I want to replace a bunch of aging desktops running various unit tests with a single server
running virtual machines.
Wont work. You need way too much processing powre for ONE server to make sense. Not saying virtualization is off, but unless you want to ad a LOT of money into a monster machine CPU wise, you are etter off planning for some servers.
What important things should I look for when considering a virtualization server as opposed to say
buying a server for web-hosting or a file server?
DISC IO. This is a bottleneck in most lower end servers and it only becomes a LOT worse when you do a lot of servers on the same discs. Supermicro has wonderfull server cases that are made for virtualization (unless you have a SAN) that support anywhere from 24 to 72 discs IN ONE CASE. If you tihink this is too much... I run a 64gb dual procesor Hyper-V server and I am now at about 19 discs, three of them SSD, and I STILL have performance problems on the IO subsystem at times (which is ok - patchhing up 30 servers causes a lot of disc IO).
Currently I'm leaning towards the free open-source Virtualbox, mainly because I have a little
experience with it.
VmWare ESXI is free, too. In general the commercial offerings - VmWare and Microsoft - are better sutied for the higher end market because they are used more in there and enterprise customers just need some features lower end scenarios never have. VmWare leads here eature wise, but by sa nt always relevant margin (i.e. Hyper-V has all the features I consider important and lacks some I dont really care about). VirtualBox is IIRC a littleon the primitive side. And you dont want to rplace this when it starts spreading - virtualization is also perfect for a lot of other scenarios, so you may put your company on a new direction ;)