Caption by: Alan Stevens
The seventh generation of VMware's venerable desktop virtualisation platform, VMware Workstation, includes support for Windows 7 hosts and guests as one of its key features. However, that's not all it has to offer, as we discovered when we downloaded the new version and put it through its paces.
As with other updates to VMware Workstation, one of the good things about version 7 is that you don't have to worry about migrating existing virtual machines or settings when upgrading. You do, unfortunately, have to pay for the upgrade (a mere £75.32 ex. VAT), but when installed onto one of our PCs running Workstation 6.5 it simply replaced the old software with the new without affecting our existing setup. We were even able to resume VMs that were left suspended before the upgrade began.
That said, we did have to upgrade the format of some old VMs to get support for all the new features. Also, the VMware Tools have changed, so we had to reinstall these on each of our guests — you don't have to do this straight away, though, as the old tools are still usable. Usefully, you can now opt to have the tools updated automatically whenever newer versions are released.
In VMware Workstation 7, VMs can be paused and restarted just like running a movie.
Another new feature of immediate benefit is the ability to pause a virtual machine, instantly freezing it rather than having to wait for it to shut down or suspend. We found this incredibly useful, particularly on low-spec machines where powering up a new VM while others are running can bring the host PC to a standstill. Simply hitting the new pause button on the menu stops a VM immediately, and it can be started again just as easily — much like pausing and restarting a movie.
Windows 7 support
Support for Windows 7 is a welcome addition. Although it wasn't officially sanctioned, we were already running Workstation 6.5 on a Windows 7 PC and using it to host Windows 7 guests. The latest release, however, has been optimised for all editions of Microsoft's new operating system, including seamless integration with Aero Peek and Flip 3D effects. So, for example, we got to see live VM activity when hovering over the Workstation 7 icon on the taskbar and stacking 3D windows on the desktop.
When Windows 7 guests are hosted on a Windows 7 PC, version 7 offers full Aero Peek integration.
There's also a new Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) driver that allows Workstation 7 to display the Windows Aero interface in both Vista and Windows 7 VMs. Also, 3D support has been enhanced to handle Shader Model 3.0 and OpenGL 1.4 graphics, with similar 3D enhancements for XP guests as well.
While on the subject of XP, you can import an XP Mode virtual machine and run it directly from VMware Workstation rather than Windows 7. As on the Microsoft platform there's no need to enter a licence, and the XP Mode VM can take advantage of many of the benefits of VMware Workstation. That includes access to multiple processors and high-end graphics rendering, plus Unity mode where guest applications can be run directly from the host desktop.
More new features
Apart from the odd extra menu option and control button, the user interface is fundamentally unchanged in Workstation 7. So are the wizards used to create and help manage virtual machines, although you can now specify up to four virtual processors/cores per VM (in any combination) and up to 32GB of memory.
Virtual machines can have up to 4 processors or cores and 32GB of memory.
Another new feature is virtual printing, where software supplied by ThinPrint makes printers configured on the host available to both Windows and Linux guests without having to install extra drivers inside the VM. We had a few problems getting this feature to work with existing VMs, as the ThinPrint drivers aren't automatically included in the Tools update. It took quite a time to sort this out, not least because there's hardly any documentation relating to virtual printing either in the manual or on the VMware website.
The ThinPrint virtual printer in VMware Tools makes host printers available to guests without the need to install any drivers.
Other enhancements include the ability to encrypt VMs using the 256-bit AES algorithm and Auto Protect to schedule snapshots of virtual machines. It's also now possible to run VMware's ESX 4.0 hypervisor in a VM.
The ESX hypervisor running in a VMware Workstation 7 VM!
Yes, that's right, a hypervisor in a virtual machine! It sounds insane and no-one in their right mind would want to run a production system this way. However, it does have lots of advantages such as allowing developers, trainers and other professionals to work with the ESX product without the need for dedicated hardware.
Developers will also welcome enhancements to the replay debugging tools, which make them easier and faster to use. Integration with SpringSource Tools Suite also allows Java apps to be run and debugged in a VM directly from the development environment.
Virtual printing aside, we had no problems installing or using Workstation 7 and were very impressed with the new version's functionality. Version 6.5 was good, but VMware has moved the bar even higher, putting Workstation 7 in a class of its own compared to other desktop virtualisation tools.
Caption by: Alan Stevens