Editor's note: Randall Kennedy was a US-based reviewer whose association with IDG, the publisher of Techworld, was ended when it was revealed that he also ran a test and research company under a pseudonym. We have deleted news and features articles containing references to that company, Devil Mountain from the Techworld site. Kennedy also contributed a number of reviews to IDG publications. Having re-examined these reviews, we consider them genuine assessments of the products being considered. Some readers will, quite rightly, be sceptical of Kennedy’s conclusions. However, we have left these articles on our database as we think that readers will able to make up their own minds as to whether they provide valuable information.

Everyone loves a freebie. Whether it's free beer, a free checking account, or a free-because-you-paid-to-attend tablet PC at a tech conference, getting something for nothing always feels good. However, none of us expects these freebies to be of a particularly high quality. The beer is watered down, the checking account has hidden strings attached, and that tablet PC is either underpowered, loaded with crapware, or both.

So when we do come across a genuinely compelling freebie, we tend to shout its name to the rafters. And after years of wallowing in obscurity, VirtualBox, the desktop virtualisation solution of choice for FOSS groupies and similar anti-establishment types, is causing quite a ruckus.

It all began when Sun Microsystems acquired the product from little known German developer Innotek. With Sun's engineering resources behind it, VirtualBox quickly grew from its role as "the little VM solution that could" to today's technology leader in desktop virtualisation scalability and manageability. In fact, VirtualBox has evolved so quickly, it's almost hard to recognise it anymore. Features like 32-way virtual SMP support are unrivaled, while the inclusion of branched snapshots finally brings it on par with its commercial competitors.

But the real shocker with VirtualBox 3.1 is the capability to dynamically move running VMs between VirtualBox host systems. Similar to VMware's VMotion technology, this new feature, which Sun has dubbed "Teleportation," adds a whole new wrinkle to the VirtualBox story. Suddenly, this once shy, awkward desktop VM solution is sporting speeds and feeds that seem more at home on a VMware ESX or Microsoft Hyper-V datasheet.

VirtualBox 3.1 supports up to 32 virtual CPUs per VM and has a much-improved snapshot mechanism with full branching support.

All of which begs the question: Just what the heck is Sun up to with VirtualBox? It's one thing to round out a product's capabilities to make it more competitive. But this latest development takes VirtualBox in an entirely new direction, one that leads directly to the corporate data centre and the lucrative rack space turf carved out by the commercial virtualisation heavyweights. If VirtualBox proves to be as capable and scalable as its latest incarnation seems to indicate, it could have a dramatic effect on the balance of power among the raised floors set. After all, nothing upsets the apple cart like an unexpected interloper offering free produce.

OUR VERDICT

VirtualBox's loyal fan base can smile knowing that there's some serious VM muscle lurking underneath their favorite product's pedestrian exterior, something that an Innotek executive intimated to me years ago. At the time, I dismissed his comment as nothing more than prideful boasting. However, I now see that this guy wasn't kidding, and that Sun's decision to gobble up this diamond in the rough is looking less like a compatibility play for OpenSolaris and more like a clever way to acquire a potentially class-leading VMM (Virtual Machine Monitor) with which to pry loose VMware's stranglehold. Kudos to Sun for seeing VirtualBox's potential and for keeping it FOSS so that the rest of the world can enjoy the benefits of its robust virtualisation engine. This is one freebie that breaks the mold and delivers more, not less, than you're expecting.