Can I Run VirtualBox from an External Hard Drive?


Can I Run VirtualBox from an External Hard Drive?

Oracle’s VirtualBox virtual machine (VM) software is a revolutionary piece of technology that has massive influence in remote working, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT), among a whole host of other sectors and industries.

Its applicability across multiple platforms makes it one of the best virtualization hypervisors around, a statement that still rings true after all these 13 years after its release.

VirtualBox can be run from an external drive to allow for easy portability of the VM software in case the user needs to travel away from their regular workstation for any duration. To install VirtualBox on an external drive, you will need an installation software known as Portable-VirtualBox, as well as installation setup files for VirtualBox itself.

Without further ado, let’s look at how VirtualBox can link to an external hard drive. In addition, we will look at the requirements you will need to satisfy in order to run this awesome software anywhere you go. Let’s go!

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Can you run a virtual machine on an external hard drive?

Yes, you can definitely run a VM on an external drive if you need to travel away from your regular workstation or if you are running out of storage space on your computer’s hard disk.

Oracle’s VirtualBox, in particular, has support for IDE, SATA, and SCSI hard drives. This functionality makes it easy for you to simply plug in your external drive into any public computer and begin working on your VM.

However, depending on the performance capabilities of your drive, doing this may result in the VM running at a noticeably slower speed, especially when attempting heavy operations that require significant amounts of writing.

To make things easier for yourself, you should get a high-performance external HDD, preferably one with a USB Type-C interface for faster data transfer. I would recommend that you seek out an HDD with 7200 rpm at the very least.

If you can afford it, getting a solid-state external drive would be the best way to maintain or even improve, the virtual machine’s performance. 

On average, SSD drives offer far greater transfer speeds than standard HDD drives. Some of the fastest SSDs can clock speeds north of 900 MB/s, far beyond the fastest HDD drives, most of which can barely clear 300 MB/s.

Another factor that may influence how the VM runs on an external hard drive is the size of the VM. Depending on configurations, as well as the storage space required for the base VM software installation, VMs can exceed 60GB in size. 

If yours is anywhere near that size, you will need a speedy hard drive otherwise the VM’s performance will be excruciatingly slow. The bigger the VM, the more resources it will require to run smoothly.

It is recommended that you only have one VM installed on your hard drive at any given time. Running two VMs on one external HDD will seriously hurt the performance of both, and likely drive you up the wall.

If you are determined to have two VMs, then you might need to get another hard drive.

For VirtualBox, specifically, it is best that the machine from which the installation is being carried out not have VirtualBox already installed.

Even if you are installing the software onto an external drive, your computer’s internal drive must still be free from any traces of a past VirtualBox installation. 

For reasons that are still unclear, installing the VM onto an external drive while it is already installed on your internal drive may result in an incomplete or faulty installation.

How do I use an external hard drive with VirtualBox?

For you to be able to access an external drive via VirtualBox, there are a few steps you need to take. Failure to do so may result in your external drive not being recognized by the VM.

The first step is to install Guest Additions, which is simple enough. While in the VirtualBox VM host window, click on “Device” and select “Install Guest Additions”. 

In most cases, a virtual disk with the installed guest additions will be loaded automatically. If it doesn’t, do not worry. Just go to the virtual disk manually and initiate the setup.

The next step is to access the VirtualBox manager. Right-click on the VM you want to use and click on “Settings”. In this settings menu, find the “USB” sub-menu and click on “Add” (little icon on the far right of the window). 

This will produce a list of devices, and your external drive should be among them. Once you have selected the drive, hit “OK” to save and exit the settings menu.

Once you have added your drive to the USB filter, you can now move on to the final step. Back in the VM host window, click on “Device” and scroll down to “USB Devices”.

A list will emerge and, if you have followed the above steps correctly, your external drive will be among the listed devices. Click on it to finish the mounting. 

The drive should now be present and ready to use within the VM. If your VM is using Windows, the drive will be visible in “Computer”. (A quick note…you may need to reboot both the VM AND your physical computer to complete the mount.)

If all of the above fails, there is Oracle’s VirtualBox Extension Pack. This is a small binary package that adds certain functionalities, including support for USB (2.0 and 3.0) devices such as flash drives, webcams, and (you guessed it) hard drives.

To install the extension pack, you must first download it from the above link. It works for Windows, macOS, Solaris, and Linux x86 operating systems. 

Once downloaded, you can run it directly so it can be added to VirtualBox. You can also install it manually from the VirtualBox manager. 

To do this for Windows, for example, open the VM host and go to “Tools”, then “preferences”. Next, click on “Extensions”. Click “Add” to open a browse window and navigate to the folder where the extension pack is located.

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