Virtualization Software: VirtualBox

Virtual Box LogoI’ve been using Oracle’s VirtualBox software to run a virtual machine on my Windows 7 PC and I recently started using it as the virtualization software on my Virtual Server Testbed. I’ve used both Parallels and VMware Fusion on my Mac. Both of these worked fine and are commercial apps. Despite having already bought them I decided not to use them when I switched to the Mac Mini. VirtualBox can run on Mac OS X but I switched to Windows since my Windows machines have more horsepower.

Licensing

VirtualBox is available under a couple different versions/licenses. One is the open source GPL license, the other is a closed source license. The differences between the versions is documented here. The primary differences are that the closed source edition provides an RDP server and USB support. The open source edition provides a VNC server instead of RDP and lacks the USB support. I went with the closed source version mainly because it’s the one I downloaded and installed before I knew there were two versions. But I kept it primarily because of the USB support. The closed source version is free for personal use and evaluation.

Host Operating Systems

VirtualBox can be installed on Windows and most desktop and server versions since Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 are supported. For Windows XP and Windows 2003 only 32-bit is supported. For Windows Vista, Windows 7  and Windows Server 2008 both 32 and 64-bit are supported. I’m using it on Windows 7 64-bit. I’ve installed it on Windows 7 32-bit but haven’t created any VMs on it.

Mac OS X 10.5 and up are supported as are numerous flavors of Linux. A updated list of supported hosts are in the online user manual.

Guest Operating Systems

VirtualBox supports a wide range of guest operating systems. Windows 7 32 and 64-bit, Ubuntu 9 and later for both desktop and server along with Windows Server 2008 are the ones that are on my list of requirements and they are supported. All Linux 2.6 versions and editions are supported along with FreeBSD and OpenBSD (among others) so I’ll have plenty of choices to play with. The complete list of supported guest OS’s is in the online user manual.

VirtualBox Installation on Windows 7

The VirtualBox installation on Windows 7 is straight-forward. Download the installer, execute it and answer the prompts in the wizard. There’s nothing special in the wizard prompts. I’ve put screenshots of each wizard screen below. Click the thumbnail for full size.

virtualbox-install01 virtualbox-install02 virtualbox-install03 virtualbox-install04 virtualbox-install05 virtualbox-install06

Once I click the Install button the progress status is displayed:

virtualbox-install07During the install there will be several driver prompts which will require confirmation and maybe a UAC prompt but eventually the completion dialog will appear:

virtualbox-install08 virtualbox-install09 virtualbox-install10

I accept the defaults except for the creation of the desktop and quick launch shortcuts which is just a personal preference to avoid shortcut overload. Be aware of the warning that the network connection will be briefly dropped.

Once VirtualBox is started the following screen will be displayed and the virtual machines can be created.

virtualbox-install11

Preferences

By default VirtualBox will create virtual machines and hard disk in the user profile directory. This isn’t where I want them so I go into File –> Preferences and change the defaults. They can also be changed on the individual virtual machines.

virtualbox-install12Other than that I’ve been running with the defaults.

Tips

The “Host” key is the right “Ctrl” (Control) key by default. To send a <Control> –<Alt> – <Delete> to the virtual machine use <Host>-<Del>

As each virtual machine is created and started the first time be sure to install the guest additions using the Device menu.

virtualbox-install13

Summary

As someone who doesn’t have any business specific needs for their virtual machines I find the free VirtualBox software is more than the equal of the VMware and Parallels software I was using. Although I’m admittedly still in the honeymoon phase and my feelings may change as I create more virtual machines with different guest OS’s.

Mint Arrives On Android

Mint.com has released an Android version of their Smartphone app, joining the iPhone version. I use it on my iPod Touch and now on my iPad. (On the iPad it’s just a iPhone formatted app able to expand to 2X).

The Android feature set is similar to the iPhone app features. The Android apps adds a widget that can be used to show your total cash and debt. You can tap the widget to go to the full app.

