Host more than one OS in a single machine

Strom Tip: Host more than one OS in a single machine

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Category: Multiple OS boot utility
Name of tool: VMware Workstation v 2.0
Company name: VMware Inc.
Price: $299 download, additional $30 for printed documentation, free 30-day trial
URL: www.wmware.com
Windows platforms supported: NT (at least service pack 3), 2000
Quick description: A utility that allows you to boot multiple operating systems on a single PC.

Strom-meter:
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool

Key features:

Pros:
Solid method of hosting multiple operating systems without having to re-partition your hard disk or install additional hardware.

Cons:
Somewhat complex installation and operation.

Description:

Corporate users looking to run multiple operating systems on their desktop computers have a series of choices. You can install some disk partitioning software, such as System Commander or Partition Magic, that allows you to boot into various different OSes. You can buy a bunch of hard disks, and install a fresh copy of each OS on each disk, unplugging one and plugging in another when the time comes to change your OS. Or you can make use of VMware Workstation, a nifty software utility that allows multiple OSes to co-exist on your Windows NT or 2000 machine. (Other versions are available for Linux as well.)

Disk partitioning software can be very fussy and if something goes wrong with the master partition, your entire machine might become unusable. Swapping multiple hard disks isn't very elegant. Although, it gets the job done and is something that I have used in my test lab when I want to leverage a few desktops over a wider range of OSes. The third choice, VMware, makes the most sense and is the superior method.

The VM part of the name stands for virtual machine. Those of you who come from aging IBM mainframe experience will remember IBM's version of the VM operating system, which allowed you to do similar things OS-wise. The idea is that once you install the software, you can run different "guest" versions of other OSes on your equipment.

Given that mainframe hardware was expensive, buying multiple mainframes just to run different OS versions wasn't very practical. And while PC hardware is relatively cheap, there are plenty of situations in corporate computing where you want to run more than one OS on your equipment. For example, let's say you develop both Windows and Linux applications, or have the need to run both NT workstation and server versions, or switch back and forth between Windows 98 and 2000. You could buy multiple hardware platforms, or you could leverage one PC to run these multiple OS versions.

This means that you can run Linux as a guest "inside" of Windows, or different versions of Windows (even 3.1 or DOS) as guests on your machine. You don't have to worry about potential conflicts, because each virtual machine is isolated from the others, as well as from your original PC Windows OS. It is both elegant and clean.

There are some catches, though. You first need to install the VMware software itself, and catalog the various peripherals and other system resources (video cards, serial ports, network adapters, and such) to which you want to give your guests access. Then you have to install the various guest OSes on your machine, which is similar to how you would install the OS if you were doing it from scratch on a new PC. VMware has nicely documented most of the important issues you'll have to understand on their web site for the major OS versions you will want to have as guests.

I tested VMware on NT Server running on a 200 MHz Pentium Pro with 96M bytes of RAM -- this is probably the minimum configuration machine you want to use for this product, and the more RAM and the faster your processor the better. If you plan on installing lots of different guest OSes, be aware that you'll need plenty of disk space to install everything property -- probably 10 or 20G bytes of hard disk space is a good starting point.

One of the nice things about VMware is that you can turn on and off a virtual machine with just a click of a button. This is useful when you are testing misbehaving software versions and don't want to have to worry about crashing the rest of your machine. If an application locks up your virtual machine, just turn it off and start up another virtual session. Of course, the virtual session still goes through the boot process -- so you don't save as much time as you might think.

VMware is a great idea and a unique product that is worth investigating, particularly for corporate testing environments, or in situations where you want to have the best of various OSes at your disposal.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

Bio: David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant, and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him email at david@strom.com.


This was first published in April 2001

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