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VMware Workstation 5.0 review

By Jem Matzan

With last month's release of VMware Workstation 5, the virtual machine software is better than ever. VMware Workstation now has 64-bit host support, the ability to capture multiple snapshots for each virtual machine, easier sharing of virtual machines, and the ability to connect multiple virtual machines in a "team" setting. Perhaps most importantly, GNU/Linux support is improved in version 5.

VMware is a framework that allows multiple operating systems to install and run inside of another one. There are a variety of different VMware products and tools designed for specialized uses, but the Workstation product is the core technology. VMware Workstation supports Windows and GNU/Linux host operating systems, and a somewhat larger number of guest OSes. You must choose which host version you want, and if you want both, you have to pay two license fees. There is some loss in performance in comparison to a native operating system installation, and users must dedicate resources to each OS instance while it is running. Extensive use of VMware can cause your hard drive's free space to quickly diminish, as you need to create and assign a virtual partition for each guest OS.

One valuable feature that has been present in VMware for the past several versions is the ability to take a "snapshot" of a working guest operating system. This allows you to save an entire OS configuration, making it easier to "reinstall" an operating system if you need to.

What's new in 5.0

VMware 5.0 mainly introduces collaboration features that make it easier to share common configurations with co-workers. GNU/Linux support has also been enhanced, and there is preliminary support for Solaris x86 and more recent builds of Microsoft Windows "Longhorn" beta. Here is a breakdown of the major improvements to VMware:

  • Multiple snapshots
  • Cloning
  • Teams
  • 64-bit host support

Previously you could only take one snapshot per guest OS. Version 5.0 eliminates this limitation. Multiple snapshots are useful for testing an operating system in multiple states; for instance, you could save snapshots of Windows XP with SP1, SP2, and with experimental patches applied.

The cloning feature allows you to do two things: access shared virtual machines on a shared drive, so that multiple clients can access them; and make a complete local copy of that VM if you need to make special modifications to it. The virtual machine file size has been greatly reduced in Workstation 5.0, which frees up network bandwidth and hard drive space. That makes sharing VMs less costly in terms of system resources, hardware and infrastructure requirements, and time.

VMware's teams feature allows you to connect multiple VMs into one environment. It's like being a sysadmin of a virtual network or lab, allocating bandwidth and resources for each team VM, and having the ability to power them on and off and make any other necessary changes. You get a common control interface for each team to more easily manage them.

VMware's proprietary Linux kernel modules are now 64-bit clean, and support RHEL 3 and 4, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 7, 8, and 9. Windows XP and 2003 for 64-bit systems are also supported experimentally.

VMware in production

Many GNU/Linux users fantasize about using VMware as an alternative to dual-booting with GNU/Linux and Windows. There are always those one or two programs that don't work through CrossOver Office, but are indispensable to some people. While it is more than capable of providing a perfect Windows environment in GNU/Linux, VMware's primary use is as a tool for programmers and software testers.

Cliff Thornton, quality control manager of Cognos Solution Interoperability, relies on VMware to provide greater efficiency for his team. He needs to have a clean, quick environment, and does not want testers doing anything but testing -- no operating system installation and configuration, if at all possible. VMware Workstation 5.0 allows him to eliminate time-consuming reinstalls and problems due to old installations.

"We set up installs of our products so others can utilize those installs on our lab machines. Our documentation writers, product managers, and developers do not have the time or resources to set up the installs, so we do it for them, as this allows them to go through the work they need to perform."

The hardware that Thornton uses to populate his testing environment are Hewlett-Packard xw8200 workstations. Each has two Intel Xeon 3.4GHz CPUs with 5GB RAM and 15,000RPM SCSI drives. They're also using laptop systems, but have found the IDE laptop hard drives to be too slow for large virtual machine images. Although the Xeon processors in the HP workstations are 64-bit capable, Thornton does not yet use 64-bit host operating systems.

Cognos has between 30 and 40 machines running VMware Workstation 5.0 right now, all running on Windows. Why not use GNU/Linux as a host? Thornton says the Cognos IT department does not have the ability to support it.

What about other virtual machines and emulators? "We tried Microsoft's virtual machine, but it did not meet our expectations. It had a completely different emulation system." VMware Workstation's features allow for a perfectly emulated environment. "If it weren't for VMware, we'd have to use separate machines."

Installation, licensing, and pricing

The last time I reviewed VMware Workstation, I reviewed it from the Windows perspective, running GNU/Linux and FreeBSD clients. This time I tested mainly on GNU/Linux, with a focus on running Windows clients.