It’s up to you whether you trust your financial info to a website but I eventually gave in to Mint and figure it’s as secure (or not) than my online banking. I do like Mint’s attention to security. The ability to communicate with the widget, have a live folder or have transactions available to global search are all off by default and have to be enabled.

I’d been using Mint on my iPad because it’s been handier than my iPod Touch these days. Now it’s nice to have it on Android with my always on connection. The only thing on my wish list is the ability to add pending transactions but that’s not on the iPhone version either.

The New Handbrake Rocks

Handbrake icon graphicI’ve been using Handbrake to encode video for a couple years and love it. The open source Handbrake works on Windows, OS X and Linux. I’ve always preferred and used the OS X version. It had been about a year without a new version of Handbrake but the drought was ended in November 2009 with the release of Handbrake 0.94.

I was a bit slow to upgrade since the old version was working fine for me. Finally I upgraded. I had an issue (it wouldn’t encode) and kept using the old version when needed. Finally I researched the problem and found the simple solution – just delete the old presets in the Library/Application Support/Handbrake folder.

At first I was bummed because I’d lose my settings. But I soon realized that those settings were useless anything. The changes in Handbrake were significant which made it worthwhile to retest and come up with some new settings. The built-in presets now centered around getting the best quality while maintaining device compatibility.

I did a bunch of testing and ended up using the “Normal” preset with a Minor change to maintain Apple TV compatibility. I still have the Apple TV and while I don’t use it as frequently as I used to, I still do use it and want the video to work with it. I added the parameter weightp=0 to the Normal profile to maintain Apple TV compatibility.

The big benefit is the smaller file size that’s created for the video, yet the quality is maintained. The change has been so significant that I am re-encoding all my video in order to recover disk space. In general, my disk usage is shrinking about 50%. Some files are less than a quarter of the size while most are about 60% their previous size. There are some videos that shrink less and even a couple that have gotten larger so mileage will vary.

The new Handbrake is faster too. In general I assumed 1 hour to encode every 45 minutes of video using the previous Handbrake. On the same hardware Handbrake 0.94 as reduced these estimates t0 being able to encode 1 hour of video in 1 hour. Again, these are rough estimates which vary with the video. Also, different hardware will yield different speeds. My new Mac Mini only needs about 30 minutes to encode an hour’s worth of video.

If you already use Handbrake you need to upgrade to Handbrake 0.94 even if it means taking some time to evaluate the settings. If you haven’t been using Handbrake and want to encode video you should check it out.

Windows Home Server Add-Ins I Use

Home Server Smart add-in consoleI was recently asked what Windows Home Server Add-Ins I us and figured it was a good topic for a blog post. So this morning I took a look and see that I have six loaded. I don’t use a lot of add-ins for two main reasons:

  1. In general I like my important systems to be as clean as possible. My Windows Home Server is no different. I don’t do a lot of hacks on any computer I use day in and day out. Adding a ton of WHS add-ins could potentially cause conflicts and reduce performance so I avoid anything I’m just curious about.
  2. I use my Windows Home Server mainly as a file server, not as an application server. While I do use it to “stream” video and music to other computers or my TV there’s some client (iTunes or VLC these days) reading the file.

So my Windows Home Server Add-Ins reflect this conservative philosophy and revolve around maintaining and monitoring the server. So on to the list:

Disk Management for Windows Home Server by Tentacle Software (Sam Wood) – I’m using version 1.1.2.1997 (There’s a slightly newer version out). With the release of version 1.1 this became a paid add-in. I’m still on the 30—day evaluation but will be paying the $10. This has long been my favorite add-in and this latest version took it to a new level (sorry for the overused cliché).

The interface has been completely redesigned to present a great deal of information in an organized manner. The server hard disks tab will show the status of all drives in the system. (Click any of these images for the larger size.) Visit the website (linked up above) for details.

disk_management-DiskTab_big

The Disk Management tab gives additional information about the storage pool and individual drives.

