In-Depth

VMware Workstation Is a Virtual Powerhouse

Readers say VMware's desktop virtualization tool, although pricier than Microsoft's free Virtual PC, is definitely worth the money.

Product Info

VMware Workstation 5.5 debuted in December 2005 to rave reviews. Although Microsoft, its primary competitor, has bolstered its arsenal of virtualization tools in recent months (see "Virtual Server Has Real Fans" and "Microsoft Virtual PC: Good Enough -- for the Price," October and November Redmond, respectively), VMware is still widely considered best of breed when it comes to desktop virtualization. "We are a Microsoft partner and a VMware partner, so we support and use both," says John Hanley, CEO of Portlock Software, a storage management and disaster recovery software provider in Redmond, Wash.VMware Workstation is, in my opinion, a much better product than Virtual PC because it's more flexible and has more options," he says.

VMware Workstation 5.5 runs on Windows or Linux hosts, a decided advantage over Microsoft's Virtual PC, which supports only Windows hosts (although it does support limited Linux guests). VMware also supports more flavors of Linux guests, including the latest distributions from Red Hat, SUSE, Ubuntu, Sun Solaris x86 and FreeBSD.

"There's more Linux expertise in VMware. I'm sure Microsoft has vast Linux expertise, but they don't apply it to developing products for Linux," Hanley says. That could be changing, though. "VMware Workstation is a better product for Linux now, but that may not be true once all the Linux extensions come out with Microsoft," he says.

Bit by Bit
Workstation 5.5 supports both 32-bit and 64-bit guest and host machines (Microsoft's Virtual PC supports 64-bit hosts, but only 32-bit guests). VMware also lets users run 32- and 64-bit operating systems simultaneously on the same physical machine. The 64-bit guest capability is only supported on certain AMD 64 and Intel VT-enabled processors. (VMware provides a free utility that checks for supported processors as part of the download process.)

For most readers, the 64-bit support is important, but not yet critical. "Most of the environments I'm working with right now aren't 64-bit," says Bob Fox, an independent consultant who is also a Microsoft MVP for Windows SharePoint Services, a Pfizer SharePoint Lead and a member of the Microsoft Center of Excellence. "Maybe down the road it might make a difference, but I don't think it's going to affect me in terms of testing Web parts and different applications."

Hanley agrees that 64-bit support will become more important. "Most of our desktops are still 32-bit, so we can't run a 64-bit virtualized OS on our desktops," he says. "As we replace them with new 64-bit machines, that will change. But right now, I haven't been all that thrilled with the 64-bit Windows XP version's reliability or stability."

VMware Workstation 5.5 also offers experimental support for virtual symmetric multiprocessing, in which users can dedicate as many as two virtual processors to a given virtual machine (VM), as long as the host machine is configured with at least two logical processors. This is an advanced feature, however, that most readers have yet to use. "I haven't tried the 64-bit stuff or the multiprocessor," says Paul Moore, a senior developer at a small software company in Mountain View, Calif.

Moore's company uses VMware Workstation primarily because of its Linux and Windows support. "We do a lot of development on Red Hat systems and we do development for Red Hat talking to Active Directory. We need lots of domain controllers that we can bring up, take down, roll back and so on. Plus, we need lots of Red Hat systems we can bring up, take down and roll back. VMware is perfect for our environment," he says.

Steve Birchfield

Bread and Butter
Beyond the Linux support, most users cite VMware Workstation's snapshot and cloning capabilities as key differentiators. "The snapshot feature is very appealing," Moore says. "If I'm about to try something weird or different I can just take a snapshot, and that snapshot is very fast and lightweight." VMware Workstation lets users take snapshots at any time, even while the virtual machine is running. The result is a lightweight copy that takes the snapshot and stores only the changes from that point.

"It has a very nice tool for managing snapshots," Moore says. "The UI actually shows you all the different snapshots you've made. You can give them all names, and it's fairly easy to navigate. So you can try one thing and if that doesn't feel quite right, you can go back to a previously known good state, without destroying where you just were."

Virtual PC right now has no snapshot capability, although it does let users "go back" one level. "For developers who are always messing around, the snapshot feature is really useful," Moore says. "When you're developing things deep down inside Windows, if you make a mistake with a real machine, you have to clear the whole thing off and re-install. It's a big problem."

Non-developers also find the snapshot worthwhile, especially for disaster recovery purposes. "We can take snapshots of our data and ship those to our Texas office, and vice versa," explains Steve Birchfield, network administrator at AnazaoHealth Corp. in Tampa, Fla. "So if something happens here, a hurricane or some other event, they can just bring those copies of the virtual machines up and we can function and operate out of the other location."

