Virtualisation continues to grab the headlines, especially when it comes to servers and bare metal hypervisor technologies. It’s not all about hypervisors, however, with VMware recently releasing a seventh generation of its popular hosted solution, VMware Workstation 7, with a raft of new and enhanced features.
What is it and who is it for?
VMware Workstation is all about being able to run virtual machines on a desktop PC, much like you would a word processor or spreadsheet application. The software involved can be hosted on either a Windows or Linux PC and used to run multiple virtual machines each with its own operating system which, likewise, can be Windows or Linux with support also for Solaris and some other, less well known, platform.
Typical users are software developers wanting to debug their code and make sure it works with different versions of Windows, Linux and other operating systems. Others will be support staff looking to replicate and troubleshoot problems, trainers developing courses and so on. It could even be a user wanting to run an old application not supported after Windows has been upgraded or looking to run Linux apps on a Windows PC, or vice versa.
Pricing & setup
Unlike a lot of virtualisation products, VMware Workstation isn’t free. You can download and trial it free of charge for 30 days but thereafter a license will cost £143.78 (ex. VAT) per host PC. Existing users can upgrade to Workstation 7 for £75.32 (ex. VAT).
Installation is very straightforward, especially on a Windows PC, where it’s just like installing an ordinary application. Moreover, one of the big changes in the latest version is full support for Windows 7, including Aero Peek integration to, for example, view live VM activity when hovering over the VMware taskbar icon or stacking windows on the desktop.
Of course you can still run VMware Workstation on older versions of Windows and, similarly, almost any edition of Windows can be installed as a guest OS, including 64-bit implementations (assuming you have a 64-bit PC) and server versions.
As with previous versions the new software can also be hosted on a Linux PC and used to support guests running a variety of Linux distros. The setup for this is a little more involved but is, again, much like installing any other application and well within the scope of the target audience.
Does it do it well?
The popularity of the product – it’s the market leader when it comes to personal virtualisation tools – is testament to the abilities of VMware Workstation, with a lot in the new version to keep it that way.
To start with, there’s no need to worry about migrating virtual machines or settings when upgrading. Simply install the new version and it does most of the hard work for you. We were even able to resume VMs left suspended before the upgrade began, and carry on as though nothing had happened.
That said, the list of enhancements is pretty long so there’s plenty you might want to do. As well as support for Windows 7, for example, you can now configure VMs with up to four virtual processors/cores in the new release, together with up to 32GB of memory per guest OS with no limit on how much memory the host can have. Plus there’s a new Auto Protect feature to take scheduled snapshots of VMs – a real help when it comes to undoing changes and recovering virtual machines should the need arise.
Another neat feature is the ability to pause VMs, instantly freeing up CPU and memory resources. Just hit the pause button and the VM freezes, click it again and it restarts where you left off – just like playing a video.
The ability to record and replay sessions and debug applications running in virtual machines also gets a makeover in Workstation 7. Added to which Plus SpringSource Tools Suite is now included in the list of supported development environments, enabling developers to directly run and debug Java apps in a virtual environment. Virtual networking options are similarly enhanced, plus it’s possible to run VMware’s ESX hypervisor in a VM, enabling developers and other professionals to work with the technology without the need for expensive server hardware.
Where does it disappoint?
Very little changes in terms of the interface in Workstation 7. But that’s fine – it was already very intuitive whether being used by novices or seasoned developers. Indeed, there’s very little not to like in VMware Workstation, although when hovering over the taskbar icon on a Windows 7 host all the open VMs are displayed, whether running or not, which can be messy.
We also had problems with the new virtual printing option, where printers on the host PC are available inside guest virtual machines without the need to install any drivers. This option was automatically added to all of the new virtual machines we created, but we had to manually configure the feature on existing VMs.
Performance can be an issue too, not because of any shortcomings in the product but because it’s all too easy to end up with multiple active VMs competing for resources on the host PC. The only answer then is to throw money at the hardware and get as many processor cores and memory as you can afford.
Would we recommend VMware Workstation 7?
For users wanting to run the odd application, VMware workstation is pricey. It also delivers a lot more in the way of features and performance than such users really need. When it comes to developers, support staff and other professionals, however, VMware Workstation has no equal. It’s easy to see why it’s popular, delivering superb virtualisation and a lot more besides in an affordable and usable desktop package. The pedigree is excellent and this latest version doesn’t disappoint.