Disk Management Storage Tab Disk Management Information for One Disk

The wire frame diagram to the right in each screen shot is important if you’ve built your own server or have a server that doesn’t let you know which physical drive your dealing with or which drive has gone bad. The red drives are missing (or bad). In this case it’s no big deal because I’ve removed them from the storage pool. I just haven’t physically disconnected them or removed them from the wire frame configuration. The green drive is the selected drive when your managing it. You can build your own wireframe diagram or download one from the web-site. If you build your own you can contribute it to the community. For me, someone had already built one for my case by the time I needed it.

Highly recommended and worth the ten bucks.

Home Server SMART by Dojo North Software is a Windows Home Server add-in that reports the Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (S.M.A.R.T) information from the hard drives in the Windows Home Server.

Home Server SMART screenI came across this WHS add-in when I was having hard drive problems with my Windows Home Server. It made it easy for me to find the problem hard drive. We Got Served has a in-depth and accurate review of this add-in.

This is a free add-in. I have a certain affection for software that does a job simply and cleanly and this certainly fits that bill. Add to that the time this saved me troubleshooting my drive problem and I ended up throwing a small donation their way. So this one is also highly recommended.

Grid Junction by Kentdome Technologies is an add-in for managing a Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). Not much to say about this one. It’s free and it’s worked with the two different UPS’s I used it with. It records power events (such as brown outs) and properly shuts down my server when power fails.

Windows Home Server Toolkit 1.1 by Microsoft. Provides error reporting and troubleshooting guides. Good to have around in case it’s needed but not something I use with any frequency.

Windows Home Server Toolkit screen

If you use remote console to connect to your server then the command prompt and event viewer options aren’t any benefit but their nice to have available on the console.

PerfectDisk 11 by Raxco Software is disk defragmentation software. PerfectDisk 11 for Windows Home Server is part of the PerfectDisk family of defrag software. It’s $40 for the WHS license alone but is also part of a couple licensing bundles. (Also look or wait for discounts, I bought it for about half price. Here’s a 20% discount through March 26th, 2010) It’s debatable whether or not defragging a WHS hard disk provides any noticeable benefit and the answer may depend upon how you use the WHS. I looked at a couple defraggers after finding that the built-in WHS defragger wasn’t usable for me (slow, manual and a big performance hit). I decided on PerfectDisk 10 awhile back, mainly on price.

I haven’t really noticed a performance improvement since I’ve been using a defragger. Perfect Disk 11 hasn’t impacted my performance in a negative way when it’s running. The exception being if I force it to keep running on a physical disk that a file I’m streaming is also on. But typically PerfectDisk will pause when disk i/o picks up.

If you want to defragment your Windows Home Server then I’d recommend PerfectDisk 11 based on it’s price and configuration options. But I’m no so enamored with it that I’d recommend it over a lower cost but comparable product. I’m also not convinced that defragmentation will noticeably improve performance on a Windows Home Server.

AdminiMe by ASoft is another paid Windows Home Server Add-In ($8). I did pay for it but based more on the feature list and a couple recommendations than actual use. In retrospect, if I had run the trial for awhile I may not have bought it. Early on I had some problems with it although that may have been due to other WHS problems. I find the interface a bit complex. I have the service turned off so while I have the add-in installed, it’s not really being used. I may return to it some day and find some benefit in it.

Those are the six add-ins I currently have installed. I also looked at Avast’s Antivirus software for Windows Home Server about a year ago.  Avast has been updating their AV software but I think the WHS software is still at the older version. It’s also hard to find on their website so I’m not sure how committed that are to the product. The WHS AV software seems to have little to chose from, so if you want AV software for your WHS then check out the 60-day eval.  I fall into the camp that doesn’t want AV on their WHS since I don’t want the overheard and I don’t use the WHS in a risky manner (no internet browsing or direct downloads). The Avast software seemed nice enough although a bit rough around the edges as they tried to shoehorn their product into the WHS console. The real-time scans didn’t seem to have a noticeable impact when I used the server. But the disk scans did cause a noticeable performance hit.

