VMware sends in the clones to ease testing

Myriad enhancements to VMware Workstation make Version 5 a must-have

IT professionals are constantly pressed to do more with less and to do it faster. The latest version of VMware Workstation proves a valuable tool in achieving that evasive goal. With it, administrators have the ability to test multiple images for desktop and laptop deployment simultaneously, or to test every code change to an application sequentially to see which has problems, or to test myriad Microsoft security updates before deploying them on mission-critical servers faster and more easily than ever before.

I’ve been successfully using VMware Workstation for years to augment my product testing by leveraging one physical machine into many virtual ones with different OSes. Version 5 adds a variety of new functions that enhance its indispensability, including multiple snapshots, templates, clones, teams, movie captures, virtual networking tweaks, and increased overall performance.

VMware’s primary competition comes, of course, from Microsoft Virtual PC, and from competitors such as XenSource’s Xen. While the market maintains strong competitive offerings, VMware Workstation continues to hold its own with this updated version.

All for one, one for all

I installed and tested Workstation 5 on my Intel-based Stratus ftServer W Series 2300 without a problem. Installation was quick and straightforward. My next step was to install the OSes that I wanted to use for testing, which included Microsoft Server 2003, Microsoft Windows XP Professional, Red Hat Linux, and Knoppix STD (Security Tools Distribution). Alas, that last OS is not officially supported, whereas the newer 64-bit Windows and Linux distributions are, as are other Windows flavors and good ol’ DOS, NetWare, Solaris, and FreeBSD — to name a few others. Again, OS installation and management went smoothly.

With previous versions of VMware, I would at this point have had to go through the onerous and time-consuming task of reinstalling each new copy of the operating system for testing as a separate virtual machine. Although this eases testing enormously, installing multiple OSes can take hours. Thankfully, VMware now has two ways to speed up this time-consuming process, via clones and templates.

A VMware clone is just what the name implies: an exact copy of the original virtual machine in its current state. VMware has two types of clones: a full clone, which is a completely independent virtual machine, and a linked clone, which is a reference to the original clone but takes up less disk space. Before creating a linked clone, you must create a template, a read-only parent virtual machine. This template, and subsequent linked clones, reduces the disk space VMs require, as they share the parent VM’s resources. Although creating either type of clone does take some time, there are no pesky OS questions to impede the process. Thus, it’s just as fast as the process of, for example, creating a Symantec Ghost OS image.

Picture perfect

In past versions of Workstation, you could create only one snapshot. Version 5 allows for multiple snapshots, which enables you to save a virtual machine’s entire state at any given point in time to disk, including apps and configuration settings. After creating a series of snapshots, I was able to move forward or backward in time, choosing any snapshot as my current virtual machine. When I had a problem with one snapshot, I could revert to a previous one and see if the problem still existed. I could even create branches of snapshots so I could test different apps that were loaded before or after installing Service Pack 2 on XP, for example.

Snapshots are excellent for testing application and OS security vulnerabilities and patches. A welcome, graphically oriented snapshot manager displays all snapshots on a single screen as icons, along with their branches for easy navigation between virtual machines. The snapshot manager really helps keep track of all of the different snapshots and branches during testing, definitely a useful addition.

Another interesting and useful addition to Workstation 5 is teams, which allow two or more VMs to work as an isolated network segment, affecting only the other VMs within their team. Creating teams provides an excellent way to test multi-tier client server applications in an isolated, managed, and reproducible environment. In my tests, I created several clones and then put them together as a team. I was then able to tweak network environment settings to see the effects on each machine as I throttled up or degraded network performance.

Of course, you’ll need sufficient RAM and disk space to accommodate a running team, as the amount of memory available dictates how many VMs can run simultaneously. By leveraging VMware’s ESX technology, Workstation 5 better utilizes memory consumption. The two gigs of RAM on my Stratus server easily handled the half-dozen VM team members running at once.

Workstation 5 boasts several less important, albeit interesting and useful, additions. Among them is the ability to drag and drop files or directories from the host OS to a virtual machine. Admins also can create AVI movies within a virtual machine, which opens the possibilities for capturing errant applications in the act of collapsing, for training, or — my favorite — for recording WebEx sessions. The solution also now supports isochronous USB in a virtual machine, so peripherals such as Web cams, microphones, and speakers will now work, albeit slower than they would on their non-virtual counterpart.

Additionally, performance of this version seemed snappier, including faster suspend, resume, and powering a virtual machine on and off. VMware also adds command line options for scripting. VMware Workstation 5 can also import Microsoft Virtual PC or Microsoft Virtual Server virtual machines into Workstation 5 VMs, easing VM migration.

VMware has squeezed a lot of useful new features into Workstation 5, making it very well-suited for individuals or departments who would otherwise find themselves reinstalling OS after OS for testing. Although you’ll need ample disk and memory to reap the full benefits of the solution, VMware Workstation 5 is well worth its minimal cost.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Setup (10.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Flexibility (20.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
VMware Workstation 5 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.8
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