I'm thinking about replacing some PC's on our network, some win32 and some linux. I'd like to run the actual OS I want in a VirtualBox instance, only one per PC, so I want a mega-thin Linux distribution which will let me boot (without login – I don't need access to the host OS except to configure the VM) straight into a VBox instance, taking the whole screen etc etc.

This might seem like an odd thing to do, but it seems perfect for my requirements where things move around quite a bit, and the ability to (re-)provision extra clients on any available hardware would give me lots of flexibility. Note that I don't mind if the image is on the PC or booted over the network – the flexibility to do either would be great.

I'm not sure I've explained what I want clearly, but I hope someone understands what I want!


Does it have to be Linux? VMWare's vSphere Hypervisor (formerly named ESXi) is free and specifically designed to be a lightweight host for VMs...


  • I've downloaded ESXi5 for evaluation, but read elsewhere (on vmware's forums) that ESXi is not very good for client OS's (like winXP)? Aug 31 '12 at 13:24
  • Hmm. I don't know why ESXi would care whether an OS was marketed as a client or server product. I did have an XP client running on ESXi 4.0, it seemed to work fine. But, I didn't use it much so perhaps in daily work one would notice problems.
    – Stabledog
    Aug 31 '12 at 13:42
  • I didn't know ESXi was free now. VMWare definitely has the user experience category tied up in WIN. Aug 31 '12 at 15:04
  • Well I almost always remote into these VMs (either ssh for Linux or RDP for Windows). I don't often go straight to the vSphere console and run them full screen. Your mileage may vary, of course, but VMWare has a big footprint on this area already.
    – Stabledog
    Aug 31 '12 at 19:51
  • 1
    while esxi is free (for 1 processor, up to 4 cores, 32gb ram limit) the downsides are that the "linuxy" host OS is very much stripped down (has a bash-like shell, but can't install bash), the filesystem that it runs is in memory, the system's changes are backed up, but editing things (like /etc/) is hard bc they are overwritten on startup, and the vsphere client is windows only- except for the "web client" which is flash based but unfortunately not part of the free tier, oh and if you do buy it that way that needs a running server, minimum of "windows server 2008". i may go back to virtualbox
    – cwd
    Sep 7 '14 at 1:27

xen server might make a better play for what you're doing, as you can load up a stripped down linux based xen hypervisor, add a VM on top of that of whatever flavor your prefer. If you give the VGA and USB ports to the VM, then in all likelihood your users won't even realize they're running in a VM.

If you're set on VirtualBox, though, I'd say use any distro you want, and don't install all the userland x-windows, openoffice, gnome, crap. Debian's "server" install is pretty good.

Then use an init script to start virtualbox in headless mode (VBoxManage). Your VM will still be available via ssh or RDP, OS and firewall rules notwithstanding.

  • 1
    By xen server do you mean "Citrix XenServer" or xen.org ? Aug 31 '12 at 13:21
  • 1
    Either would do, but Citrix XenServer will cost you $1000/machine. The xen hypervisor from xen.org won't, which I'm guessing is the attraction behind Virtualbox. Aug 31 '12 at 15:03
  • @JamesBooker you could also use Oracle-VM for a pretty lightwight XEN-4.0-server (just the bare OS - not the GUI-stuff).
    – Nils
    Aug 31 '12 at 21:01
  • Thanks, @Nils. That's a great tip, too. I didn't know Oracle was still cranking out anything Xen based. Sep 2 '12 at 3:44
  • @TimKennedy Oracle even made their Linux free of charge - this is aimed at CentOS.
    – Nils
    Sep 2 '12 at 20:37

VirtualBox will take away too much performance, since it is neither a Hypervisor (like XEN or VMWare ESX or Hyper-V) nor directly kernel-based (like KVM).

XEN in PV mode should be perfect for a Linux-VM (if the distribution supports the XEN-Kernel and thus PV-DomU-mode).

If you are looking for a single solution for Win/Linux I would go for ESXi (not a Hypervisor, but pretty stable, AFAIK).

See Stabledogs answer...

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