What add-ins do you use or recommend?

iPhoto vs. Windows Live Photo Gallery

Picture of a Rolleiflex Camera

Picture of a Rolleiflex CameraI recently moved my photos from iPhoto on my iMac to Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG) on my Windows 7 PC so I figured I’d compare the two. The short version is that iPhoto is a mature application that has gone through many iterations of enhancements while WLPG is newer and less feature rich. I used iPhoto mainly as an organizing tool for any images I didn’t take – screenshots for my website, graphics for the website, pictures from others and from the web. I rarely edited those images and organization was mainly why I used iPhoto.

Organization

My main reason for moving my images out of iPhoto was to move them to a directory structure on disk that would provide some basic organization without tying me to any specific app. iPhoto can either pull your images into it’s own library and organization method when you import or it can keep the image exactly where it was when you imported. I was using the first method as that was the only option when I started and I never changed – until now. I can import the images back into iPhoto if I want and just keep them where they are. I wasn’t big on tagging since I used albums for organization.

I also maintained multiple iPhoto libraries (either hold down the option key when starting iPhoto or  doe what I did and use iPhoto Library Manager) to keep things seperated. For the way I work I prefer to have my libraries by broad topic so my searches are limited to the topic.

Tags

iPhoto tags apply across the entire library but the ability to have completely separate libraries makes tags more useful in iPhoto in my opinion.

While WLPG allows you to keep images in separate directories and even on separate drives at the highest level the directories merge. If you tag photos the tags will be shared across galleries and when you click on a tag it will return matches across all folders. If the tag matches across folders there’s no easy way to drill down into the folders. You’ll have to search through all the images that match the tag.

One benefit that WLPG has over iPhoto is a command to remove all unused tags. Doing this in iPhoto can be tedious but WLPG makes it easy.

One big advantage WLPG has over iPhoto is that tags are added as meta-data to the image itself. This means if I tag an image in WLPG and later import it into another app (or another WLPG instance) the tags will go with it.

Arrange by Date Taken

WLPG has some built in folders (searches actually) that will organize images by the date they were taken. iPhoto has no such ability unless you organize the events by day which excludes other uses of events. I used events for, well, events like Christmas, birthday party, vacation, etc… This meant I couldn’t organize photos by date.

Organization Summary

Windows Live Photo Gallery’s use of the file system without having to explicitly import the images makes it easier to get images into it. Just define a top level directory in the gallery and any image added to it or a subdirectory will appear in WLPG. With iPhoto you have to import them and then organize them into albums, even if you’re using the file system and not copying them into the library itself.

iPhoto’s ability to have distinct libraries may be an advantage to some, including myself. WLPG has one big library.

At this point I’m giving the organization advantage to WLPG because it takes little effort to get images in. I just copy them to the directory I want and they appear. In iPhoto, even if they are in the same directory I would have to import new images and add them to the appropriate albums or events. I also like that tags get added to the file meta data making me less tied to WLPG than I would be to iPhoto. So while iPhoto’s ability to have multiple libraries is an advantage, WLPG’s ease of import and organization maintenance gives it the edge.

I haven’t done a lot of testing, but I don’t see any problems using WLPG and iPhoto on the same set of images. I do have some images in both WLPG and iPhoto.

Editing

As I said, I don’t use iPhoto for a lot of editing and wouldn’t use WLPG for editing much either. I only do occasional cropping and image wide exposure adjustment. Both programs seemed to work fine. I found iPhoto a bit easier to use but that may be because I’m more used to it. Both use similar methods of using sliders to set adjustments.

Both apps allow you to easily open the photo in an external editor and save it back to the library. Both also save the original image and allow you to restore the original image at any time in the future.

I found iPhoto’s original image restore easier to use. I always want to keep the original image as the one displayed in the library. Any edits are for one time use and I immediately restore the original. WLPG requires me to exit the image edit screen and go back to the gallery and then open the image for editing again. At that point the original image can be restored. Also, WLPG doesn’t allow any mass original restore. In iPhoto I can select all images and restore the original for them all. Something I did occasionally to avoid wasting space. In WLPG the original restore is one at a time.

