Preview: VMware Workstation 6.5 beta surges ahead

Seamless windowing, easy Windows VM creation, accelerated 3-D video, and integrated ACE support headline a must-have upgrade

They say market leadership has its privileges. When you're way out in front and the competition is just a distant blip in your rearview horizon, you get to take a breather. Coast a bit. Maybe focus on the big picture for a while. Yes, it's good to be the leader. All of which begs the question: What the hell is wrong with VMware?

These guys are so far out in front that the competition has to dial 011 just to get them on the phone. This is especially true in the traditional desktop virtualization space. VMware has almost zero competition on the dominant platform, meaning Windows. Yet it continues to innovate – and at an alarming pace, no less.

Case in point: VMware Workstation 6.5. Though only just entering beta, Workstation 6.5 is already causing a stir among the virtualization faithful. That's because the feature set reads like a veritable wish list to Virtual Santa from all the good girls and boys down in the in-house development and help desk departments.

[ Read Randall Kennedy’s comparative review of VMware Workstation, Parallels Workstation, Microsoft Virtual PC 2007, and innotek VirtualBox. Read his review of innotek VirtualBox 1.5.2. Read his review of the Kidaro and Sentillion desktop VM management systems, along with his sidebar on VMware ACE. ]

For example, there's the new hardware-accelerated graphics support. You can now run Direct3D applications (including some games) from within a VM, eliminating a major hurdle to achieving near-local system fidelity. Workstation 6.5 also provides a mechanism for integrating applications running within the host OS. Dubbed "Unity," it allows you to, for example, run a copy of Internet Explorer 6 inside a VM and have its client window displayed seamlessly on the host OS desktop.

From Fusion with love
Unity is a carryover from the VMware Fusion product on Mac OS X. Another carryover is the new Easy Install feature. Designed to simplify the VM creation process, Easy Install parses the disk structure of an installation CD or ISO image, then applies a preconfigured installation script if it recognizes the guest OS media.

In the case of Windows XP, Easy Install prompts you for the product key, computer name, and administrator password, then proceeds to complete the entire OS installation automatically, no user interaction required. For support professionals or developers who frequently build and tear down lots of test VMs, Easy Install could be a real time-saver. The only downside is that it's a Windows-only feature – no Easy Install for Linux, Unix, and other non-Microsoft platforms.

Another time-saver – and a surefire VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) crowd-pleaser – is the integrated Assured Computing Environment (ACE) authoring features. Now, when you create a new VM, you are given the option of enabling additional ACE configuration options such as VM image encryption and access control. Having all of these features available alongside the normal VM parameters (they appear as an additional tab in the VM's configuration page) makes leveraging ACE technologies a snap and should help new ACE users to find critical options more quickly. There's even a handy Pocket ACE calculator for projecting and configuring an appropriate portable storage model for a new VM.

Other major features included shared Smart Card support (between host and guest OS); better, more granular control over VM snapshots; and more robust networking support for mobile users (including link-state propagation for roaming wireless hosts).

Same sink, different plumbing
I tested VMware Workstation 6.5 Beta (build 84113) under Windows Server 2008. Visually, little has changed since the previous Workstation release, Version 6.03. The installation and initial UI experiences remain the same. In fact, it isn't until you start to create new VMs that the revamped plumbing starts to make itself known.

First, there's the very prominent Enable ACE Features link in the Commands panel of the VM's settings page. Clicking this causes a host of new UI elements to appear, including an additional Settings tab containing a long list of ACE configuration options. You can later disable the tab via the standard VM Options dialog if you find it distracting. It's a lot for a new user to digest, but overall it's a vast improvement over the separate, poorly integrated ACE Option Pack for Workstation.

The Easy Install option is nice but not mandatory. When I pointed it to an ISO image of a Windows XP installation CD, Workstation 6.5 immediately recognized the OS and offered to enable the Easy Install features. I chose to continue that route, though I could have just as easily bypassed it by de-selecting that option in the dialog. After that, it was a simple matter of entering my XP product key, typing in a NetBIOS machine name for the image, and providing a new administrator password. I then sat back and watched while Workstation 6.5 formatted the virtual partition, installed the OS, and dropped me at the login prompt when it was finished. It even completed the end-to-end tour by automatically installing the VMware Tools suite once I'd logged in.

Easy Install is a feature I'll likely use a lot in my own day-to-day testing and development work. It takes much of the tedium out of creating and provisioning new VMs. Unfortunately, not every Workstation 6.5 feature was as fully baked as Easy Install.

They call it beta code
Take the Unity feature, for example. By setting the focus on a particular guest OS application and selecting Unity from the Workstation 6.5 VM menu, I was able to view the application seamlessly on my host OS desktop. Unfortunately, this integration came with some limitations, not to mention some oddly disturbing ancillary behaviors.

First, the window repainting logic was frustratingly slow. Each resize or shift of the window created a great deal of video shearing, causing me to hesitate as I waited for the repaint operations to catch up with my movements. Also, even though the guest OS desktop was now hidden, Workstation 6.5 insisted on displaying each new Notification Area pop-up. Worse still, these pop-ups appeared over the host OS Notification Area, creating a kind of orphaned pop-up effect that had me scratching my head until I figured out just what was going on.

Workstation 6.5's new accelerated video support was also a mixed bag. Though I was able to perform some basic tests – for example, running the Direct3D tests in the DirectX Diagnostics (dxdiag) utility – repeated test cycles caused the VM to become unresponsive and eventually crash. And the few games I did try under Workstation 6.5 failed to load for (as yet) undetermined reasons.

In the end, it's important to temper the above observations by reiterating that Workstation 6.5 is still in the earliest beta stages. Given VMware's solid track record with Workstation, I'm confident these issues will be resolved prior to shipping. In the meantime, there's a lot to look forward to with VMware Workstation 6.5. Workstation users can all be thankful that VMware doesn’t have the good sense to take a breather while it’s ahead.