What's the best hosted virtualisation suite?

Summary:A lot of the fuss behind virtualisation is focused around the datacentre. That's all well and good, but there is a whole world of virtualisation for workstations where competition for the best suite is red-hot and constantly improving.


VMware Workstation
Upon creating a new virtual machine for our Windows XP test, we were greeted by a unique VMware feature: an unattended install. This is a great time-saver, as XP has a number of prompts that require input throughout the install — just enter your Windows product key, a username and password and VMWare takes care of the rest.

The control panel for virtual machines is well laid-out and easy to use; once again the maturity of this product shines through. It is also the only hypervisor, besides KVM, to explicitly allow editing of the number of cores that a virtual machine can use.

VMware Workstation has a record/playback feature that allows the reproduction of the machine's state, although this did involve dropping the machine back to executing on one core only. It could be useful for debuggers and testers. It also has the ability to run virtual machines' execution in the background and drop the viewing window.

VMware Workstation's management window.
(Credit: Chris Duckett/ZDNet.com.au)

VirtualBox focuses on one thing and does it very well: running desktop-focused virtual machines. It's a no-frills approach that keeps managing VMs dead simple but removes the flexibility present in other systems.

One problem we encountered was VirtualBox's inability to boot from a NetBSD 5.0 CD. This was the only hypervisor to fail, and was the only outstanding tarnish on VirtualBox's record.

All the options for each VM is kept in a separate window that keeps the interface clean.
(Credit: Chris Duckett/ZDNet.com.au)

Parallels Workstation
While the other hypervisors tend to display a list of virtual machines created within them, Parallels works with its VMs via files. This means that you have to navigate the filesystem and open the file of the VM you wish to use in the same manner as a word processor application. This makes the interface clunky and feel dated in comparison.

Another problem we had with Parallels is that our Windows XP VM would need to be reset after powering on to boot properly. A minor annoyance, but one that can be quite aggravating over time.

The information on each VM is well presented, but it lacks the flexibility of the VMware Workstation or KVM.

Parallels Workstation does a nice job of showing the important configuration settings.
(Credit: Chris Duckett/ZDNet.com.au)

KVM takes a traditional Unix approach and separates the execution of the virtual machines from their viewer completely — for instance, you can have Windows XP running without having to have a window open showing the desktop; it will just run quietly in the background.

Clearly KVM is aimed at a higher level of use than just workstations, and the design reflects this. Although making use of the available graphical tools is recommended, you can revert to XML or a console interface should you wish.

As the KVM viewers are separate from the server, this gives a viewer the ability to connect to KVM hosts that may be running on other machines.

Creation and management of virtual machines is easy with the graphical tools and the ability to drop back into text files gives KVM lots of flexibility and under-the-hood power. With our set-up, we could easily create and deploy many Ubuntu virtual machines, an ability which is more at home in the server room.

Along with VMware Workstation, KVM is the only other product that allows you to specify the number of cores to show to the virtual machine, showing its "beyond workstation" pedigree.

KVM has a tabbed interface, where the VM is able to be viewed in the "Console" tab.
(Credit: Chris Duckett/ZDNet.com.au)

As a program that simply executes programs for Windows, the management is left to each user — that means the program can live wherever and Wine will happily execute them.

The flexibility of the system is inherent on which program the user wishes to run and its status in the Wine Application Database. Unless the program has platinum status, expect to have problems and minor annoyances as a bare minimum.

There's no question that Wine is meant to imitate Windows.
(Credit: Chris Duckett/ZDNet.com.au)

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Virtualization


Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

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