I don’t know if it’s a bug (I’m using Windows 7 RC1 with WLPG) or intended to work this way but when an original is restored the original backup stays in it’s backup directory, wasting space. (C:Users<user>AppDataLocalMicrosoftWindows Photo GalleryOriginal Images). This also has the side effect of keeping the “Restore Original” menu item active even after an original is restored. The restore does work tho’. There is an option to delete these originals after a configurable length of time but the default is not to never delete them.

Online Features

Both iPhoto and WLPG include online integration with the iPhoto integration being more mature. I haven’t used any of the features but iPhoto includes integration with MobileMe, Facebook and Flickr. WLPG just integrates with the online WLPG. For both apps the online features are optional.

Conclusion

Neither application strikes me as being head and shoulders above the others. Few people will have to chose between the two and they’ll probably be quit happy with whichever they use. And if one doesn’t meet your needs switching to the other probably won’t give you want you want either. For me WLPG gets the nod because there’s little time investment getting images into it and it’s easy to move the images to another app if I find something better. Neither one is so good as to keep me from looking at Picasa which I’ll be doing as soon as I get a chance.

Windows 7

I hadn’t considered Windows 7 for my PC build. I started planning in December and had pretty much ignored the stories about when the beta would be available. I didn’t want to be running beta software on a PC I had just built and I didn’t want to have to worry about software compatibility and whether the problem was hardware or software.

I just made a u-turn and did a fresh install of Windows 7 on my newly built PC. It was abrupt because I wanted to flatten the Vista installation before activation kicked in and I burned up the activation key. While definitely beta, the stories indicate it’s a pretty solid beta and not like the first Vista beta which was a nightmare. Still, I was expecting to regret my decision. I’m pleasantly surprised that I have no regrets (at least so far).

The download was quick despite the file sizes. The 64-bit version is 3.15GB while the 32-bit version is 2.44GB. I’ll be using the 64-bit version although I did download the 32-bit version and get a license key in case I need it. Microsoft is using Akamai to do the download so that probably helps with the speed. I’m not entirely convinced the initial download problems weren’t a PR stunt so Microsoft could say Windows 7 was more popular than expected. You do have to install a download manager active-x control to handle the download. Probably not a bad idea with such large files but the desktop icon it added annoys me. The help screen mentions java and active-x so it’s likely Firefox users aren’t excluded and would get the java based download manager.

The file names include the word “ultimate”, I hope that doesn’t mean Microsoft is planning to use the same product segmentation as they did for Vista.

Be sure to read the release notes if you’re installing Windows 7 and be sure to get the MP3 patch to avoid destroying your MP3 library. Read about it here. (This patch was installed by Windows Update for me although it sounds like it wasn’t always in Windows Update.)

Windows 7 Device Manager I selected custom install so I could do a fresh install. I never do an OS upgrade, either Windows or OS X, and always take the opportunity to do a clean install. Even though my Vista install was less than 3 days old I decided on the same approach. The install was smooth and the only two “bangs” (unidentified hardware flagged by a yellow exclamation mark in device manager) were “Coprocessor” and “SM Bus Controller”. Despite those, everything seemed to be running fine. I installed the Vista 64 drivers for my motherboard, ignoring the video and network drivers as both those seemed to be working fine and I don’t want to mess with those critical components. This cleared the bangs and I now have a clean install. Windows Update does tell me that there’s a video driver update from NVidia available but I’ve held off installing it. (This was there for Vista too.)

I’ve yet to come across a software compatibility problem while installing the software although admittedly I haven’t done a lot with the installed software. Most of the software is running as 32-bit and when it matters they see the OS as Vista. So far I’ve got:

Windows Home Server – Vista 64 connector used. The console runs fine and backups are occurring on schedule.

AVG Free Anti-virus – I’m not using the toolbar or the e-mail scanner (by choice) but the basic anti-virus installed fine.

