VMWare Workstation is a product designed for developers to set up test environments for all manner of software and network configurations, without needing lots of PCs. Many different operating systems can be installed and run concurrently inside ‘virtual machines’, and you can then run pretty much any x86-based software in a window.
The latest release is an interim release, and brings support for Windows ‘Longhorn’ (the next version of Windows, currently in beta), and the latest Linux kernels, as well as some other worthwhile improvements. It’s a free upgrade to existing users of version 4, and available as a chargeable upgrade to users of version 3.
Similar in concept to Microsoft Virtual PC (Microsoft bought Connectix), VMWare Workstation allows several virtual machines to be run simultaneously, each with different operating systems, hardware and network setups and screen resolutions. VMWare Workstation provides each virtual machine with its own modelled CPU, memory, disks, I/O devices etc., thereby providing the equivalent of an x86 machine.
It’s a great alternative to supporting lots of physical machines, and encourages experimentation. For instance, a Web developer might use virtual machines to test Web server configurations or keep multiple virtual machines with different browsers for testing Web pages. It’s also a way to move infrequently-used legacy apps onto another server, while preserving complex or unique hardware setups. This migration and ‘server virtualisation’ seems to be the way that VMWare is heading as a company.
The concepts and processes for installing ‘guest’ operating systems in VMWare Workstation are much the same as for a conventional PC, but there are some extra steps at the beginning. The first step is to specify the type of operating system that will be installed, and to set up the hardware.
The amount of RAM can be specified (up to 3.6GB), as can various other hardware, such as parallel ports, USB controllers and additional network cards or hard disks. Virtual machines can also use physical disks or partitions instead of virtual disks to give better performance, although this is recommended for advanced users only, since it’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing.
As far as performance goes, you have to consider what you’re effectively trying to do: run lots of operating systems on one machine. A gigabyte of RAM wouldn’t go amiss if you’re planning to run more than one virtual machine at a time, and be prepared to devote large chunks of hard drive space to virtual machines. We’ve got about twenty gigabytes of hard disk space given over to ten virtual machines. As you might expect, our test machine’s 2.4Ghz Intel processor is struggling a bit when running Windows 2000, Windows XP and Red Hat Linux at the same time.
Networking support in VMWare Workstation is very powerful. Several virtual networks can be defined with virtual switching, and individual clients can be bridged, networked to the host only, or given wider access via NAT. This way, fairly complex network scenarios can be simulated.
It’s this networking support and other server-oriented features that primarily give it the advantage over Microsoft Virtual PC. Soon VMWare Workstation will support 64-bit platforms as a free update to this version, and this should ultimately ease migration of legacy 16-bit and 32-bit applications to new hardware. VMWare Workstation is also available for Linux, although we reviewed the Windows version. This could be key for businesses migrating from Windows to Linux (or the other way around – we wouldn’t want to be biased).
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