VMware Workstation 6

VMware Workstation is an excellent product, having the potential to save IT managers many hours of work. And at only AU$257.23 per seat, it is also good value for money.
Written by Michael Palamountain, Contributor

VMware Workstation is an excellent product, having the potential to save IT managers many hours of work. And at only AU$257.23 per seat, it is also good value for money.

Design and Features
VMware is known universally for its virtual machines upon which whole operating systems and suites of applications can be installed. This allows multiple operating systems to be simulated on a single machine thus allowing a handy environment for software development or as the workspaces for users of thin clients. Workstation is the package which does this.

Naturally ease of use is dependent on how many of the features the user needs, but overall Workstation is a very intuitive application. A new virtual machine can be generated with very few keystrokes or mouse clicks, on which you can then install an OS. The process is really no different to installing on an ordinary machine. Settings can be changed giving the user control over the amount of memory, drive space and CPUs allocated to a virtual machine.

Full networking support, including NAT and DHCP, is provided by Workstation and given that multiple virtual machines can be run on a single host it is therefore possible to simulate and test whole network structures prior to deployment. Testers can create groups of machines that can be controlled "en masse". (The Server version allows virtual networks, but does not support group management of machines.)

Trial versions of Workstation can be downloaded at the VMware website. Alternatively, those who do not need all the features of Workstation may be interested in downloading VMware Server which is available free and has some features not found in Workstation.

Workstation represents the high end of this product family and as such suits users in testing and development roles. The Server version tends to be utilised by end users who may not even have an awareness that virtualisation technology is in use.

Virtual machines hosted by VMware Server can run in the background with many simultaneous clients accessing them - just as with a normal server. It allows a single piece of hardware to take on the role of several separate servers and as a bonus each machine is readily changed when upgrades are required.

Virtual machines under Workstation can be assigned up to a massive 8GB of RAM (3.6GB for Server edition). Generally the features present in Workstation, but not Server, reflect the needs of developers. For example it is possible to drag and drop items from the host desktop to a client desktop - a task far too dangerous to allow in most production environments.

Workstation is a powerful software package - or perhaps "empowering" is a better choice of words. Users need little new knowledge to get the best out of this software; it is simply repackaging the operating systems people already know. The interface giving access and control to virtual machines has many fine features and they are readily accessible though the well laid-out and labelled menu system. Too often many options mean many hours of learning new software; this is not the case with Workstation.

Workstation also allows machines to be cloned "on the fly" without the need to shut down the virtual machine. Snapshots are also available; these are stored differently to the base image and are useful as "restore points". Additionally, the in-built video capture tool allows developers to record activities for playback and comparison to other configurations.

One serious drawback of virtual machines is lower system performance. An operating system mounted on top of another operating system puts excessive strain on system resources.

Nonetheless, performance is still adequate and less troublesome when run on more powerful hardware, where the host and guest OS are not fighting for the same CPU and RAM module. VMware recognises this issue and so virtual machines can also be loaded onto a machine running VMware ESXi (also offered free). This application is loaded directly onto a bare-metal server thus providing "near native performance".

Also take into consideration that Workstation cannot precisely simulate the underlying hardware. VMware is aware that some applications will not run correctly in a guest OS. Enex TestLab staff members have noticed in the past that certain internet content filters misbehave in a virtual machine. Workstation also does not support Vista's Aero feature.

A new feature of Workstation 6 is compatibility with the ACE option pack, which provides the ability to create a portable virtual machine called an ACE. ACEs can be locked down so that users can safely take an ACE to an unmanaged computer and work with a machine that remains under the strictures of the office network.

Workstation is compatible with major Windows and Linux operating systems in 32- or 64-bit as the host device. Guest operating systems can be almost any flavour of Windows or Linux; Solaris and FreeBSD are also supported as guests.

VMware Workstation is an excellent product. It has the potential to save IT managers many hours of work and avoid unnecessary production network downtime when rolling out new software. Developers can assess how software will work on all operating system configurations without leaving their own desk.

The software is not difficult to use and if problems do arise users can resort to help files, as an online knowledge-base. At only AU$257.23 per seat this software is remarkably good value for money. Online training can also be purchased if desired.

Phone support is offered free for installation issues (30 days) with more advanced support being available for purchase; options include phone or Web only per incident; one-, two- and three-year support with further options for business hours or 24/7 support.

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