Product Reviews

Virtual Idol

VMware puts on a stellar virtualization performance with its latest version of Workstation.

I couldn't stop watching "American Idol" this year, not because I was enamored of any particular contestant. I watched to hear the judges' comments about each contestant. Here's a breakdown of the judges' typical responses:

  • Randy: I don't know. It hit the mark in some places but it didn't work for me in others.
  • Paula: That was fabulous! Your performance this round was better than the last!
  • Simon: Honestly, I don't know what Randy and Paula see. It's nearly the same performance as last time.

If VMware Workstation 5.0 was a contestant on "American Idol," any one of these responses would be equally valid. Let's take a closer look at this new tool and see where it earns its cheers and jeers.

What Randy Would Say
I hit a few snags as I was testing VMware Workstation 5.0. There were three main issues that hampered my experience, so I asked other users if they had similar experiences. Some had these issues and others didn't. Your experience may vary.

Issue No. 1: Occasional erratic mouse and keyboard support
During my testing, mouse control became inexplicably non-responsive. Doing the Ctrl-Alt-Delete combo would snap mouse control back to my real machine, but strangely enough, the mouse control got "stuck" in the Task Manager.

Also, I tried to rename a guest while it was running. I did this from within the VMware Workstation 5.0 console. Again, something strange happened to the mouse. When I pressed the first key to rename the guest, the mouse was snapped back into the guest. To successfully rename the guest, I had to suspend the guest, rename it and resume.

Issue No. 2: Guests coming out of suspension can have sluggish performance
Once Workstation 5.0 guests were out of suspension, I found their performance a bit sluggish. I thought it was just me, but a colleague experienced the same thing. So, when I'm using guests with Workstation 5.0, I disable the new "background suspend and restore" feature. It takes a little longer to get going, but I haven't encountered the same sluggishness since I deactivated this new feature.

Documentation 20%
Installation 20%
Feature Set 20%
Performance 10%
Management 30%
Overall Rating:

————————————————— MVP Award LogoReceiving a rating of 9.0 or above, this product earns the Redmond Most Valuable Product award.

1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

Issue No. 3: The "team thumbnail" view is unacceptable when my host's resolution is at 1024x768 mode
When machines are teamed, there's a snazzy new thumbnail view of what's going on in the other guest machines. While this is a nice feature, it takes up too much screen real estate when I'm presenting at a 1024x768 resolution. I can't find any way to turn it off, other than not to use teams.

These issues would be enough to make Randy say, "Yo dog, I liked it, but it didn't always work for me."

What Paula Would Say
VMware Workstation 4.5 was already excellent. It was fast, solid and had all the features I needed to get the job done. Version 5.0 comes replete with a gaggle of essential new tools and some whiz-bang features.

I have several "sets" of guests I use for demonstrations and testing purposes. Workstation 5.0 makes it easy to start up one bunch of guests to run a group of tests and another bunch for another group of testing. In other words, you can suspend and unsuspend each group (or "team" in VMware parlance) with a single click. If that was the extent of how Workstation 5.0 handles teams, it would still be a cool feature, but there is a lot more to it.

Specifically, when machines are "teamed," Workstation 5.0 lets you specify how much bandwidth to simulate between the machines in the team. This is a fantastic way to simulate how applications react over WAN links, including what happens with a certain percentage of packet loss (see Figure 1). Before, you needed an expensive WAN simulator.

Figure 1. You can specify how much bandwidth the WAN link will simulate
Figure 1. You can specify how much bandwidth the WAN link will simulate (including a percentage of packet loss) between your "teamed" virtual machines. (Click image to view larger version.)

Templates and Clones
Microsoft's Virtual PC has a feature called "differencing drives." The idea is that you create a baseline machine with Windows Server 2003, for example, then "fork" the installation. You could then use one server image to demonstrate Exchange and another to demonstrate SQL, for example.

Instead of loading two specific guest machines—one with Windows Server 2003 and Exchange and another with Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server—you could have a baseline machine with Windows Server 2003, and simply have two, much smaller guests for SQL Server and Exchange. This is great, because it means that new guests only use the space they need. Virtual PC does this well, and with a little elbow grease, you could accomplish the same thing with VMware Workstation 4.0 and 4.5.

However, the problem with differencing drives is twofold. First, if you inadvertently start up (and therefore change) the underlying baseline image, you'll have to re-establish the guests that were linked to this baseline because their reference point will have changed. Workstation 5.0 fixes this problem by using templates. Once you've set up your baseline guest, you make a template of that guest. That process marks the underlying baseline as read only, and lets you clone it.

You can create two types of clones. A "linked clone" makes a fork from the underlying baseline image and lets you install the software you need, but runs it based on the original baseline image. A "full clone" is a complete new image, including the baseline and a specific guest. This gives you the best of both worlds. It makes it easy to use guests that take up minimal amounts of hard drive space, but if the need arises to move those guests to another machine, it's a simple process.

Multiple Snapshots
Workstation 5.0 also lets you "fork" an installation to create an image. It then takes that idea to the next logical level by letting you take multiple snapshots of the same image. In short, you can "fork" an underlying guest at any time, load different software, then do it again.

For example, if I wanted to demonstrate how a custom-written Visual Basic script reacted to each version of Office (2000, XP and 2003), I could simply create three snapshots of the same system, then load the script and easily switch between each snapshot to repeat the demonstrations. In my estimation, this is one of the biggest new features for Workstation 5.0. It will forever change the way I use VMware to conduct demonstrations.

Figure 2. Workstation 5.0 lets you take multiple snapshots from the same original baseline image.
Figure 2. Workstation 5.0 lets you take multiple snapshots from the same original baseline image. (Click image to view larger version.)

Odds and Ends
There are numerous other odds and ends in Workstation 5.0 that are tremendous improvements over its predecessor—and its competition. Some highlights include better USB support for guest machines; a better command-line interface to start, stop and suspend machines; a way to make AVI-style movie files (to demonstrate tasks); and an add-on tool that can import existing Microsoft Virtual PC guest machines and spit them out as ready-to-use VMware Workstation 5.0 guest machines—leaving the original Virtual PC guest alone and intact.

One fact of life—and a minor caveat—with Workstation 5.0 is that the guests have a slightly different format than those in Workstation 4.5. In other words, guests created on Workstation 5.0 aren't compatible with Workstation 4.5 (or GSX Server 3.2) unless you create the guest in "legacy mode." Then, of course, you won't have access to all the snazzy new features. Overall, though, considering its new and enhanced features, VMware's performance in this round outshines its previous performances.

What Simon Would Say
The original reason to use VMware was to run applications that had compatibility issues with modern operating systems. You would run them contained within older guest operating systems. For that task, VMware has always performed exceptionally well. If that's all you're doing—using VMware to support a legacy NT 4.0 or Windows 95 application on an end user's machine—there might not be any immediate benefit to upgrade to the new version.

This is where Simon shrugs his shoulders and thinks out loud, "Well, I knew you could do that. A solid performance as always, but what else would I expect?" What Simon may not know is that many VMware Workstation 4.5 owners are eligible for a free upgrade. And who wouldn't want to do that?

The Final Vote
VMware Workstation has evolved beyond its originally conceived use. It isn't just an application compatibility tool for end users' desktops anymore. It is hands down the best tool for performing live presentations, testing software compatibility issues or running multiple (and different) operating systems for any reason.

VMware bills Workstation 5.0 as "Powerful Virtual Machine Software for the Technical Professional." The new features VMware has added to version 5.0 certainly support that billing. VMware Workstation 5.0 is a rising superstar in the virtualization world, and the one to beat on the road to virtual stardom.


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