Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


VMWare Workstation 2.0
by Chris Taylor


I have been running Windows 2000 for over a year now and think it is by far the best operating system I have used. However, being built on the NT kernel, there are some programs that won't run and vendors have been slow to come out with hardware drivers. Worms Armageddon is a great game I have, but it won't run under Win2K. I also have a digital camera. The vendor does not supply a Win2K driver.

For these reasons, I have my machine set to dual boot with Windows ME. But I really hate to reboot into another operating system.

Then I heard about VMWare Workstation 2.0. It is designed to run on Windows NT, Windows 2000 or Linux and allows you to configure virtual machines (the VM in VMWare). Those VMs can run DOS, Windows 3.1/95/98/NT/2K, FreeBSD 2.2.x/3.x or Linux (currently supported are Red Hat 5/6, Caldera 1.3/2.x, SuSE 5.3/6.x, TurboLinux 6.0, and Corel Linux).
 
Was this to be the nirvana I was looking for - never having to reboot and simply run another OS from within Win2K? I just had to find out.

I installed VMWare Workstation 2.0.3 build 799 on my Pentium II/266 with 128MB RAM. It is worth noting up front that this is pretty near bottom of the barrel as far as VMWare is concerned. About the only thing I had above rock bottom was memory, as they state a minimum of 96MB. The installation went smoothly.

When configuring a virtual machine, it is almost surreal. You first tell a Wizard what operating system you are going to install and answer some questions about networking and other resources you want to be available to the VM. Then you power on the VM. You see a Phoenix BIOS screen come up followed by the standard search for memory and disks. If you didn't follow the instructions you are then greeted with the error message indicating an operating system was not found. Well, you have to install one, just as if you have a brand new machine.

Most recent versions of Windows come on a bootable CD-ROM and most computers can boot from their CD-ROM drive, so that is the easiest way to complete most installs. If you don't have an OS on a bootable CD-ROM, you have to revert to booting from a floppy drive. Unless you are installing a floppy-based OS such as DOS and Windows 3.1, you are going to need DOS-level drivers to access your CD-ROM drive so you can install your OS.

Don't start thinking you can just stick the required files on a partition on your hard disk and access them from there - this is a virtual machine - it knows nothing of the rest of your hardware. At this point in the game, the VM will see a single 2GB hard drive that is completely void of data, logical drives, or even partitions. It really does take a bit of getting used to. What is being created is a microcosm that is unaware of the larger world in which it exists.

I first installed a copy of Windows 98 SE. After the standard installation finally completed - it took a really long time - I installed the VMWare Tools. It is highly advised that you install this component. It not only makes it simpler to do some functions such as moving back and forth between your real machine and the VM, but it adds a new video driver that gives much better performance and higher resolutions/colour depths.

I kept having to remind myself that this is a virtual machine. There are many differences between it and your real computer. The first clue should have been the appearance of a PhoenixBIOS. That's not what is in my computer. What I ended up with was a computer that appeared to have 48MB RAM (this could have been higher if I had more than 128MB of real RAM), a NECVMWar VMWare IDE CD-ROM, a generic NEC floppy drive, a generic IDE TYPE01 hard drive, a VMWare SVGA video adapter, a PS/2 compatible mouse, an AMD PCNET Family Ethernet Adapter, and a Sound Blaster 16 or AWE-32 or compatible sound card.

I really wanted to see if I could get a Windows 98 game to function. Oops...no go. VMWare does not support Direct3D/DirectX, and Worms Armageddon requires DirectX 6.

Then my second disappointment - VMWare does not support USB ports, so my digital camera was out.

