Apr 272011

My experience with virtualization started over a decade ago after having a visiting instructor simulate an entire training lab with multiple server and client machines on two laptops. This was around 2000 when there were very few virtualized solutions, so naturally we got amazed and I had my boss buy me the first version of VMware Workstation and we started experimenting.

In those days I used to continuously run at least two PCs and several servers at home and it went so far that a girlfriend at the time used to call my apartment a space station. Those days gradually came to an end as I moved, got married and had to give up or temporarily retire at least some of my numerous machines. Fortunately the virtualization solutions improved simultaneously with my life getting more focused on important people and soon I moved most of my PCs and servers to one huge desktop machine which was powerful enough to run all of them in virtual environments. Then as the kids came the laptops got more powerful and the desktop got retired too, so nowadays most of my test machines are virtual, portable and I often take them everywhere with me on my laptop.

VMware got better with time and not only I depended more on it, but it also became a significant player in the corporate world that saved a lot of hardware resources in server rooms, creating virtual servers and entire virtualized server farms. Without it we wouldn’t have been able to operate our main server room at work at the very peak power and heat utilization for five years (five years of waking up in sweat at night wondering whether it would hold!). Combining virtualization with blade server technology we managed to multiply the number of systems and servers we were hosting without the overdue new server room, together with lowering power consumption, increasing computing power, lowering heat dissipation and simplifying provisioning processes for each system we installed.

However, nowadays there’s more players around, more often mentioned ones being Microsoft Virtual PC, Parallels and Xen (open source), but VMware still rules the market with its superior performance.

Why I Abandoned Windows 7 XP Mode

Windows 7 XP mode simulates Windows XP environment so that the older software applications incompatible with Windows 7 can be used inside a virtual XP machine session. This free downloadable add-on from Microsoft was a great idea for supposedly worry-free upgrades so that unlike Vista, Windows 7 gets to be successful in business environments. Although I have a great experience with Windows 7, each time I installed and ran Windows XP Mode on various Windows 7 machines at work and at home, I was frustrated with its slow start and sluggish performance, and each time I ended up uninstalling this add-on.  The major reason for my impatience was my experience with better performance of VMware Workstation and VMware Player which for me are more suitable for running one or more virtual machines on a desktop.

XP Mode Advantages

Still, Windows users without any VMware experience, and those not having or not willing to buy an extra Windows XP or other OS license will probably opt for the XP Mode because it’s free on Windows 7 and it doesn’t require a separate license. VMware has many preset appliances (virtual machines) with Linux OS available for download for free, but they are not as user-friendly as virtual machines with Windows OS and all the common software and plugins installed. Another attractive feature of the XP Mode is its capability to run an application installed in the virtual XP environment directly from Windows 7, without having to start the virtual Windows XP session. This works great in theory, but my experience hasn’t been smooth, with some legacy applications problems at work and a slow and long start. It always took me less time to start a virtual XP machine and the required application in VMware, than to start the same application in Windows 7 XP mode on the same computer. So, since it’s always much harder to lose after you had it than never having it, and since I missed the snappy VMware OS response that XP Mode couldn’t replicate, I went back to VMware, using the extra Windows XP and other OS licenses I already had and haven’t looked back since. I’ve been considering looking into MS Virtual PC, but having in mind that it probably shares most of its code with Widows 7 XP mode, I’m not very eager to test that.

WMware Player vs. WMware Workstation

To summarize very roughly, VMware Player is a basic free desktop virtualization software, a simplified and free version of more sophisticated VMware Workstation. Some engineers also take advantage of the free VMware Server and use it instead of the Workstation because it allows for one snapshot, but that software is optimized for servers and that’s where I like to keep it. Last time I checked, mouse and video performance on VMware Server used to be much slower when compared to the player which is the fastest desktop option with least clutter. VMware currently charges $189 for a new download of VMware Workstation directly from their website. Academic license is approximately 30% cheaper, and I also found a used and boxed VMware Workstation 7 at Amazon.com for $90. Excluding the Workstation’s debug features, teaming and ACE options for advanced users like software and network engineers, the major difference between the VMware Player and Workstation for a typical end user are the snapshots which can be used to easily revert to previous configuration and data on the virtual disk – VM Player can’t save a machine snapshot and it can revert only to the last snapshot if it has been created on the workstation, while Workstation can flawlessly save numerous snapshots and instantaneously revert to any of them with a few mouse clicks.

Snapshots Workaround

However, cheap and smart people forced to use VMware Player instead of Workstation can resort to either one of these snapshot workarounds, or their combination:

1. Use the virtual machine like a regular computer and back it up just like that. It’s relatively simple, but if you got used to the benefit of snapshots you can try the remaining options.

2. Use the standard Windows restore points and the default System Restore feature to undo system changes and revert to previous versions and configurations within the virtual image on the VM player (Windows guests only). It’s slower than a snapshot, but it works with one major difference: Windows System Restore feature only uninstalls new software or backs off from configuration changes without removing any new data files, while VMware discards everything new (including any new data) on its virtual disk(s) when reverting to the snapshot. If your concern is security and the new data contains some malware, the trouble is not eliminated by reverting to the previously created Windows restore point, while it’s completely removed when reverting to a VMware snapshot saved before the data was introduced to the virtual machine.

