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VirtualBox and VMWare, which can run multiple operating systems on top of your current OS, aren’t the only two virtualization options available for Linux users. If you’re a Gnome Shell user (as in, you use the main interface of the Gnome 3 desktop), you can use something called Gnome Boxes for all your virtualization needs.
About Gnome Boxes
Gnome Boxes is a simple virtualization tool that prefers ease and convenience over numerous customization options. For the technically inclined, Gnome Boxes implements QEMU, which is a completely open source machine emulator and virtualization tool that claims to achieve near native performance when used as a virtualizer.
Gnome Boxes should be available on all distributions that ship with Gnome Shell. If you’re running a recent release of Gnome Shell and happen to not have Gnome Boxes already installed, you can do so by installing the gnome-boxes package via your distro’s package manager.
If you have an ISO image file of the operating system you’re wanting to run or install, using Gnome Boxes is easy. Just open the application, then click on “New” in the top left corner. You can then choose the ISO file you’d like to boot from — it even lists ISO files that it finds in your Downloads folder. You can also choose a different directory or even enter in a URL so that Gnome Boxes can download the ISO file itself.
Before finishing off the wizard, you can customize how much RAM and disk space by clicking on the “Customize” button. Here, you can move around sliders to give or less of each. You may also notice a few categories along the left side of the window. These are Login, System, and Devices, where you’re currently in System. Choosing Login or Devices will only give you a little bit of information and nothing to configure – I expect this to change over the course of time.
How It Performs
Operating systems run under Gnome Boxes perform well for a single virtual machine – you can expect approximately the same responsive performance as you would with VirtualBox. It even does pretty well with Windows as a guest system (everything past the first two paragraphs in that article become irrelevant to Gnome Boxes). Performance does tend to decrease whenever you turn on multiple virtual machines, even if you have more than enough resources. This is something VirtualBox excells at – it tends to do far better when you have three or more virtual machines going.
While performance in terms of responsiveness is impressive with single virtual machines, you won’t get very many other benefits. For example, VirtualBox gives you the option to install a set of tools and drivers on the guest system that make it integrate well. Once they are installed, the guest system can resize according to the window size, as well as function in Seamless Mode.
None of that exists with Gnome Boxes. The only way you could see an improvement is if you run a Linux system as the guest system that has QEMU tools installed. It appears that, by default, Fedora is the only major distribution that includes them. This at least allows the guest system to resize to the window size of Gnome Boxes, but not much else. Other guest systems will remain at their maximum defaults for basic graphics drivers (usually 800×600 or 1024×768).
Multitasking is also a bit more complicated with Gnome Boxes. You can only have one window open, with one virtual machine actively selected. You can have multiple virtual machines running at the same time (so long as it doesn’t start freezing up), but you’ll have to go out of one and into the other in the same manner as you would for text message threads on a smartphone.
While it seems like Gnome Boxes can’t do much in comparison to VirtualBox and VMWare, I do think it’s a tool worth using. Like I mentioned above, you get ease of use in exchange for fewer features and options – which is great if you’re generally testing a new Linux distribution or if you need a simple guest system for whatever reasons. It’s also fantastic for people who have never used a virtual machine before. All it asks the user to do is select the desired ISO file; everything else can be handled by Gnome Boxes.
For more complex setups and needs, it may still be worthwhile to grab VirtualBox and tweak with it. Thankfully, we have a guide all about using VirtualBox.
What do you use for your virtualization needs? Is it important to you to use an open source virtualization technology? Let us know in the comments!