VMWare – Workstation 5 review

run several different operating systems at once
Photo of VMWare – Workstation 5
$189 (electronic distribution), $199 (packaged distribution), upgrade options available

VMWare Workstation is a computer virtualisation package that lets you install multiple PC ‘guest’ operating systems on one computer and have them running at the same time, with none of the inconvenience of dual-boot configurations. Currently it’s available for Windows and Linux, so we decided to try out both versions, testing on Windows XP and Fedora Core 3 (Linux) ‘host’ operating systems.

VMWare Workstation is one of those products that just work. The possible uses for it are many and varied. It’s great if you need Windows as your primary desktop but develop software for a Linux platform, for instance, or prefer to use Linux but need Windows because some Web sites are coded specifically for IE (highly annoying). If you’re an IT technician, you can test out whether service packs and security patches will mess up a client configuration. If you’re an Enterprise Java developer, you can set up distributed client server scenarios for testing… Anyway, we’ve made our point.

VMWare has just extended the list of uses for this software by adding some new features and extending existing ones. First, the list of compatible guest operating systems has grown to include new offerings, which was to be expected. VMWare now runs on some 64-bit operating systems too. Unfortunately, it’s not yet possible to install a 64-bit guest operating system in VMWare. Maybe this will come in the next version.

The excellent Snapshot feature of the last version has been extended with features not unlike a source code repository. A snapshot is a record of a virtual machine at a particular point in time, which can be restored at will. Now multiple snapshots can be taken of a guest operating system, and then earlier snapshots can be extended to create an independent ‘branch’.

This is a truly excellent feature. It means that you can install, say, Windows 2000 in a guest operating system, create snapshots after installing each service pack, and create branches using different versions of Internet Explorer, etc. The resulting disk space usage is much lower than duplicating the entire virtual machine, and it’s easier to manage.

What’s more, guest operating systems can be cloned, either to create a complete copy, or to create a kind of branch that can be run so long as the original virtual machine files are available, so multiple developers can use a single base installation to create permutations of a guest OS.

Memory usage is improved in this version, which is just as well given that a lot of the new functionality is geared around running multiple guest operating systems concurrently. However, it’s still advisable to install as much RAM as your budget allows, since it should improve VMWare Workstation’s overall performance.

In this version, VMWare has recognized that testing of modern software often requires a complete network setup and differing network conditions between machines. Therefore guest operating systems can now be clustered in what they call a ‘team’ of virtual machines, which can be booted with a single click. Any number and variety of virtual machines can be added to a team, and network conditions can be set for each one – bridged or NAT’d network connections, differing bandwidths, differing TCP/IP setups, etc.

This means that client-server applications can now be tested in ‘real-life’ conditions, like dial-up or broadband speed connections with 5 percent packet loss, for instance, which is difficult to simulate in an ordinary development environment. Being able to cluster guest operating systems also makes it easier to manage a test setup.

An interesting new feature is movie capture. Developers or technicians might use this tool to demonstrate a software issue or feature. The entire screen is captured to an AVI file. This is a great new feature in VMWare and works in both Windows and Linux, although in Linux you might have to hunt around a bit for suitable software to view the resulting file.

Installation in Windows was what you might expect: smooth and unremarkable. Installation in Linux was also uneventful, which was nice to see, although network support has to be configured via a Perl script, and re-run every time the kernel is updated, which might cause problems. Luckily it remembers network settings when re-run. One thing we’d have liked to see, though, is some graphical configuration or inspection of network settings.

One problem we have experienced in the past has been upgrading from a previous version of VMWare Workstation. Newer versions were unable to restore ‘suspended’ virtual machines. Thankfully, VMWare has fixed that in version 5. We even managed to open a VMWare Workstation 4 virtual machine in Linux that had been created in Windows, proving the independence from the underlying host OS.

Company: VMWare

Contact: 01276 414300


Verdict
VMWare Workstation 5 is a very worthwhile purchase and has much to commend it with the improved snapshot feature and 'teams' of virtual machines. It's also worthwhile upgrading from version 4.