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VMware Workstation 5

I've been using VMware Workstation since the first releases of the software. Each time VMware releases a new version, I've found it a bit easier to use and with a few new features that make using it even more pleasant and useful. The VMware Workstation 5 release is no exception. To test out VMware Workstation 5, I installed it on my AMD 64 machine running Ubuntu Linux ("Hoary Hedgehog"). Note that this review will concentrate only on the Linux version of VMware Workstation.

The installation was pretty much trouble-free, which was a relief since Ubuntu isn’t a supported Linux Host OS. I’ve used VMware for years, and I recall some major hassles installing older versions of VMware Workstation on unsupported Linux distros.

This time, there were very few hassles, which is good for users who don’t want to have to run a specific version of Linux to be able to enjoy VMware Workstation. Despite Ubuntu’s unofficial status, Workstation installed easily and I was using VMware Workstation within a few minutes of downloading and installing it. Since Ubuntu isn’t “officially” supported, I did have to compile custom modules for VMware Workstation — but this is basically a matter of letting the VMware scripts do their thing and making sure that you have the right packages installed.

One other note about the system requirements. VMware’s requirements page says that you can run VMware Workstation with 128 MB of RAM, 256 MB “recommended.” It may be possible to run Workstation with a mere 256 MB of RAM — but I certainly wouldn’t recommend running VMware with anything less than 1 GB of RAM if you’re going to be using guest OSes extensively. My workstation has 2 GB of RAM, and I typically assign between 256 MB and 512 MB to Linux guest OSes, and 512 MB to Windows and Solaris guest OSes.

Using VMware Workstation

After the installation onto the host OS, it’s time to test out guest installation. The first OS I tried was Windows XP Professional. Installation went smoothly, and Windows runs more or less as well as it would on a normal machine.

I threw quite a few versions of Linux, BSD and even OpenSolaris at VMware. The only distro that had any problems with VMware was a pre-release of Ubuntu’s next release, Breezy Badger — which claimed it couldn’t find “volume group ‘sda1′” after the install. I’m not quite sure whether the problem is with VMware or the Breezy pre-release, but since it’s a pre-release I’m going to give VMware the benefit of the doubt.

One thing I really like about VMware Workstation is the ability to use an ISO image on disk as a CD-ROM for the virtual machine. I like to test new releases of various distributions, and VMware is perfect for that. Since it can use ISO images, I don’t even need to burn ISOs to CD after downloading them — just tell VMware where the ISO is and the virtual machine will “see” that as a regular CD-ROM. If you have a multi-CD installation — for example, if you wanted to install SUSE Linux — that’s not a problem either. When the installer prompts you for a second (or third, fourth, etc…) CD, you simply go to the “VM” menu, and “Removable Devices” and choose the next ISO image. This also works with floppy images as well.

Snapshots

I’m pretty careful about installing packages and updates for production environments. I don’t like to, for example, apply updates to Apache, MySQL or PHP without knowing how they might affect things that are running in the production environment.

This is one of my favorite uses of VMware — to apply patches and updates to a test environment before rolling them out in production. But, if something breaks, it’s still a pain to have to back packages out or (in a worst-case scenario) re-install the OS and software to emulate my production environments.

That’s why VMware’s “snapshot” feature is so handy. This feature allows you to take a “snapshot” of the system at a particular point in time, and roll back to that snapshot at a later date to return the system to that state. So, for example, if you want to find out how a Microsoft Service Pack affects a system, you can take a snapshot and then apply the update. If it goes well, no problem. If it causes a problem, roll it back and start fresh before the update was applied.

The feature is simple to use — just click on “Snapshot” and give the snapshot a name and description. Reverting to a previous snapshot is just as easy. Just click on “Revert” or go to the Snapshot Manager and select the snapshot you want to return to. This will return the guest system to the state it was in at the time you took the snapshot, so any changes in the interim will be lost. Of course, if there’s a possibility you’ll want to revert to the current state of the system, you can take a snapshot of the system before reverting to the previous snapshot of the system. Simple, no?

The snapshots do seem to return the system exactly to the point of time they were taken — not just the files on the system, but also the same operations that the system was performing.

Figure 1. VMware Snapshot Manager

Command Line tools

Another new feature for VMware Workstation 5 is a set of command line options and the vmrun utility, which will allow the user to perform a few operations on running VMs. The vmrun utility allows the user to start, stop, reset, suspend or even upgrade the VM file format for a guest host.

I haven’t needed these utilities much, but they could be handy if you needed to script interactions with VMs. For example, if one wanted to make sure that a guest host was shut down by a certain time each day, it would be possible to set up a cron job to run “suspend /home/user/vmware/host/host.vmx,” which would suspend that guest host.

Cloning

Workstation 5 also features “cloning,” which is pretty much what it sounds like. If you’ve created, for example, a virtual host running Fedora Core 1, you can make a “clone” of that virtual host. This can be handy if you need to do testing for multiple servers.

In past versions of VMware Workstation, I’ve just copied the files on disk to a new directory, which has also worked fine — but VMware has smoothed it out a bit so that you can do it through the GUI and added features for “linked” clones that consume less disk space and take less time to create than a “full” clone.

Performance

I’m using VMware Workstation on a relatively beefy machine, which is what I would recommend to anyone using VMware regularly to run one or more guest OSes. For the most part, VMware hasn’t adversely affected system performance. I have noticed a bit of a lag when I’ve been installing new guest hosts from ISOs, but that’s about it. As long as guest hosts have sufficient RAM, they also perform quite well. Again, I’d recommend putting as much RAM as possible in the host machine and giving guest hosts at least 256 MB to 512 MB of RAM.

Figure 2. VMware Workstation running Windows on Linux

Is it worth it?

VMware Workstation isn’t dirt cheap, but it’s actually pretty reasonable for the features that one gets. The download edition is $189.00, the packaged distribution is $199.00. Upgrades are cheaper, for users who were running Workstation 4.x.

If you need to run Windows and Linux, and don’t want to maintain a second computer, this is definitely worth a look. It’s also worthwhile for system admins and programmers who need to be able to work on expendable test systems, or who need access to several versions of Linux at the same time for building packages, or any number of other uses where it’s inconvenient or too costly to maintain separate physical machines for each OS that one is using.

If you’re already running VMware Workstation, you may want to go ahead and pay for the upgrade if any of the new features for Workstation 5 sound appealing. This upgrade is less of a jump in performance and features than from, say, Workstation 3 to Workstation 4. As VMware Workstation matures, there’s less room for dramatic improvements or new features between versions.

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