Virtual Computer Software

So my last post got your appetite going. You’re ready to go setup some virtual computers, now all you need is the software to do it. Say no more! There are a lot of different packages on the market, but I’ll contrast a few of the most popular here.

Microsoft Virtual PC 2004

VPC (Virtual PC) is Microsoft’s offering to the virtual computer arena. Using it you can run not only other Windows systems but other operating systems such as Linux. For maximum usability, you’ll want to install the virtual machine additions. These additions will add some usability features, such as the ability to access the host OS’s hard drives.

Pros: Easy to configure and use. Small download, light on system resources. And it’s free!

Cons: No support for USB devices, can be a little slow especially if you have a borderline system. Only runs on Windows, no support for Linux as a host (although many Linux distros will work inside it). No support for SCSI drives.

Note that while USB support is not built in, your USB mouse and keyboard will work just fine as VPC will translate into something the virtual OS (Operating System) will understand. Also, if you have an external USB drive, if you share it through the virtual machine additions it will look like a network drive and work OK.

In addition to the resources below, there’s also a technical whitepaper available at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/virtualpc/evaluation/techoverview.mspx

Main page: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/virtualpc/default.mspx

Download site: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=6D58729D-DFA8-40BF-AFAF-20BCB7F01CD1&displaylang=en

VMware Workstation

The VMware product is the granddaddy of virtualization. It is robust, and easily runs anything you throw at it. Similar to VPC it will run many types of desktop systems.

Pros: USB Support, easy to use. Has versions that will run under both Windows and Linux hosts.

Cons: Expensive, $189 US for the download version (a trial version is available). Must choose which host version (Linux vs Windows) you want when you buy.

Main page: http://www.VMware.com/

Download site: http://www.VMware.com/products/ws/

VMware Player

The VMware player is just what it says. It will run a virtual computer, but it cannot create one. So how would this be useful? Well, you could be in an environment where you local administrator has a copy of the VMware Workstation product, and creates your VM’s (Virtual Machines) for you. Then each developer just needs the player in order to be able to use it.

On the web, people have created images called “appliances”. These appliances are ready to run images for the VMware Player. Note that because of licensing issues, these appliances will all be based on open source OS’s such as Linux.

Finally, VMware Player will run images created by the Microsoft Virtual PC product. Thus you could create your image with VPC and run with the VM Player. Note though I’ve had mixed results with this. The Windows based appliances have worked OK, but the Linux Ubuntu appliance I created with VPC didn’t work correctly under VM Player.

Pros: Free, easy to use, get the robustness of VMware without the cost. Both Windows and Linux versions available.

Cons: Cannot create appliances (a.k.a. virtual computers), only run them

Main page: http://www.VMware.com/

Download site: http://www.VMware.com/products/player/

Virtual Appliances available at: http://www.vmware.com/vmtn/appliances/

Microsoft Virtual Server

While it’s sister product, VPC is optimized for running desktop environments, Microsoft Virtual Server is a product that is designed for running servers. While it can be used as a development environment, it can also be used in a production environment.

Enterprises are using Virtual Server to consolidate several physical servers onto a single large box. They are also using it to setup test environments when those test environments will be used for a limited amount of time.

While both VPC and Virtual Server will allow networking between virtual computers (and real ones), Virtual Servers will let you create an entire virtual network.

For more information on the differences between VPC and VServer, see the white paper on the Microsoft site at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/virtualserver/techinfo/vsvsvpc.mspx

Pros: Free! Will run under XP or any Windows Server product. (Note that running on XP is only suggested for development, not production.)

Cons: No USB, No sound card support, limited graphics support. Can only run Windows Server products and Windows XP as virtual OS’s. Cannot run on Linux, only Windows.

Main page: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/virtualserver/default.mspx

Download site: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/virtualserver/software/default.mspx

VMware Server

VMware Server will let you create and run a variety of OS’s in a server environment. Has full support for USB, SCSI, and more. A very robust solution for the enterprise or for development.

Pros: Free, easy to use, all the robustness of VMware Workstation without the cost. Great support for Linux, both as host and guest.

Cons: Only runs on Windows Server or Linux hosts. Will not run with Windows XP as the host (although XP can run inside VMware Server as a guest).

Update: I have since learned the server version will run just fine on XP. Additionally, it will support USB and Audio, although not by default. You will need to click on the Add Hardware Drivers to add them to the Virtual OS. I’ve had issues though with Vista RC2 and USB crashing when you try to exit Vista, so I don’t suggest using USB with Vista RC2 at this time.

Main page: http://www.VMware.com/

Download site: http://www.vmware.com/products/server/

Licensing Issues

You should note that for each Virtual Machine you create, you will need a license for the operating system you install. For Linux it’s easy, since most distros are free. For Microsoft Windows however, you will need to purchase a license in some fashion.

Many of us work in enterprises that provide us with MSDN licenses. If so, your MDSN will give you licenses to each of the OS’s Microsoft has created. If not, you may wish to look into a Microsoft Action Pack subscription. The action pack gives you 10 XP licenses, 1 copy of most of their servers, plus 10 copies of Office. Check out https://partner.microsoft.com/global/40009735 for more info.

Danger Will Robinson…

I should warn you that running virtual computers can be very hardware intensive. 2 gig of ram is recommended, 1.5 gig is passable, 1 gig is a bare minimum.

In addition, you’ll need a lot of disk space. Remember each time you create a virtual computer you are duplicating an entire OS. The ideal situation is to have two physical hard disks. Place your host OS and software on one drive, all your virtual computers on the other drive.

Choices Choices Choices!

So you’ve read all of this, and all you really want to know is, which product should you use? Well, after experimenting with the various products above, here’s my humble take.

If you have some available funds, and are looking for a good environment to develop in, then the VMware Workstation is a good choice. It handles a lot of things like USB that it’s main competitor does not.

If you are looking to develop on a budget, or this is your first time in the virtual world, then I suggest Virtual PC. VPC is very easy to install, setup and use. Since it’s free, you have nothing to lose.

For the upcoming blog posts, I’ll be using Microsoft Virtual PC for my examples. Since it’s free, it will be easy for the vast majority of folks to follow along. So what are you waiting for? Go download it and let’s get going…

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3 Responses to “Virtual Computer Software”

  1. CasTex Says:

    Thanks for this post, I am interested in.

  2. Andrea Says:

    Hi,
    great site! very interesting!
    Bye, Andrea from italy!


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