Virtual wundermachines

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

I’ve spent a few hours this afternoon playing with VMWare and an old copy of Windows XP. What a cool experience.

Installing VMWare 5.5.0 on my bleeding edge Kubuntu Dapper desktop was pretty straightforward, even with this morning’s latest 2.6.15-12 kernel image (the one which supports the dual-core G5′s for those of us who are also into the PPC thing). It’s proprietary software only right now, though there is a free “player” with good Ubuntu support. I needed to patch the kernel slightly, details are on Kerneltrap at http://kerneltrap.org/node/6040 if you want to do the same. I will ask Ben Collins, the Ubuntu kernel maintainer, to make sure VMWare is a supported module during the rest of the Dapper test and release cycle so it should Just Work for others.

After you install the VMWare software you can create a new virtual machine. You then “power up” the machine, and watch it “booting” in a window on your desktop. It has its own BIOS (“Press F2 for setup, F12 for boot options…” etc) and initially it was failing to boot because its “disk” was blank. I told it to boot from the CD-ROM and up came the Windows XP Professional installer.

Interestingly, the Windows installer is pretty basic compared to modern Linux installers. I would like to see how the Windows VIsta installation goes. XP was smooth, mostly, though it got stuck and needed a restart at one point. Not all that impressive. But an hour or so later I was looking at a Windows desktop, in a window on my Kubuntu desktop. Everything seemed to work well, including Windows Activation. Charmingly, there are no security updates for Windows until you activate it (cough splutter choke).
For what it’s worth, some things do work very well under windows. The theming is consistent and classy, control panels are tight and the Windows Update service is pretty slick now.
I’ll be using the VM for cross-platform testing, and so that I can give my old Windows laptop away and still retain an ability to run Windows apps. Sorting out the details will have to wait till the end of the Asia trip.

So does anybody have comments on the current state of Xen, especially for running multiple OS’s? It’s also interesting the extent to which modern hardware seems to want to provide all the core virtualisation services – SUN talk about this a lot with their Niagara chips, POWER5 is big on virtualisation and Intel says it’s in the pipeling on x86 too. How long before running multiple OS’s with little or no performance penalty is the main order of the day?

I’ll also ask Colin about publishing VMWare images of the regular test releases (“Flight’s” during the Dapper cycle) we make in Ubuntu. That would allow people to download and test a virtual image without having to burn a CD or reboot a computer. Would only really be of use for installed images, not for the installer itself, although with the new Ubuntu Express GUI installer based on the Live-CD, perhaps its possible to test it under a VM as well. Hmm…

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