I’ve been playing around a bit with two of the major virtualization programs, VMWare Workstation and Microsoft Virtual PC. My interest at this point has only been to allow me to run an alternative operating systems on my primary PC. In this particular case, I was looking to run CentOS 5.1 on a Windows XP laptop.
I started out with Virtual PC, primarily because of the price, free. My goal here is to make my life a little easier when developing web applications. It would be nice to run everything locally, allowing me freedom to work virtually anywhere, and limiting development code on a publicly accessible machine. There are, of course, other options such as a private network with VPNs, but I’m really not looking to go that far yet.
Right from the start, Virtual PC is somewhat of a problem. Microsoft’s website claims that VPC can run nearly any x86-based OS, but they only list Windows operating systems on their website. This is expected, of course. So, knowing that this is merely an x86 emulation package, I went ahead and installed it.
The first thing I noticed was the extremely long time it took to install. Installation of the files themselves seemed to go relatively quickly, but the tail end of the install, where it installs the networking portion of VPC was extremely slow and resulted in a loss of connectivity on my machine for about 5-10 minutes. I experienced a similar issue uninstalling the software.
Once VPC was installed, I used a DVD copy of CentOS 5.1 to install the guest OS. I attempted a GUI installation, but VPC wouldn’t support the resolution and complained, resulting in a garbled virtual screen. I resorted to installation using the TUI. Installation itself went pretty smoothly, no real problems encountered. Once completed, I fired up the new OS.
Because I was in text-mode within the virtual OS, the window was pretty small on my screen. I flipped to full-screen mode to compensate. I noticed, however, that the fonts were not very sharp, looking very washed out. I also experienced problems cutting and pasting between the host and guest OS. Simply put, I could not cut and paste between the two at all.
The guest OS seemed sluggish, but I attributed this to an underpowered laptop running two operating systems simultaneously. Overall, Virtual PC seemed to work ok, but the lack of graphical support and the inability to cut and paste between the host and guest really made working with it problematic.
My second choice for virtualization was VMWare Workstation. VMWare has been around for a very long time, and I remember using their product years ago. VMWare is not free, running a cool $189 for a single license, however there is a 30 day trial key you can get. I signed up for this and proceeded to install the software.
The first major difference between VPC and Workstation is the size of the program. VPC clocks in at a measly 30 Megs, while Workstation runs about 330 Megs. Installation is a snap, however, and proceed quite quickly. I didn’t experience the same network problems that I did with VPC.
Once installed, I proceeded to load the same guest OS using the same memory and hard drive parameters as I did with VPC. VMWare correctly configured the graphical display to handle the GUI installer, and I was able to install the Gnome desktop as well. Installation seemed to go a bit quicker than with VPC, despite the added packaged for X Window and Gnome.
After installation was complete, I booted into the new OS. VMWare popped up a window notifying me that the Guest OS was not running the VMWare Tools package and that installing it would result in added speed and support. I clicked OK to bypass the message and allowed the OS to continue loading.
Almost immediately I noticed that VMWare was running quite a bit faster than VPC. The guest OS was very responsive and I was able to quickly configure MySQL and Apache. I also noticed that VMWare made the guest OS aware of my sound card, USB controller, and just about every other device I have in the system. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to remove those from the configuration. I really have no need for sound effects when I’m merely writing code.. :)
Overall, VMWare has been running very well. Well enough to make me think about getting a license for it and using it full time. However, my overall goal is to move over to the OSX platform, so I’m not sure I want to blow $200 on something I’ll only use for a few months (fingers crossed)… Another alternative may be VirtualBox, an open-source alternative. I’ll be downloading and checking that out soon enough.
In the end, though, if you’re looking to run high-end applications, or even use a specific OS full-time, there’s nothing better than a full install on a real machine as opposed to a virtual one.