Don't use VMware without these tuning tips

TechRepublic members have turned Ed Bott from a VMware skeptic into a believer with tips like adding RAM and using physical drives. Check out what they had to say and then try your hand at Ed's next Microsoft Challenge.

My office looks like Crazy Eddie's Computer Outlet these days. With each new version of Windows, I get a new PC so I can do my job as a Windows guru covering Windows 95, 98, 98SE, Me, NT, or 2000. However, with two new versions of Windows on the way (XP Home and Professional), I've finally run out of room.

Fellow computer aficionados suggested I try VMware, which creates "virtual PCs" that run in separate windows under Windows NT or 2000 (and also Linux). I could stick with Windows 2000 on my main machine and pop into a virtual machine (VM) to work with other Windows versions on the same PC.

Getting started was easy. I downloaded the free 30-day trial version of VMware Workstation for Windows (a full license is $299, although the $79 VMware Express, which runs on Linux, is a better bargain). After a few hours of experimenting with VMware, I was disappointed by its performance. It took forever to load, and it crept along at a snail's pace on my usually zippy dual-CPU workstation. So I challenged TechRepublic members to help me configure and tweak this promising program, and you came through with these excellent tips that turned me into a true VMware believer. If you're a developer or a support professional, or if you want to evaluate software without spending hours setting up a test PC, I urge you to give VMware a try.
  • Bulk up on RAM. TechRepublic member gary spoke for the majority when he wrote: "The best way to increase VMware's speed is to give it a box that has plenty of memory, spare more memory, and don't forget to add in the memory!" That was an easy fix at today's low memory prices; I went to Crucial Technology's Advanced Search page and added 256MB of PC-133 memory for $89.99 with free shipping. With 512MB of total RAM, I noticed an immediate improvement.
  • Add memory to each VM, too. Fellow TechRepublic contributor Jim Boyce (co-author of the Windows 2000 Server Bible), recommends the following: "At least 128 MB of RAM for the host and another 64-128 MB for each concurrent VM, depending on the guest OS." That's a big boost over the default setting of 48 MB per VM, and I saw another big jump in performance on my test system.
  • Install the VMware Tools. TechRepublic member Evan Tallas pointed this one out. This small utility package includes an SVGA driver that soups up video performance, plus options that make it easier to switch between host PC and VM.
  • Use physical drives instead of virtual drives. Evan Tallas claims this step will increase performance by about one-third. Jim Boyce points out another advantage: "In addition to gaining performance, you'll also overcome the 2-GB limit on virtual disks." A caveat: Although performance goes up, you lose the ability to easily back up by copying the handful of files that make up the VM.
  • Manage your expectations. Probably the most perceptive observation was this one, from Evan Tallas: "Just remember it's a virtual machine. No matter how fast you want it to go, it's not going to be that fast." True, but after making the changes outlined here, I was very pleased with the performance I saw.

The current version of VMware is not perfect. Limitations include a lack of support for USB hardware, such as scanners and digital cameras, in a VM. And if you're thinking of using a virtual machine to put Windows XP through its paces, think again. VMware doesn't currently support the forthcoming Windows upgrade (formerly code-named Whistler), although a company spokesman assures me that a compatible beta version is in the works.

Still, those are quibbles. I now have VMware running beautifully on my main PC, with separate virtual machines for every Windows version and full network capabilities. Because VMs can be suspended to a disk file, I can open a VM in a few seconds, try out a tip or technique, and close it again without any fuss. I'm a believer, and more importantly, I'm ready to clear out some of this old hardware. Anyone looking for an insane deal on some well-used P-233s?

Here's Ed's new Challenge
Last week's Microsoft Challenge inspired a tremendous outpouring of responses. Microsoft's plans to require "activation" of Windows XP and Office XP aren't sitting well with TechRepublic members, and you're ready to send that message to Redmond. I'm planning to tackle this controversial topic in three consecutive columns beginning next week. It's not too late to add your thoughts. First, though, read Microsoft's official Product Activation Fact Sheet and Product Activation Q&A. Then, click here to read the responses so far and add your comments to this Microsoft Challenge. I'll choose the best comments for inclusion in my three upcoming columns.
Let us know about your experiences. If you'd like to share your opinion, start a discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.

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