May 31, 2002

Experiencing VMware Workstation 3.1.1

Author: JT Smith

- By Russell C. Pavlicek -

Recently, the news has been full of products meant to allow Windows
applications to run under Linux. From the maturing of the Wine project,
to the x86 emulator Bochs, to commercial products like CodeWeaver's
CrossOver Office and the much ballyhooed Lindows, new options appear on
the horizon monthly. Then there are the recent new versions of
applications like StarOffice, OpenOffice, AbiWord, and Evolution, which
seek to replace their Windows equivalents entirely.
In the thunderous noise of this growing herd of desktop alternatives, it
is easy to forget that other options have existed for some time. Such is
the plight of (the non-free) VMware Workstation, a virtual machine architecture that has
been serving Linux users since 1999.

What is it?

Of course, VMware Workstation is more than just a way of using Windows
software on a Linux box. VMware is a virtual machine architecture that
runs x86-based machines under Linux or Windows. It can host a
number of guest operating systems, including Linux, FreeBSD, and various
versions of Windows.

Unlike an x86 hardware emulator (like Bochs), VMware does not actually
emulate the x86 instruction set. This means that you could not run VMware
Workstation on a non-x86 architecture like SPARC or Alpha. But the upside
of this limitation is found in its performance. Because the software does
not have to waste time emulating instructions native to the hardware, the
guest operating system does not suffer undue performance degradation.

The test system

For system testing, I used a 1 GHz Duron MicroTel PC with 128 MB of RAM. The host operating system
was Red Hat Linux 7.1. According to the VMware documentation,
the default kernel in this distribution should support the needs of
VMware workstation.

How easily does it install?

Installation can be simple or complex. If you choose the
default networking option, even a newbie should be able to
install the software easily. If you want to do more complex
networking (such as using network address translation or a custom
network), there will be additional questions that a system administrator
could answer, but a non-sysadmin might flinch at the assignment of unused
subnets, etc. Thankfully, even the more difficult questions have
intelligent defaults, so the configuration process is made as painless as
possible.

But once you install the VMware Workstation software, you are only half
way home. You now need to install the guest operating system -- the
operating system that will run in the virtual machine. VMware
Workstation supports many guests, and can even support multiple guests
installed in separate virtual machines. So the single PC on your desk can
suddenly be home to an unlimited number of different machine environments,
limited only by resources like disk space.

In this case, I chose to install Windows XP Home Edition, Windows ME, and
Mandrake Linux 8.2.

Licensing

It is important to note that installing any guest operating system in
VMware is legally like installing it on a normal PC. So if you need a
valid license to install the operating system on a PC, you'll need a
license under VMware. For most basic Linux and BSD installs, this is not
an issue.

For all versions of Windows licensing is everything -- and even more so with Windows XP. Because Windows XP is licensed to a
particular hardware configuration, you should try to configure your
virtual machine correctly the first time. If you decide to increase
memory or change virtual disk size later, you may find yourself needing to
place a call to Microsoft to explain why you need to re-register your
operating system on a "different" machine.

Using Windows XP

I found that Windows XP Home Edition installed well, with no drag or delay in the process. Once the operating system is in
place, one immediately notices that it is visually unappealing. This is
solved by installing the VMware Tools. By selecting the VMware Tools install option from the VMware menu, the
ugly 16-color VGA driver is replaced with a much better SVGA
driver. Note that XP will complain that the video driver has not been
certified with XP, but that doesn't seem to be a major issue.

When run in full screen mode, you get the sense that you are
running XP on a dedicated PC. The screen action is crisp
and there is no sluggishness associated with the mouse movement.

Using Windows ME

Windows ME installed about as smoothly as Windows XP. There were
a couple of times during the installation when the process slowed
to a crawl while detecting hardware, an atypical activity for which the virtual machine isn't optimized. After installing the VMware Tools, the system display was fine, but the display driver was a little jerky
compared to a native Windows ME installation.

Using Mandrake Linux

I could not get
XFree86 to display properly from the default installation. The solution
was to boot up Mandrake in text console mode and install the VMware Tools.
This required that I select VMware Tools install option, which associated
a small ISO image to /dev/cdrom. I then needed to mount the pseudo
device, untar the file, and run the installation script. It is hardly the
type of interaction a normal user wants to undergo, but it works. The
result is a working version of XFree86.

Unfortunately, the text console also had a problem. In my case, non-X
consoles worked fine running as a window in the desktop. But changing
over to full screen mode caused all the characters to become garbled. X
did not have this problem. Based on some notes on Usenet, it appears that
it might be a conflict between full screen console mode and the
framebuffer used by the host operating system. I did not have time to
check to see if this was the case, however.

Glitches

The major glitch that affected all the guest operating systems was sound.
I tried to enable sound in all three operating systems, without much luck.
I did get a little sound when running VMware as root on the host operating
system (not something I would normally want to do), but running VMware
under a non-privileged user name yielded no sound at all. Even under root,
the sound seemed to disappear after a few seconds. A number of Usenet
articles document the same problem, so it appears that getting the sound
to work properly is not necessarily a simple task.

A very minor glitch is that VMware sometimes ignores attempts to put it
into full screen mode when running Windows as a guest. Pressing the full
screen mode button again usually works. It is a little annoying, but
nothing more.

Performance and stability

I was quite pleased with the overall performance and stability. While the
applications felt a little slower than on a native system, everything was
very usable. Going by feel, I'd say the virtual environment cost perhaps
20% in performance. Given the excessive amount of CPU in most systems
these days, I doubt most people will find much to complain about.

System stability seemed to be very strong. Once the guest operating
systems and VMware Tools were installed, the applications seemed
blissfully unaware they were running in a virtual machine
environment. I encountered nothing to indicate that the virtual machine
environment would be any less stable than a normal PC installation.

Conclusion

VMware Workstation 3.1.1 is a sane, solid approach to running a guest
operating system on your PC. It is reasonably simple to install and has
several networking options. It supports a number of guest operating
systems, and receives high marks for performance and stability.

It is probably not a good choice for running games in a virtual machine,
unless you are very sure that the sound will work on your configuration.
However, VMware Workstation could be a sound a method for running certain
Windows-based business applications on your Linux desktop. This
could be very important interim solution for a business seeking to migrate
from Windows to Linux or *BSD. This is one product that has matured quite
nicely over the years.

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