Evernote – The Windows client installed and seems to run fine. I haven’t used the browser integration yet.

Dropbox – No issues, syncs fine

Microsoft Live Mesh – Still in the tech preview stage itself but installed and syncs fine. I don’t have remote access enabled.

Wakoopa – I don’t track web apps but has worked fine so far.

Core Temp – Seems to run fine.

AnyDVD and Clone DVD – DVD ripping and copying software works fine. (I don’t use these to burn physical DVDs.)

Firefox – works fine as do the Evernote Web Clipper, Delicious Bookmarks, Foxmarks, Google Gears, Greasemonkey, NoScript and Stop Autoplay add-ons. I want to force myself to use IE 8, at least for awhile, so I don’t have Firefox set as my default browser. (I don’t expect this to last long.)

Windows Live Essentials – I installed Mail, Photo Gallery, Toolbar (despite my toolbar disdain), Writer, Silverlight and the Movie Maker Beta although I’ve yet to dig into any of them.

The Windows Experience score is slightly better than it was under Vista:

Windows 7 Experience ScoreI’ve started up a new section dedicated to Windows 7.

 

The OS Quest Trail Log #33: Potpourri

It’s been a pretty dry couple of month for blog posts so far. But there’s still a few things worth mentioning and rather than a couple small posts I decided to put them all here to make them easier to ignore.

WordPress 2.6.2 was released and I upgraded this site. It’s a security release so considered required although the developer blog indicates it’s mainly a concern if open registration is allowed. I decided to upgrade anyway. I have to admit, I’m getting a a bit lazy with these minor upgrades. I just check that the latest backups were done and do the upgrade. No installation in a test environment or other testing. Eventually I’ll get burned and mend my lazy ways.

There’s been some web site updates on some of the static pages. I’ve updated the hardware list on the What I Use page and also updated it to include more information about the software I use from Wakoopa. I’ve used the widgets Wakoopa provides to pull the information in real-time (well, as real-time as they want it to be). I’ve also updated the Mac Software page – removed software that I no longer use and added some new software.

New & Updated Software

There’s been some new software joining the quest. DropBox went public and no longer requires an invite code. It’s still in beta, but it’s no longer a private beta. I’ve been using it a couple of days and found it easy to use and set up. It integrates better with OS X than SugarSync did, in my opinion. A 2 GB DropBox account is free while 50GB accounts are $10/mth or $100/yr. Unfortunately there’s nothing between 2GB and 50GB. The good news is it already supports Windows, OS X and Linux. So far I’ve only used it on OS X. Syncing between two macs was quick and clean.

IZarc became my new file archiving software of choice for Windows due to it’s ISO support. Of course, being Windows it doesn’t get much use, but IZarc2Go has now found a home on my utility flash drive.

While not exactly new, I’m back to using Jungle Disk. It’s been dormant for awhile so it seems new. I installed the latest version and have been archiving some files off to Amazon S3.

Google Chrome is also out. I’ve used it briefly and it felt fast. But since it’s Windows only I’m not going to be using it a lot or dive into the features.

I still haven’t installed iTunes 8 or the associated Quicktime update. I haven’t wanted to deal with the problems that seem to accompany every software update these days. The new features haven’t excited me either so I’m in no rush. I like iTunes but it seems to be entering the realm of bloatware.

Drobo

I’m still using the Drobo, performance hasn’t been great but it’s acceptable. In short, performance seems to suffer greatly if there’s a lot of file opens/closes in a short period of time. Total disk I/O drops if I copy a lot of small files. ChronoSync also seems abnormally slow when using the drive. I haven’t done much testing since writing about it. Once commentor recommended rolling the software back to the earlier version but I haven’t done that. There’s supposed to be a firmware update just around the corner so I’ve decided to wait for that.

Odds & Ends

Other things that have been occupying my Quest time is my continued education and testing to get WordPress running on my own server. It’s up and running but I’m still working on security and trying out different things.