed to allow users to run multiple operating systems on top of whatever OS they currently have installed. Whether you choose Windows, Mac, Linux or Solaris as your default desktop of choice, VirtualBox will ride on top of it and allow you to "host" any arbitrary collection of operating system instances. Software developers everywhere are starting to discover this way of operating, and these desktop virtualization solutions are quickly becoming part of the common developer toolkit. In fact, these days there are several pieces of software that offer some of this functionality, but VirtualBox is unique because it's completely free and open source, and supports almost every OS known to man. It's no wonder that it's been downloaded over four million times in just over a year.
Now, as cool as VirtualBox sounds, some folks may be thinking that this sounds awfully similar to the xVM Server product we announced back in November. Is this redundant? Certainly xVM Server and VirtualBox both offer a computer the ability to run multiple operating systems. However, xVM Server and VirtualBox are products targeted at radically different markets. Here's how I look at these.
Sun xVM Server is a bare-metal hypervisor. This means it installs directly on the hardware, not on top of an existing operating system. It's a purpose-built software appliance with functionality to enable server consolidation and dynamic IT. It includes high-end, data center features like live VM migration and dynamic self-healing. This is datacenter grade virtualization. Along with Sun xVM Ops Center, xVM Server will become the engine that drives a dynamic data center.
VirtualBox is what is technically referred to as a type-2 hypervisor. It's an application that installs on top of an existing operating system. VirtualBox supports Windows, Linux, Mac and Solaris hosts, which means you can use it with your laptop no matter what OS you choose for your "native" environment. This makes VirtualBox a software developer's dream. You can easily set up multiple virtual machines to develop and test your multi-tier or cross platform applications -- all on a single box! VirtualBox doesn't have xVM Server's data center features, like live migration, but it's incredibly light-weight. I installed it this weekend. The download was only 17 MB and the install took only minutes. In less than 15 minutes from when I started the download until I was ready to start installing guests.
So, the way I look at it, VirtualBox really fills out Sun's virtualization suite. Where xVM Server is competitive with something like VMware ESX Server, VirtualBox is more like VMware Workstation/Fusion or Parallels Desktop. Except of course, that VirtualBox supports more host platforms than any of these products, and is open source and free!
So, this is all good, but if we're going to continue to give it away, why is Sun investing in VirtualBox? In short, because the developers that build applications have a huge amount of influence on how they're deployed. We believe that developers using VirtualBox can help guide their friends in the data center towards xVM Server as the preferred deployment engine. Beyond that, I think there is a huge opportunity to link with Sun's other developer-related assets like NetBeans, Glassfish and (soon) MySQL. Imagine the virtual software appliances we can create using these assets, and developers will be able to start using them instantly, making it way easier to install and configure these things.
If you haven't heard of VirtualBox, that's OK. Despite it's gaining popularity, it seems there are still lots of people to tell. In fact, in December, LinuxDesktop.com (an affiliate of eWeek) called it "The best virtualization program you've never heard of." For another recent review of VirtualBox, you can go check out Techthrob, which favorably compares it vs. several other options. However, the best thing you can do is go download it yourself and check it out. Now with Sun behind it, you can bet a lot more people will hear of it soon!