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I would like to install VirtualBox as an Ubuntu testing environment. Must I permanently sacrifice system resources such as RAM? Or only when the environment is running?

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You must sacrifice some disk space when you install it. And a minor part of RAM, as it loads additional kernel modules. Nothing more, as long as the app is not running. The ressources you assign to a virtual machine are different: of course its disks will be there until you delete that VM and its files -- but the RAM assigned to the VM will only be used when you fire up the VM -- and should be freed once you power it down. Same for the RAM VirtualBox itself uses to run, which should be freed when you exit the VirtualBox application itself.

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The most common bottleneck, in my experience, is the HDD and/or the memory controller.

There will be more space allocated in the RAM, that's for sure, but the big problem is that your HDD and your memory controller have to work double times for 2 OS, doesn't matter if the 1 OS is virtualized, it still have to access a phisical device somewhere to read and write data.

If you have a chance to install and use another HDD, use this one to store all the data about your VM, having 2 HDD will make everything run smoother.

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Yes and no, virtualbox only take the memory when it needs, but you should give virtualbox dedicated memory to make things run smoothly. In some case you should have good VGA power or give guest os more vga vram for some guest OS like windows 7 or 8 to run properly. virtualbox slow performance ubuntu host happens when windows 7 doesnt have enough vram memory.

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