Support professionals considering a migration from Windows to Linux desktops will need a way to easily support both operating systems during the transition. There are generally three methods you could use to do this.

  1. You can have two computers at each support person’s desk. However, this isn’t always feasible.
  2. Each support person could set up dual booting on his or her PC. But this is very inconvenient, because it would require the support tech to constantly reboot his or her PC during the day and could result in a significant lag time when answering support calls.
  3. You can install virtual PC software such as VMware Workstation or Virtual PC on each support tech’s workstation under Windows and install a Linux partition onto the machine that always runs and is always available.

In this article, I will explain how to use two of the primary offerings in the virtual PC software arena: VMware Workstation and Connectix Virtual PC. At the time this article was written, VMware Workstation 3.1 had a list price of $299 while Connectix Virtual PC had a list price of $199.

How do they work?
Both of these programs work on the same principal: They completely emulate an entire PC in software running on your existing workstation without actually requiring an additional full PC. Each virtual PC is completely independent of any others and can run its own applications and services, even providing network services to other machines. For both products, when a new virtual machine is created, you need to specify certain parameters, such as how much RAM you wish to devote to each machine and how you want networking to be handled. For networking, you have the option of setting up a virtual PC that is capable only of communicating with the host, that shares the host’s IP address to the outside world using NAT, or that uses its own separate IP address on the primary network.

In addition to a choice in how networking features are set up for each virtual machine, you also get the option of how to handle CD-ROM devices. In most cases, you will likely take the default option of just sharing the host’s physical CD device with the virtual PC, but in other cases, you may want to connect the virtual machine’s CD device to a host-based ISO CD image file. Both VMware Workstation and Virtual PC support this feature.

To get a guest virtual PC up and running, you need to have the installation media for the machine that you want to create. For example, to install a Windows XP Professional virtual machine, you need a Windows XP CD. If you don’t have a copy of the client OS that you wish to install, both companies offer for sale guest OS kits, which include the applicable licenses.

How it looks on your PC
The guest operating system looks like nothing more than just another window on your host’s desktop. In Figure A, you can see a Red Hat Linux 7.2 guest operating system running on my Windows XP desktop using VMware Workstation 3.1. The Linux server looks and acts just like it is supposed to.

Figure A
Here you see the VMware Workstation guest OS running on a Windows XP host.

Since I need to run a Windows-based desktop in the office, I frequently use VMware Workstation to test Linux-based solutions while I am on the train going home from work. This lets me make good use of my time and run a number of virtual machines at once. Using VMware Workstation also allows me to run a Windows XP guest operating system that I can use for testing, which helps me avoid cluttering up or messing up my laptop.

What about graphical desktops?
Both of these products allow you to use a graphical desktop, such as Windows (obviously) and KDE or GNOME inside the guest machine. In Figure B, you can see that I am running a Linux server inside a Virtual PC partition. However, you can also get the virtual machine to go into full screen mode, which gives you the look and feel of the guest OS, while still running on top of Windows.

Figure B
You can see the Linux server running inside a Virtual PC partition.

How do I use it?
In addition to being able to be used to provide a clean support migration from Windows to Linux, these two products have a number of other purposes. I use VMware Workstation on my laptop to write most of my articles for TechRepublic that depend on multiple machines. For the times when I need separate hardware, I have it at home, but being able to emulate a Windows domain controller and a Samba server on my laptop allowed me to write an article on supporting Samba domains with Windows servers all on one machine.

Both worth a look
As you can see, these are two very powerful and very useful products. If you are considering a move to Linux at the desktop level, using a product such as this is an absolutely time- and money-saver for supporting both desktops during the migration. You can also use them for testing new software, because a Linux or second Windows desktop is just a few clicks away.