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Testing Linux under VMware

Introduction

I love testing out new Linux distributions. But I hate installing a Linux distribution, only to find that the one I had before was far better. I also spend most of my time is spent under Windows Vista, because no Linux can satisfy the two major demands of mine: Adobe CS and Microsoft Office 2007.

Yet, when I need to reboot into Linux for network related activity or just feeling the speed and stability of Linux, I have to shut down all my Windows programs, including the many servers I run on my university network (just for fun, of course).

And thus, I turned to VMware, so I could at least test out my distros before burning them in and installing them to my hard disk partitions.

Of course, I had know about VMware, but I had not been bothered enough to go through the hassle of getting a copy, and moreover, I could hardly spare another 10-15 GBs of hard disk space on my already full hard disk. But I just recently bought myself a 500GB external hard disk, and there I was, ready to spare VMware some space.

Using it

VMware has it’s site here. Mind that you obtain the Workstation, not just the free Player.

Actually, VMware is rather easier to use than I ever expected. It is simply a case of install, click and run. There’s a fine little wizard to guide you through the process of creating a virtual machine, and if it detects the version of Linux you have from the ISO image, even easier.

But even under ‘Advanced’ mode, things are hardly any challenge: if you know how to install Linux in dual boot configuration, this virtual machine setup will not break your sweat. All you have to do is to specify the virtual machine’s working directory, and the settings you want for your virtual machine, as well as a few other minor parameters. Elementary.

One necessary trick, though is to know the version of Linux that you run. In most cases, it will not correctly detect the latest Linux distros, so during the machine setup, it gives you a long menu of Linux types to manually choose from. In most cases, your field will lie under ‘Other 2.6.x kernel’

When you run the virtual machine, you get a full computer in a computer, and you use exactly as you would a physical computer. And that, is what makes things so much fun.

Furthermore, the virtual machines so created are portable – and they can be be run on any operating system where the free VMware Player is installed. Most communication between the guest OS and other OSes (whether outside the host OS, or as other virtual OSes or the host itself) is done via a virtual network. Like I said earlier, it is not much to grapple with – at least for someone ready enough to try virtualisation.

There are other fine features too, my favourite being ‘Unity’, that kind of melds the guest operating system into the host, and allowing copy & paste operations from the host to the guest.

But these advanced features need a little software installed inside the guest OS, called VMware tools. Once again, this is easier done than said – all it takes is clicking ‘Install VMware tools’ in the Workstation menu. For Linux, this loads up a virtual CD drive containing an archived Perl script that you run to install.

Performance & the nags

Of course, virtualisation has its downsides. Sometimes, things that work on your virtual machines may not work on the direct native installation, and vice versa.

But most importantly of all, there is a massive performance hit. Not only to the guest operating system, but the host operating system too. That is because unless you have a really powerful computer will loads of RAM (in fact, 2GB is my recommended minimum), and a lot of processing power to boot (1.8 GHz dual core processor, at least), you will really be stretching your computer to its limit. And that is not very unexpected, after all, you are running more than one complete OS on a single system.

Price is a bit of a problem too: it costs a good $190 to buy a single license, if you are planning to keep it for anything more than 30 days.

Final words

If computing power is not short on demand (as for me), and you have disk space to spare, and most importantly, it serves your purpose to be able to run one or more OSes simultaneously from inside another OS, then this is worth your time (and money). For distro hoppers, this is a useful item to have on your system.

P.S. The first major Linux distribution that I am testing is Mint 6. My review should be ready once I have given this upcoming distro my ‘harsh’ treatment.

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