VMware Workstation 5.5 for Linux Hosts

Is VMware a compelling purchase in the face of free virtualization competition?
Other Virtual Devices

Besides virtual CPU, RAM, hard disks and network interfaces, virtual machines also can have virtual floppy disks, CD-ROM/DVD-ROM drives (data only, not movies), USB controllers, SCSI controllers, parallel ports, serial ports, sound cards and mice. Both floppy and CD/DVD drives can use either your host system's actual hardware, or disk-image or ISO files, respectively. In all cases, VMware mounts the real or virtual media for you; you don't need to run the mount command separately.

VMware's SCSI and USB support is similarly transparent. By default, if you plug in a SCSI or USB device to your host system while a virtual machine is running in the foreground (has focus), the virtual machine responds as though you plugged the device in to it. Whether this will actually work in a given situation depends both on VMware—the virtual USB controller supports only USB 1.1—and on the capabilities of the guest system. (Does it support USB? Have you installed the correct drivers for your device onto your virtual machine?)

Running Host Systems

Once you've created a virtual machine and installed its operating system, actually using the virtual machine is very, very similar to the real thing. Figure 2 shows the Debian 3.1 installer running on a virtual machine.

Figure 2. A Virtual Debian Machine

You can even, if you like, run the virtual machine in full-screen mode rather than within the VMware window. Installing the VMware Tools package on the guest system adds additional features, such as enhanced virtual-display-adapter support for your guest system and the ability to move your mouse pointer in and out of the VM window without having to click in and escape out.

A number of VMware features make the virtual machine experience better than using a real machine, especially for research/test scenarios. One is the ability to take snapshots of virtual machines. A snapshot captures a virtual machine's memory state, disk state and virtual machine settings at a given point, allowing you to roll back to that point later—for example, after losing control of a virus you were examining on the guest system.

Another feature is the ability to create teams of virtual machines. A team is a group of virtual machines with shared networking and startup characteristics. This lets you create, for example, a farm of database servers all connected to the same virtual LANs that all can be started simultaneously with a single-mouse click or command (VMware now has a command-line utility, vmrun, for operating virtual machines and teams).

As you'd probably expect, given that a virtual machine is nothing more than files in a directory, VMware also makes it easy to clone virtual machines. A full clone is simply a copy of the parent VM, identical to it except for having a new MAC address and UUID. A full clone, therefore, is highly portable, and it easily can be copied to other host systems.

Another option is to create a linked clone, which actually is made from a snapshot of the parent. Changes to the parent don't affect the clone, and vice versa, but the clone must have access to the parent's files at all times.


So, what are the downsides to VMware? Honestly, I've been a very happy user of this product over the years. I have no laundry list of gripes or bugs to share with you, other than one hardware-specific problem with VMware 4.0 on a ThinkPad T42 running Windows XP (which I solved by switching to the Linux version). VMware Workstation 5.5 is a stable, well-documented and easy-to-use product with a rich set of features that is particularly useful to information systems professionals and researchers.

None of that comes for free, of course. The downloadable version of VMware Workstation 5.5 for Linux costs $189 US, and the boxed version is $199 US. I think you'd be hard pressed though to assemble a very good physical computer for that little money, let alone an entire LAN's worth. If in doubt, you can download the full version for a 30-day evaluation (after which you must purchase and install a license to continue using VMware).

Or, you can opt for VMware Server, which is now completely free. Formerly known as VMware GSX Server, the current version of VMware Server was still in beta at the time of this writing, but it will remain a free product even when it reaches production status. Presumably, VMware Server lacks many of VMware Workstation's developer/researcher-oriented features—the server versions of VMware are targeted more for production server applications. Compare and decide for yourself. More information about all VMware products is available at www.vmware.com.

Mick Bauer (darth.elmo@wiremonkeys.org) is Network Security Architect for one of the US's largest banks. He is the author of the O'Reilly book Linux Server Security, 2nd edition (formerly called Building Secure Servers With Linux), an occasional presenter at information security conferences and composer of the “Network Engineering Polka”.



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What is the basis for the conclusion?

Eric Skalwold's picture

VMware is non-free software, though some is provided gratis in order to gain market share. I would like to know why Mick Baur feels VMware is a compelling purchase in the face of competition from free solutions. That is a very dismissive statement to make without giving any reasons for it. I would like a comparison of the various free virtualization solutions with each other and with VMware. (I am behind in my reading of LJ and came here expecting to find at least a partial answer. I am shocked no one raised the issue previously.)

Even if Mick Baur is correct in his statement, few people have as stringent needs as Mick Baur. Certainly my needs are not as stringent as his. Free virtualization solutions might very well meet my needs just fine. Even if I am enabling someone to use a virtual machine to host a non-free OS and associated non-free ap(s), I prefer to do so using free software for all the reasons the Free Software Foundation so eloquently explains. I am very interested in virtualization software because I have noticed that people who are not committed to the principle of free software and who are using dual boot systems because they have one or more programs they need Windows software for, tend to just leave Windows running once they boot to it. I believe they would mostly use GNU/Linux Free Software if they were running Windows virtually and it was merely another window on their desktop rather than the hassle of rebooting back and forth between OSes.

He is right, but this article reads like a statement of opinion

Anonymous's picture

The facts are lacking here, but I do say VMWare is a compelling purchase. Admittedly, I am a power user. One of the things I need is speed and VMWare Workstation runs right up there with kemu and acceleration enabled, making them among the fastest virtual CPUs. This goes beyond a CPU though in many respects.

The new versions support usb 2.0, allowing me to use external drives in my guest OS without lag. Not to mention some of these devices have no drivers for Linux because they are obscure oldies but goodies. Experimental 3D support is featured as well and can run DirectX games on a Windows guest with respectable speed. Some of these games wine won't run the first line of code and forget other VM solutions for 3D support. Admittedly, it still has some bugs like flickery video in some DX8 and 9 games and crashing in some very recent games but the fact you can run them in a playable fashion under Linux is just great.

I run CPU intensive Windows apps such as video converters with functions that Linux alternatives have yet to implement and the VMs are consistently stable and comply well with CPU scheduling to avoid slowing down the host OS too much. Many free alternatives just can't hold up under that kind of thing, though a few can.

I think it boils down to the package. VMWare does almost everything exceptionally, which has been making it an ever more viable Windows replacement for those of us still stuck needing a few of Mickeysoft's applications. Some free alternatives do 1 to a few things exceptionally, like kemu's quick processing speed, but I have yet to see anything else fully replace a Windows machine when you need one so well.