Vagrant web development - is VMware better than VirtualBox?

[Update 2015-08-25: I reran some of the tests using two different settings in VirtualBox. First, I explicitly set KVM as the paravirtualization mode (it was saved as 'Legacy' by default, due to a bug in VirtualBox 5.0.0), which showed impressive performance improvements, making VirtualBox perform 1.5-2x faster, and bringing some benchmarks to a dead heat with VMware Fusion. I also set the virtual network card to use 'virtio' instead of emulating an Intel PRO/1000 MT card, but this made little difference in raw network throughput or any other benchmarks.]

My Mac spends the majority of the day running at between one and a dozen VMs. I do all my development (besides iOS or Mac dev) running code inside VMs, and for many years I used VirtualBox, a free virtualization tool, along with Vagrant and Ansible, to build and manage all these VMs.

Developing for Drupal with Vagrant and VMs

Many blog posts have outlined the benefits of using VMs (Virtual Machines) for local Drupal development instead of either using native PHP and Apache, or a bundled environment like MAMP, XAMPP, or Acquia Dev Desktop. The advantages of using virtualization (usually managed by Vagrant) are numerous, but in certain cases, you can make a good argument for sticking with the traditional solutions.

If you'd like to take the dive and start using virtualized development environments, or if you're already using Vagrant and VirtualBox or some other VM environment (e.g. VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop), how do you optimize local development, and which pre-bundled Drupal development VM will be best for you and your team?

Criteria for the Perfect Local Development Environment

These are the criteria I use when judging solutions for local Drupal development (whether virtualized or traditional):

  • Should be simple and easy to set up
  • Should be fast by default
  • Should be flexible:
    • Should work with multiple providers; VirtualBox is free, but VMWare can be much faster!
    • Should allow configuration of the PHP version.
    • Should work with your preferred development workflow (e.g. drush, makefiles, manual database sync, etc.)
    • Should prevent filesystem friction (e.g. permissions issues, slow file access speeds, etc.)
    • Shouldn't have hardcoded defaults
  • Should be complete:
    • Should work without requiring a bunch of extra plugins or 3rd party tools
    • No extra languages or libraries should be required (why install Ruby gems, npm modules, etc. unless you need them for your particular project?)
  • Should be Free and Open Source
  • Should include all the tools you need, but allow you to disable whatever you don't need (e.g. XHProf, Apache Solr, etc.)
  • Should work on Windows, Mac, and Linux with minimal or no adjustment
  • Should be deployable to production (so your local dev environment matches prod exactly)

A lot of these points may have more or less importance to a particular team or individual developer. If you're a die-hard Mac user and don't ever work with any developers on Windows or Linux, you don't need to worry about Windows support. But some of these points apply to everyone, like being fast, simple, and flexible.

Using Virtual Machines to Test Websites on a Mac

Besides business applications, one of the main reasons to run a copy of Windows in a Virtual Machine (using either VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop) on your Mac is to test software and websites. I recently ran into a problem, though, when I wanted to test some PHP-based websites that were running on my Mac under MAMP (stands for Mac Apache, MySQL and PHP).

The problem is this: Even if you have the Windows set up with bridged networking, you will not be able to see the websites running on your Mac if you type in the Mac's IP address. This problem can be solved pretty easily, though, if you simply tell Windows exactly where Internet Explorer needs to look, by editing the 'hosts' file (which tells Windows where to look for specific IP addresses).

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