So, with the two main objectives in using VMWare shot, I started looking deeper to see what value I, or anyone else, might find in VMWare. I am happy to report that all is not lost. This is one nifty piece of software.
First, anyone who must test software under various operating systems may find VMWare to be a wonderful tool. You can easily load up many different operating systems and even have virtual machines for every variant. For example, Windows 95 came in at least 4 major variants from the shipping version through the OEM Service Releases. So, if you have access to all the builds, you can easily test your software to ensure compatibility.
For anyone who likes to try out new software and has been burned more than once by some program that hosed their machine, VMWare has a unique feature that can help. The virtual disk in a VM may be configured in any of three modes. The default mode is "Persistent". In this mode, all changes are written to the virtual disk in a permanent manner. When you shut down the VM and start it up again, all changes made during the previous session are there. In "Nonpersistent" mode, all changes are discarded when you exit the VM. The final mode is "Undoable". In this mode, the changes are maintained in a log and when you exit the VM, you are given the option to either permanently write the changes to the virtual disk or discard the changes.

The last two modes give you the ultimate in a testing environment. You can happily add any new program without regard for terrible things it may do to system files, configurations, other programs, etc. Depending on the mode, the changes will either be automatically discarded at the end of the session, or you are given the opportunity to do so.

VMWare can also be very handy if you have an occasional need to run a few programs that don't run under your main OS (assuming of course that your main OS is Windows NT, Windows 2000, or Linux - as they are the only OSs supported for the host system). Linux aficionados will probably skin me alive for suggesting such heresy, but they may be the biggest benefactors, given the number of desktop applications available for Windows compared to the number available for Linux. I don't think we should expect a Linux port of PowerPoint any time soon!

Besides my problems with lack of support for DirectX and USB, I did note some other issues people should be aware of before diving into VMWare. VMWare is slow. It makes my Pentium II/266 feel like a Pentium 90. As I understand it, more memory would be a big help here.

Some operating systems, most notably DOS, do not handle the CPU HLT instruction. Running VMWare under such an OS will send the CPU utilization of your machine right to 100% and peg it there. A program called DOSIdle (available as DOSIdle2.Zip in the Miscellaneous Utilities file area on PUB II can help here.

You want a lot of memory. Although they claim the minimum is 96MB, in reality I think 128 should really be considered rock bottom.

I had some problems finding drivers. There is a DOS-based driver on the VMWare web site that will work with their virtual CD-ROM. I had a tougher time finding a driver for Windows for Workgroups 3.11, but I eventually found one on the Internet that worked OK. Keep in mind, you are not looking for a driver for your hardware, you are looking for a driver for the virtual hardware. MIDI is not supported on the virtual Sound Blaster 16 sound card.

The maximum size of a virtual disk is 2GB. While I would have felt silly listing this as a limitation a few short years ago, these days 2GB is not all that big.

You may be able to get better performance by using a real disk partition rather than a virtual disk. I started down this road for testing, but I must admit I found it confusing and backed off when I thought I might be getting myself into more trouble than was warranted. They do warn you that use of existing partitions should only be done by those who know what they are doing.

I found that the VMWare web site has a wealth of information and trouble-shooting information. I did not find the organization of that information all that intuitive, but it's there for the taking. One of the gems I found was a 13MB PDF file that seems to contain all the information in 1181 pages.

VMWare is not cheap. The list price is US$299 if you want to download the 5.5MB package, or US$329 for a CD-ROM and printed manual. If your primary OS is Linux and you only want to be able to run Win95/98 in a VM, there is a bargain version available for US$79 (download) or US$99 (CD-ROM and printed manual).

A 30-day eval copy of VMWare may be downloaded from www.vmware.com so you can try it out and see if it will suit your needs before shelling out the hard-earned money.


Bottom Line:

VMWare Workstation 2.0
List price: US$299 (download)
CD-ROM price: US$329 (includes printed manual)
For Linux:
List price: US$79 (download)
CD-ROM price: US$99 (includes printed manual)
from VMWare: http://www.vmware.com/products/desktop/ws_features.html


Copyright and Usage
Ottawa Personal Computer Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1S6

The opinions expressed in these reviews may not necessarily
represent the views of the OPCUG or its members.