November 20, 2000

Plex86, VMware compete to get rid of dual booting

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Two products, one in its infancy and one offered by an established company, aim to do away with the popular option of dual booting to run Windows applications on your Linux machine.

VMware Workstation for Linux, which allows users to run multiple virtual computers on a single PC, now has competition, with members of the Plex86 project announcing last week that they have successfully run Windows 95 on top of Linux Mandrake. Attacking the issue of running Windows programs from another angle is the Wine project, which doesn't run Windows, but allows Windows programs to run on Linux and Unix. There's also the low-cost Win4Lin, which allows users to boot Windows 95/98 as an application running under the X Window System on Linux.

Reza Malekzadeh, VMware's director of market relations, says he respects the Plex86 project, but he doesn't seem too worried when asked about the advantages of VMware. VMware offers versions of the product with Linux, Windows NT, or Windows 2000 as the host operating system, he says, and each can run a variety of OSes as guest environments, including DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows 2000, FreeBSD, and Solaris for Intel.

"VMware Workstation has been shipping since May 1999 and has over 500,000 users now," he adds. "We feel the technology and product have been widely used and proven. The product has a good reputation of stability and reliability."

Says one fan, who bought a copy of VMware Workstation 2.0 for Linux at the Atlanta Linux Showcase: "When set up properly, this Linux product is the coolest thing since the Palm Pilot. No more re-boots to check Windoze based stuff."

Backers of both projects tout the "virtual machines" concept as an alternative to dual-booting Linux and Windows, and VMware has marketed its Linux version, which has been sold since May 1999, as a tool for developers, QA testers, and others who have to test applications in more than one operating system environment. But the virtual machines products are also finding fans among users who just want to run an application or two that aren't available in Linux.

"Dual-booting is a pain right in the ol' arse," says Kevin Lawton, technical lead of the Plex86 project. "Most people who I have talked to have a small handful of Windows apps that they want to run on occasion. Otherwise, they'd wouldn't even bother ever booting Windows or keeping the partition around.

"Generally, users just want to punch a button on their desktop, do something in Windows, then quit," Lawton adds. " Shutting down and rebooting a machine twice takes a bite out of time
and productivity and is frustrating."

Linux users will benefit the most from Plex86, he adds. "Let's face it, there are an enormous amount of people who are waiting for Linux to offer them the ability to use their current codebase of Windows apps. Not always because there is no Linux counterpart - but sometimes because using the Windows programs is a company mandate/standard."

Right now, Plex86 can run Windows 95, MSDOS, FreeDOS, and Linux as guest OSes on top of its Linux host. The next goals, Lawton says, include supporting more OSes as guests, including Windows 98 and NT, and increasing the performance of the program. "There are many things to do to plex86 to increase performance," he says. "Up until now, I've used the design philosophy of getting things working before optimizing.

"Before we can offer something that is worthy of serving most users' needs, we need some time to fill things out and add some performance enhancements," he adds, "though, at the rate this project is progressing, that may be measured more in weeks than months."

Lawton and fans of Plex86 says its big advantages are it's free and Open Source, compared to the proprietary VMware Workstation, which costs $299 for an electronic version and $329 for the packaged version. Academic pricing is $99 for electronic and $129 for packaged.

"Plex86 is an Open Source project," Lawton says. "Because of this, we can export things such as a good debugging interface, to projects which find them extremely useful. But proprietary software companies may well not offer these features, out of fear of exposing some internal architecture, or simply because they don't want to bother supporting them for a small number of users who desire them."

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