Other readers like the snapshot capability but find it difficult to navigate. "I tried the snapshots, but I got myself all confused on which snapshot was which, so I just deleted them all and started over again," Hanley says. "I think better tools for managing snapshots in VMware would be cool. We're constantly changing the environment and like to go back to known states."

Storage space is another caveat when it comes to snapshots, readers say. "The problem I have is the hard drive requirements," says Fox. "You are definitely going to be losing space fast because you're storing all those images." Fox says he usually stores snapshots on a separate 300GB portable hard drive to avoid space problems.

Cloning is another key feature of VMware Workstation 5.5. Users can make either a full copy of a VM (called a full clone) or a linked clone. Linked clones are lightweight copies in which only changes are saved. "VMware's ability to clone one [VM] based on another is a great feature," Moore says. "If I have a [VM] and a snapshot of that machine, the linked clone feature lets you have both of those machines running simultaneously."

VMware Workstation

This works well for Moore because he can quickly and efficiently create multiple copies of VMs sporting only incremental changes. "If I have a domain controller and want to make another domain controller just like it, except that it's configured to run in Chinese, it's easy," he says. "I make a clone of the first domain controller and fire that one up while the first one is still running. Then, on the second one, I can go into the control panel and say, 'OK, you're now running in Chinese.' And it hasn't taken 10GB of space, because for the second one, VMware is just maintaining the differences between the two. It's very efficient on disk space and it's very efficient to set up."

Some Support Still Lacking
VMware Workstation isn't perfect, however. Readers find it lacking in some key areas, including support for Windows Vista and the fact that it doesn't yet have a physical-to-virtual (P2V) converter for Linux. "VMware Workstation doesn't support Windows Vista very well," Hanley says. "I'm assuming that will be fixed rapidly with Vista going to manufacturing. When you pop an image of Windows Vista and start VMware on that, the graphics look atrocious. It reminds me of the Atari 'Pong' days."

Not only are the graphics less than stellar, but Vista also tends to crash the whole machine. "I've had Vista as my host machine for a half hour at one point and it was just blowing up so I just reverted back," Fox says. "Vista as a guest on VMware runs fine, but the host has some issues to work out."

This should change once Vista is out in production. "In all fairness, Vista isn't a production operating system yet, so you really can't expect Workstation to support Vista when it hasn't shipped," Hanley says.

Workstation also has no support for Linux P2V, an important feature for AnazaoHealth's Birchfield. "Right now, VMware really doesn't have a P2V for Linux at all -- it's just for Windows. And that's one thing that's lacking for us."

AnazaoHealth is a pharmacy, and many applications in that industry run only on Linux. "When we purchase other pharmacies, chances are they'll have a Unix or Linux system," Birchfield says. "It would be nice if VMware had some kind of tool where we could easily pull their servers into a virtual environment and not have to worry about supporting that hardware."

There are some tools like PlateSpin PowerConvert to do conversions, but support is a problem. "You're kind of on your own as far as support," he says. "Other people going through the same thing try and help you out, but really, as far as official support, there's not much."

VMware currently offers a Windows-only converter. The next version of VMware's Converter tool will convert Windows physical machines into VMs, as well as converting Microsoft Virtual PC VMs into VMware Workstation VMs. That tool is currently in beta and expected to be released in early 2007.

Beyond P2V, VMware support can be a soft spot. Readers say VMware Workstation is a solid, stable product that needs very little support. For those pushing the envelope, though, support can be hard to find and expensive.

"There's no support after 30 days. You can buy it, but it's not included," Moore says. "I've had a couple of issues where I haven't been able to get things working. I went onto some of the forums, got a few suggestions and still couldn't make it work. It wasn't critical, but if it was, I would have had to cough up the money and pay for support."

Even with its downsides, readers say that VMware Workstation is head and shoulders above the competition and well worth its $199 price tag.

"Virtual PC is free today, but there is no way that I would use that as my main tool," Moore says. "The productivity differences between the two are huge and the platform support isn't there in Virtual PC. So it's not just about the money. VMware is a better tool."

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Tue, Jan 9, 2007 Keith Modesto

I feel this article unfairly represented Microsoft's offerings in the virtualization space. Though I will agree that VMWare has some significant advantages, Virtual PC is nowhere near the gutter dregs this article impressed. I can understand there are environments where it is not suitable, but I also know several situations where Virtual PC would be preferable. Exactly because of support issues, cost, and networking inconsistencies, I refuse to use VMWare to run my Windows "guest" machines. Despite this article, you have a LONG way to convince me to cough up $200 for virtualization on a desktop OS when I can have a very powerful alternative for free.

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