Virtualization unquestionably pulls more power out of today’s PCs, which are often loaded with more processor and hardware muscle than your everyday apps require. While many virtualization vendors and analysts focus most heavily on the data center side of virtualization, the desktop side delivers plenty of benefits. You can set up the lower-cost or free versions of virtualization software on lower-end servers in small branch offices to get the most out of aging hardware—or set up a VM on a home PC or laptop for convenience and security reasons.
[ Want to create a virtual XP machine inside your new Windows 7 PC? See our related story How to Create a Virtual PC on Windows 7 for step-by step instructions, plus tips for a safe, hassle-free install.]
It’s not difficult to set up an x86 machine—which are more Mighty Mouse than mini in terms of power these days—in a small office or home office to run multiple VMs. Perhaps you’d like one VM to be used by the children in your family, so that any settings changes or trouble would be confined to that VM, for example. Perhaps you’d just like to separate your work-at-home and personal home computing environments.
What You’ll Need
The first thing you need, for the purposes of this article, at least, is a Windows-based PC and a copy of either VMware Workstation or VMware Player, VMware’s two lowest-cost versions of the virtual desktop.
VMware Player, free for personal use and downloadable here, includes a hypervisor and some very basic creation- and management tools. It’s designed primarily to allow customers to run several operating systems on the same hardware, not to support multiple desktops running from one machine.
It’s not designed to compete with Citrix or remote session-based virtual desktops. It’s mainly designed to compete with XP Mode in Windows 7—a Virtual PC session running within Microsoft’s newest operating system to let customers run older applications without putting off migration to the new OS.
Running more than a couple of virtual machines, or doing so without violating the no-commercial-use requirement in the license, means you need VMware Workstation, which can be purchased here. For $189 per machine, VMware Workstation includes technical support from VMware, tight integration with VMware’s SpringSource Tool Suite to debug applications running in VMs, and free or low-cost updates from VMware.
VMware Workstation is also designed as a tool for personal computers or very small workgroups, rather than as an alternative to VMware View, Citrix or other products.
Both products allow IT staffers to create VM images that can be deployed elsewhere in the organization, or to run multiple operating systems to simulate a roomful of machines on which to test or debug software.
Both will also run VMs created using VMware server products, as well as Microsoft’s virtual machines and Symantec’s LiveState Recovery disks.
The two are designed to install simply, without any of the configuration issues typical of network-attached servers or VMs. Once you download either VMWare Player or VMware Workstation, launch the compressed files and follow instructions to pick file locations and application names.
Next Up: Find Your Image
Once the platform is installed, you can either launch a pre-configured VM that includes the OS and applications, or create your own VM. VMware’s Virtual Appliance store has hundreds of commercial editions, and a range of free appliances that run Firefox on Ubuntu and other free combinations.
If you’ve downloaded an appliance (a .vmx file), launch the file explorer in VMware Player, navigate to the file, and launch it.
If you’re creating your own, launch it in the same way you would install or restore any other operating system, from either a CD or an .iso file.
VMware doesn’t support Microsoft recovery files, so you can’t just load System Restore and figure you’ll be back to work.
However, VMware offers vCenter Converter as a free download you can use to create an image of your physical machine and launch it into a VM.
Privileges and Connectivity
A couple of caveats: if you’re installing guest OSes on Windows 7 or Vista, you need Administrator privileges to do it.
The VMs also need enough power and room to breathe. Each needs at least a gigabyte of RAM for 32-bit and 2 GB for 64-bit VMs; 32-bit VMs also need at least 24GB of space available, which rises to 32GB with 64-bit VMs.
And keep a close eye on the install guide when you’re configuring networking privileges. Player and Workstation are both designed to make those network connections easily, but VMware Community Forums have plenty of discussions of minor configuration issues that turn into headaches getting VMs to talk to either each other or to the rest of the network.
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