3. Copy the entire folder containing the particular virtual machine when it’s not running to back it up, so you can replace the folder later when you want to revert to previous configuration. This has the same effect as the VMware snapshots and it’s safer than Windows System Restore and important if your concern is security.

4. Use an accessible computer with VMware Workstation at work or at friend’s to update a copy of the virtual machine on a USB drive to install OS patches, do the necessary changes and create a single snapshot and set the machine to either revert to snapshot at power-off or to ask, then copy it back to the machine with Player.
This option can have quite unpredictable results if the machines with VM Player and VM Workstation are not on same or very similar hardware, but I’ve done some wild things with older guest OS even on machines as different as the Athlon and Core i3 CPUs.

5. Download the free 30 day evaluation of VMware Workstation, install it and use it to create, update and perfect OS image(s), then after the Workstation license expires use the virtual machines on the Player combined with one of the above workarounds.

Installing a Guest OS in VMware Player from Scratch

If you have a standalone license for Windows XP or any other OS with an installation code and media, you can boot the VM from the media and install the OS from inside the virtual machine session. You can even mount an ISO image as a CD/DVD drive and boot from it, provided that you have proper boot device priority set in the virtual BIOS. You don’t need to buy VMware Workstation for this because the free VMware Player can install an OS from scratch as well.

How to Migrate a Real PC to a Virtual Image

Nowadays VMware has a free tool available, but once I even successfully cloned my older XP PC to a VMware virtual machine on a new box just to get rid of the old hardware without losing any of my old files and software in the process. I set up the new virtual machine placeholder, created a virtual disk large enough to comfortably fit the image, set up booting priority in the virtual OS, booted the VM session from Ghost DVD and restored from an external USB HDD with the Ghost image files on it. After the cloned file system booted in the virtual environment, its OS detected the new virtual hardware, installed the necessary drivers and everything worked just fine. All this is much simpler today with VMware Converter that can easily migrate real systems to virtual machines.

Careful with OS Licenses

An OEM (original equipment manufacturer) Windows license shouldn’t be moved to a virtual environment unless the virtual system is on the same box (a valid example could be if you bought a Windows 7 license and installed it on your old Windows XP box and then installed XP in a virtual machine on the same computer). On the other hand, if you have a standalone OS license, you can use it on whichever hardware or virtual session you want.

Even More Careful with Malicious or Problematic Code

Carefully handling problematic user files on separate and isolated machines has always been an imperative to me, as it should be to every network manager and administrator for one simple reason: if a workstation with superuser rights and connections to thousands of computers and servers gets infected with a virus, it can cause a super-fast spread on the network and catastrophic effects within the company, in other words, a “resume-generating event”. Therefore, besides being a good tool for programmers and software testers, virtualization should be a favorite tool of antivirus, security, and network administrators because when properly configured, it quickly provides cheap isolated environments for dealing with possibly infected or malicious files or websites without a need for numerous separate testing PCs, and without permanently endangering testing computers, the files on them, and the network they’re on.

Trigger-happy about Security

If I have even a smallest concern that a file could be infected with a virus, rootkit, keylogger or other spyware or malware, I access it only from a fully isolated virtual machine which reverts to its original state after each use. That way the system is protected and the risk is minimized. Most of my testing virtual machines are not connected to my networks except for the safe browsing appliances which only have the external internet connection. After checking files of questionable origin or possibly infected ones in a secured virtual machine, I revert to previous snapshot after testing each individual file. This requires only several mouse clicks on VMware Player and several seconds to perform the virtual power-off (no gracious shutdown required). On VMware Workstation it’s even easier and instantaneous with 1-3 mouse clicks.

Preparing Virtual Machines for Fast Handling

The way I create these virtual “quarantine” systems is by installing an OS, patches and software and pausing the OS in a steady, low activity state, then saving a snapshot and set it to revert automatically. Nothing beats up starting up such a “frozen” VM OS session – when cached it starts in several seconds and it also powers off instantaneously, reverting to its original image in either VMware Workstation or Player. This requires only several mouse clicks on VMware Player and several seconds to perform the virtual power-off (no gracious shutdown required), which will then revert to the only snapshot I have set for that machine (set to revert to snapshot on power off in preferences when preparing the VM on VMware Workstation). It’s even much easier on Workstation as it happens instantaneously after 1-3 mouse clicks. Since I almost never power off my laptops any more due to the great functioning and much faster sleep and hibernation mode power-off and wake-up, the VM files are cached most of the time. This is so much faster than firing up Windows 7 XP Mode and waiting.

I just reinstalled or updated some virtual machines and VMware player and Workstation on my laptops, which refreshed my experience and reminded me of VMware’s state of the art performance and made me write this post. I’m not sure for how long VMware will keep its advantage over Microsoft’s Virtualization but to me it still seems to be miles ahead.

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