Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:JAVA) is getting some serious street cred in the open-source community nowadays. The longtime Unix server builder and Solaris scribe is picking up a host of new skills by buying up small, independent companies with world-class products. The latest example could challenge mighty VMware (NYSE:VMW) in the desktop and workstation virtualization markets.

What's all this for?
In xVM VirtualBox, Sun has a very capable, albeit specialized, virtual machine platform. Its original designer, Innotek, joined Sun's brand stable last February, on the heels of database builder MySQL and office software project StarOffice. Together, these three acquisitions made sure that I personally use Sun-sponsored software for almost everything I do on a computer, including writing this article using StarOffice offshoot OpenOffice.org.

VirtualBox now helps me run Linux applications seamlessly on this laptop, where Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows is the main operating system. It's free software that runs on a variety of Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)-compatible operating systems like Sun's own Solaris, any flavor of Linux, and even Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Mac OS X. VMware Workstation only runs atop Windows and Linux (though there is a separate application for the Mac freaks out there), so Sun holds a unique card right off the bat.

The target market for this class of virtual machine is a sprawling mix. IT managers can create standard workstation images that will run the same way on any compatible hardware, making for simple and quick management of corporate desktop systems and laptops. Developers can do their testing on a virtual machine, thrash it to bits, and then simply start fresh by going back to the original disk image again. And if you need a variety of operating systems around the house or office but only have a couple of physical machines, well, slap in VirtualBox or VMware and run anything you like.

Anything you can do, I can do better
A head-to-head comparison between the two solutions in InfoWorld comes to the simple conclusion that VMware has a comfortable lead in performance and features -- especially of the enterprise-friendly ilk like policy management and easy OS installation tools -- but it is expensive while VirtualBox is free. Given the attractive price point and the accelerated development once VirtualBox joined Sun, that package is getting some traction in enthusiast circles and small business.

But you know how no IT director will get in trouble for choosing Microsoft software? The same holds true for VMware in its small but growing niche of the software world. Going with VMware in a large enterprise environment is the safe and future-proof choice.

More competition, please!
Competition is good for innovation, and Microsoft seems to have given up on the desktop virtualization space at the moment. And there will always be niches for one package to fill where the other can't go -- yet. I'd be shocked if VMware Workstation couldn't run on Mac OS X in a year or two, now that one of the big boys of computing is leading the way into that potential market. Would Microsoft's Internet Explorer have tabbed browsing if Opera and Firefox hadn't stoked our hunger for that feature? I think not. And without the likes of Nortel (NYSE:NT) playing the same cat-and-mouse game with big ol' Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO), our networks might have been ten or a hundred times slower that they are today.

So I wish Sun the best of luck with VirtualBox and its big brother xVM Server -- even if they don't stand a chance to steal VMware's crown. 'Cause you know, they really don't.

Further Foolishness:

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. He really does use MySQL, VirtualBox, and OpenOffice to make a living, though. Nice work there, Sun! You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure is completely hardware-agnostic.