The main difference between installing VMware Workstation on both platforms is the kernel requirements. With Windows, VMware installs like any other program -- click OK a few times and you're done. A GNU/Linux host machine requires more technical knowledge and a compatible kernel. Instead of being able to use a fancy installation shell, you install the entire program via a Perl script. You need to check about a dozen specific structural requirements beforehand, mostly in the organization of the /etc directory, the location of the kernel headers, and the layout of the startup scripts.

I first tried installing VMware Workstation 5.0 on Gentoo Linux for AMD64, just to see how difficult it would be to install it on an unsupported distribution. Since the way Gentoo organizes its /etc directory and init scripts is drastically different from the officially supported GNU/Linux distros, I'd have to have created several rc directories and possibly some other files. I wasn't willing to mess with my workstation that much to get VMware to work. In the past I've had VMware 4.5 working on similar machines with Gentoo, so I know it can be done with the right amount of tweaking. I suspect other unsupported GNU/Linux distributions could be made to work with a similar amount of effort.

Fedora Core is not officially supported by VMware, but since Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and 4 are both supported, I hoped Fedora Core 3 would work. It installed and ran perfectly, although the installation utility had to compile a kernel module -- the precompiled modules would not work with my updated kernel.

Officially supported guest operating systems worked very well -- even better than they do natively, because they're guaranteed to have the proper drivers for your hardware. As for unsupported guest OSes, I didn't have much luck with OpenBSD 3.6. It got partway through the OpenBSD installation routine, then failed trying to initialize the OpenBSD partitions.

Once a guest OS is installed, you have to install the VMware Tools to achieve optimal network and video performance. I tried this with Windows XP as a guest OS, and it added better video resolution and color depth to the display. When running in full-screen mode, users can't tell the difference between a native Windows installation and a virtualized Windows installation through VMware.

Guest OS support is excellent in some ways, sub-par in others. Windows, for instance, has full or experimental support from version 3.1 up to recent Longhorn builds and all stops in between. GNU/Linux, on the other hand, has distribution-specific support only for various versions of Red Hat, SUSE, Sun Java Desktop System, and Mandrakelinux. Some versions of Novell Netware, MS-DOS, FreeBSD, and Sun Solaris are also supported.

In my testing, VMware worked as expected. Install a guest operating system just as you would natively, install VMware Tools when that is complete, and you're left with a fully functional, native-compatible, networkable virtual operating system. On fast 64-bit systems with RAM and hard drive space to spare, the slight performance loss in the virtual environment is hardly noticeable.

Click to enlarge

VMware's license is proprietary and restrictive in all the usual ways, but I was surprised to see that the VMware lawyers actually named every open source program that is used in or included with their product. Individual licenses cost $190 apiece. If you already have VMware Workstation 3.x or 4.x, you qualify for an upgrade license at $100, although after June 30 you will no longer be able to upgrade from 3.x. If you bought VMware Workstation after December 16, you qualify for a free upgrade to version 5.0.


VMware Workstation is supposed to be for software developers and testers and support personnel. It's also useful as a tool for system administrators. Instead of having discrete test servers, you can have an exact copy of your production servers in VMware and experiment all you want without harming the production environment. If you're running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 as a file server, you could install VMware on it, install RHEL 3 as a virtual machine, then go crazy with experimental changes and see how the virtual test server reacts. If you create a snapshot of the virtual server as it is in production, you can "roll back" your changes to the original state -- no matter how much damage they might have done -- in a matter of minutes.

VMware is probably too expensive for non-commercial users, but Workstation 5.0 is just as valid for home use as it is for software testing. If you hate dual-booting, it's going to cost you $190 to get the closest thing to it.

Using VMware Workstation as a testing environment has more advantages than just snapshots, teams, and cloning. With a virtualized operating system, you no longer have to go on an hours-long expedition for the proper hardware drivers for newer computers. Once the guest OS is installed, all it lacks is patches and updates since its release.

Should you upgrade if you're a current 3.x or 4.x user? If you're happy with the way VMware currently operates, there isn't much of a need to buy the upgrade, unless you're on 3.x and are worried that you might need the new features someday. The newest version offers are no revolutionary changes.

Purpose Virtual machine
Manufacturer EMC, Inc.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License Proprietary, restrictive
Market Support centers, multi-platform software developers
Price (retail) $190 for the download edition (Windows or GNU/Linux), and $200 for the boxed edition
Previous version VMware Workstation 4.5
Product Web site Click here