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A Review of the Virtualbox Virtual Machine on Debian Linux

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Virtualbox -- What Is It?

Virtualbox is a Sun project to design an open source virtual machine. If you want to know more about the general concept of virtual machines, check out Virtual Machine Intro.

Virtualbox advertises itself as the only professional solution for a Virtual Machine that is open source. It certainly isn't the only open source Virtual Machine, as you can read on this website about qemu, another open source Virtual Machine.

But for the time being it might be fair to call Virtualbox a professional solution. It sports a full GUI environment for installing, maintaining, and running guest operating systems within a host. It also has knowledge about good default values of memory and features for many operating systems, making configuration of new guests very easy.

The computer on which Virtualbox is installed is called the host. Within the Virtualbox engine can be installed other operating systems that run on the host. The operating systems installed in Virtualbox are called guests.

Virtualbox can exist on Linux, Windows, MacOSX, and Open Solaris hosts. On these respective hosts can be installed guest operating systems of Linux, Windows, DOS, and OpenBSD.

For many of the more modern guest systems, Virtualbox has packages called guest additions. When installed in an operating guest, these additions provide speed enhancements, and even the ability to move in and out of the guest environment by just moving the mouse.

The result is that you can choose a host that you like for most of your work, and still be able to run a wide variety of guest operating systems in a window on your host.


How do you get Virtualbox?

You can go to Virtualbox.org to get the latest virtualbox install. Binaries are available for many systems. I was able to get a deb file Debian package of Virtualbox for our Debian and Ubuntu systems.

The procedure I used to install the deb file on Debian Etch was:

sudo dpkg -i virtualbox_1.6.2-31466_Debian_etch_i386.deb

In our Ubuntu system, the dpkg install was all that was needed. Virtualbox showed up in the menu system to be executed with a click.

In my Debian Etch system, I don't use the default KDE windows manager, preferring FVWM2 instead. In my case Virtualbox installed easily enough, but I had to hunt down the executable so I could run it. It happened to be:

/usr/lib/virtualbox/VirtualBox

While installation was easy, there were a couple of snags when running guest systems. I'll cover those shortly. I did have to make a modification to a system startup script to get usb to work, but more on that later.


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How Do You Install A Guest Into Virtualbox?

Virtualbox GUI

Installing a guest system is easy. The Virtualbox GUI lets you simply click on NEW to add another system, select a few initial parameters such as the OS name and type, memory allowed (workable defaults for different systems are available), guest disk file name and size, and whether the disk file size is to be fixed or dynamic.

Then Virtualbox can boot a cdrom and run through the install. When finished, it will assume the next boot of the new system is from the new disk image, though one can easily force a boot from cdrom whenever desired.

One can use the Virtualbox menu system to define other disk drives, the cdrom, floppies, networking, sound, and serial ports to the configuration for each guest.

How do you launch a Virtualbox guest?

To run a Virtualbox guest, first start the Virtualbox engine, use the mouse to select which of the installed guests you wish to run, then click on Start. It couldn't be much simpler.

Once in a system, across the top bar of the Virtualbox are some pulldowns, one of particular interest is Devices. When Devices is clicked, it drops down and gives the user control over removable media. One can mount and unmount cdroms, floppies, usb devices, and network adaptors.

Networking with Virtualbox is simple. For the guest, select a Virtualbox emulated network card that matches one for which the guest has drivers, then select the NAT interface. In the guest, set up to use DHCP, and usually other guest network parameters can be left alone.


Personal Observations

I've tested Virtualbox on Windows NT and Windows 2000 guest systems. Both installed easily and run quite well in my one gigahertz system. The Guest additions installed with no problems.

I did have two issues, however, and found a resolution for only one. The first issue was involved with the usb support.

When in Windows 2000, the Virtualbox Devices pulldown should have let me select a usb flash drive that I'd inserted into a usb slot. But all usb devices I tried, while listed, were greyed out and unselectable. I found that it was a permission problem. I had the same permission problem with qemu, but interestingly not with VMware.

The solution was difficult to track down. It involved doing the following:

1) Look in /etc/group and find the id number for the group vboxusers.
2) In the file /etc/init.d/mountkernfs.sh, find the line:
domount usbfs usbdevs ...
3) Add to the line:
... ,devgid=116,devmode=664
where in my case, 116 was the vboxusers group number.
4) Reboot, and now Virtualbox should work with usb.

The only other issue I had was with the serial port support. I tested it in the Windows 2000 guest. Whenever the serial port was enabled, it would function properly, but when I was finished with the guest and tried to shut it down, the Virtualbox system would hang up. I've read that others have had similar problems.