By Bill O’Brien

Not everyone needs VMware, and its relatively high price makes it better to know in advance whether you do or not. VMware is a notch up from being “just” a Windows emulation environment. It’s actually a hosting tool that will let you load a variety of guest operating systems simultaneously on either Windows or Linux environments. It’s a dream come true for an IS manager who’s supporting multiple platforms and who doesn’t want to spend the day wheeling her swivel chair from box to box.

CNET and TechRepublic

This article first appeared on CNET’s Enterprise Business site. TechRepublic is part of the CNET family of Web sites dedicated to educating and empowering people and businesses in the IT field.

Hefty requirements
Consider carefully the possible enormity of what VMware will allow you to do. In setting up a single Windows 98 guest to adequately mimic a standalone environment, you’ll need to dedicate at least 64 MB of RAM (128 MB would be preferable) to it. And, whereas the specifications indicate that 500 MB of hard disk space will suffice, the installation software recommends 2 GB. That little surprise sent us back to square one with Red Hat 6.2 to reconfigure our partition sizes. And those are the requirements for just one guest operating system. It’s something to consider if your Linux machine started life with the traditional minimalist elements.

You install VMware while logged in as the user who’ll be running the guest operating system; you don’t need to be root. You have a choice of either an RPM or Gzipped Tar installation, and, although the process is rather simple, we recommend that you download the 98-page PDF Getting Started Guide from VMware’s Web site in case you get nervous.

The first part of the installation puts the VMware software on your system. Basically, you accept the defaults and agree to the license, create a subdirectory for the license agreement, and move a copy into that directory. Then you’re almost ready to meet the VMware configuration wizard.

There are two prerequisites to running and configuring VMware. First, the real-time clock function should be compiled into your kernel; second, the parallel port PC-style hardware needs to be built and loaded as a kernel module. Once you begin the configuration process, you may discover a kernel problem. As we began the configuration process, a dialog box told us that our Red Hat 2.2.14-5.0 kernel might cause a memory corruption problem under heavy usage. (There’s also an issue with kernel 2.2.16.) VMware pointed us to the Red Hat site where we could find a kernel upgrade, but it might have been better to know this a bit earlier.

Everything was on autopilot after that. Windows 98 took its usual forever to install. When we were done, VMware prompted us to install the VMware Tools, which include an optimized video driver that made a noticeable difference in performance when we installed it. We reconfigured the available memory from the default 48 MB to a more comfortable 64 MB through a pull-down menu, restarted Windows, and then loaded applications—Microsoft Word, Excel, and Paint Shop Pro.

Running apps
We had no problems running the applications, but we did notice some drag in the graphics, even with a 16-bit palette. Under VMware, Windows runs in a window by default. We switched it to full-screen, which puts it in its own console, shown in Figure A. (It’s an option button found at the top of the configurator panel. Click it, and full-screen is enabled.) The change made an immediate and major difference. Not only did it look like a Windows box but it also acted and felt like one as well. Although DirectX is supported, this is not the place to try games. It’s unbearably slow. Likewise, we couldn’t get Windows to recognize a DVD disk at all. On the bright side, because VMware runs Windows in its own memory space, crashing Windows doesn’t crash Linux along with it. The two are fairly isolated (although we did manage to trash the CD-ROM driver across both platforms on a few occasions during our DVD forays).

Figure A
Running VMware in full-screen mode helps to boost performance.

Bottom line
Although VMware Workstation’s $299 price tag may keep it off of some people’s hot lists, its sibling, VMware Express, offers support for just Windows 95 and 98 at a more modest $79. VMware Workstation’s ability to isolate guest environments while protecting its Linux core should be a major plus for IS administrators responsible for multiple OS support.

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