I’ve recently re-paved my desktop, and one of the things that I’ve wanted to do was to install a virtual machine system. Before being re-built that machine had all sorts of issues, not the least of which was instability caused by my incessant penchant for installing and uninstalling beta software, community tech preview software, trial versions of software, and software that I just want to check out. The net effect of all of those system changes led to a system that was so unstable that it was, for all practical purposes, unusable. I knew that it would be to my benefit to isolate the biggest chunks of that software flux to virtual machines that I could re-image on a whim, with the primary system none the wiser.
I’ve heard good things about VMWare Workstation, but I have an MSDN subscription which includes a copy of Microsoft Virtual PC 2004, and having seen it in use, I thought that it would suit my purposes admirably.
I had a bit of initial hesitation, in that I wasn’t sure how hard it was going to be to install and configure, what kind of performance I’d get out of it, and out of the system as a whole after it was installed, and how difficult it would be to interact with the various virtual machines.
My fears, however, were unfounded. Installing Virtual PC was a cinch. It wasn’t any different from any other software program. Creating a new virtual machine was done with a wizard that allows you to choose the locations for the virtual machine and disk files, and performance settings and the OS that you’ll be installing. (Tip: If you’re not sure about the performance settings, you can leave them at the defaults, and change them later.)
Once I had the virtual machine created, I started it from the Virtual PC panel, and it fired right up in a window, and asked for a boot disk. I dropped in the Windows XP Pro DVD, and installed it just as I would have on a physical machine.
After I’d installed all of the Windows Updates, stopped the services that I don’t need running, and generally gotten the virtual machine to a state that I was happy with, I shut it down and copied the machine and hard disk files to another folder, and renamed them, so that I will always have a good base install without having to go through the motions of actually re-installing Windows XP, SP2, and all of the following security updates. I can now have a fresh virtual machine up and running in a couple of minutes. There may be a built in mechanism to do this more cleanly than just copying the files in Windows Explorer like I did, but I didn’t find it in a quick perusal of the Virtual PC help files.
The performance, at first glance seems to be pretty good. The machine that it’s on is decent, but by no means spectacular. It’s got a 2.4GHz P4, 768MB of RAM, and the disk that the virtual machines reside on is a 7200RMP IDE drive with 8MB of cache. Using the virtual machine itself seems to have a response a bit slower than that that of my average Terminal Services session, and it seems to be quite acceptable. When I shut down the virtual machine completely, the performance of the host machine is unaffected…This is what I was most worried about. You can also configure the priority of the virtual machine processes when you have them running in the background. I’ve chosen to give the host machine priority in this scenario, but I haven’t had a chance yet to see how much this affects it.
All in all, this is a move that I’m definitely glad that I’ve made, and now I can run all of the beta software I want without ever again having to worry about those dire “You may need to re-format your drive” warnings. :-)