SolutionBase: VMware Workstation 5 builds on version 4's power

VMware Workstation 4 is already a powerful solution if you want to run multiple operating systems on one workstation. Now, VMware has added to VMware Workstation's power with version 5. Here's what you'll find.

If you are a regular user of VMware's Workstation product, you already know how much it's saved you in time, hardware expenses and general sanity. Instead of rolling out five separate workstations for a test lab, you need only a reasonably powered workstation with truckloads of RAM and a lot of disk space and viola! Instant lab environment. For many, myself included, VMware is a critical component of daily productivity. VMware Workstation 4 was a boon for many and featured decent performance enhancements and new features. The same is true for Workstation 5--in a big way!ï¿?Here's what you'll find in VMware Workstation 5.

Full speed ahead

I'll admit it: I hate waiting for the computer to finish things sometimes. For example, I've never really enjoyed waiting while VMware paused a virtual machine and wrote the contents of the virtual machine's RAM out to disk, nor did I enjoy waiting for said machine to come back when I unpaused it. However, it was just a fact of life - until now. Sure, VMware Workstation 4 was faster than Workstation 3 at handling these tasks, but both pale in comparison to what VMware has pulled off in Workstation 5.

Before I upgraded to Workstation 5, I had created a Windows Server 2003 virtual machine with 256MB of RAM and used this machine only for testing purposes. Under Workstation 4, it could take 30-45 seconds to pause and unpause the machine. Not really a lot of time, but still slow when you're sitting there waiting. After upgrading to a beta of Workstation 5, this time was cut down to about 3-5 seconds. I was truly astounded at that particular performance improvement.

VMware has also included an improved network adapter drive in Workstation 5, providing better networking performance. The actual virtual machine also "feels" snappier, although I haven't run specific tests to compare against the older version of Workstation.

RAM upgrade not required

VMware requires a lot of RAM if you want to do anything really serious with it. You probably wouldn't want to suffer very long running a Windows Server with a paltry 128MB of RAM. One limitation of VMware Workstation has been its ability to fit only a certain number of virtual machines into your physical RAM. Up to this point, when you've created a virtual server, you had to allocate all of the RAM that might be needed by that virtual server, making that RAM unavailable for other machines. VMware Workstation 5 borrows technology from VMware's big-daddy ESX server to allow virtual machines running the same OS to actually share some of the RAM, thereby reducing the total amount of RAM you need in your system.

Installation hassles are gone

Another minor annoyance in Workstation 4 was the need to uninstall the product before upgrading to a newer version. VMware is one of the products I do my best to keep current so this can be a hassle. Workstation 5 includes the ability to automatically uninstall older versions before installing the latest release. This isn't a huge improvement, but one of the nice things that just makes the product easier to use.

There's no I in team (or in VMware, for that matter)

VMware Workstation 5 introduces a new concept in virtual machines called "teams". Virtual machine teams can simulate an entire environment such as a complete development environment. With teams, you can add individual virtual servers, or even clones of virtual servers (either a full clone, which copies an entire virtual server to a new file creating a brand new machine, or a linked clone, which, as you probably guessed, uses the original virtual machine file as the basis for the cloned machine) to the team group and then boot, shut down and manage all of the team servers as a single entity.

As a quick test, I created a linked clone of a Windows Server 2003 virtual machine and added both the original server and the cloned server to a team. The result is shown in Figure A.

Figure A

VMware team showing thumbnail at the top of the window

Notice in Figure A the thumbnail screenshot at the top of the screen. This screen area provides thumbnail visuals for all other machines in a team, so you can quickly switch between team members. When you click on a team member's thumbnail, that server's console shows up in the larger window.

Multiple snapshots and clones

If one, two, or even three servers isn't enough for your testing, you can easily create twenty identical machines using VMware Workstation 5's improved cloning and snapshot functions. Whereas older versions of the product allowed only a single snapshot, version 5 allows you to create as many as you like. So, for example, if you're planning to test Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 on your virtual Windows Server 2003 system, take a snapshot before you start so you can quickly revert to the original configuration in the event SP1 damages your system.

Workstation 5 tells you what version of a snapshot you're using to help you keep track of things as they can get confusing after a while. Figures B and C below show two different ways that VMware lets you know where you are.

Figure B

The virtual machine details tell you which snapshot you're using.

Figure C

The snapshot manager lets you see exactly where you are and quickly revert to an old snapshot.

A clone, on the other hand, is actually a full copy of your original virtual server with just a few changes. Most notably, the cloning process creates a new MAC address for the new system to prevent networking problems. Further, after you create a clone, you can boot and operate both the original machine as well as the clone machine simultaneously. For all intents and purposes, they are separate virtual machines.

Additional support

VMware has always done a good job of supporting new operating systems as they are released. Even if Workstation hasn't directly supported a specific version of an OS (an off-brand of Linux, for example), VMware's support forums have usually provided an answer as to how to get the OS to work, with few exceptions. Workstation 5 improves support for many operating systems and adds support for a number of new guest operating systems, including Windows Server 2000 Small Business, NetWare 6.5 SP3, NetWare 5.1 SP8, Novell Linux Desktop 9, Sun Java Desktop System and more. Workstation 5 also includes experimental support for some upcoming operating systems, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 and SuSE service packs.

Better yet, Workstation 5 begins to embrace 64-bit hardware and software on the host by supporting AMD's Opteron and Athlon 64 processors and Intel's EMT64 technology. On the software side, VMware Workstation 5 supports the 64-bit editions of Windows XP, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 7, 8 & 9, as well as experimental support for other operating systems.

Using Virtual PC? Switch with ease.

If you're using Virtual PC, VMware has made it easy for you to make the switch to VMware by offering what they call "V2V" (Virtual to Virtual) a utility that converts a virtual machine created by Virtual PC or Virtual Server 2005 to a VMware Workstation 4 or 5 system. This tool isn't a part of Workstation 5, but is a nice add-on for those of you considering a switch.

VMware also provides a tool called the "P2V assistant", which helps you convert physical servers into virtual machines that can run on any VMware platform, including Workstation.

My thoughts

I rarely get evangelistic about a piece of software, but VMware Workstation 5 has really impressed me, even though I'm still running a late beta as of this writing. Even through the beta process, I had only a single problem, and that was solved by upgrading to a newer beta.

The speed improvements are enormous and the improved cloning and snapshot mechanisms have made it much easier for me to roll out "clean" installs. I write about a variety of topics for TechRepublic, and almost always depend on VMware to help me get the job done.

If you're using Workstation 4, or even Virtual PC (which I also use from time to time), give Workstation 5 a whirl. You'll be glad you did.