VMWare Server: free Virtual Machine Infrastructure, step-by-step

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vmware_logoI’ve previously discussed virtual server infrastructure with an article on Microsoft’s Hyper-V which comes included with Windows Server 2008. Due to the performance hit that a Server 2008 machine will take just by having the Hyper-V role installed, I went looking for another solution. I had a few criteria though. Since I was just doing this for myself and my own curiosity, I wanted it to be free or near there. I also wanted it to have as little performance impact as possible, but produce a fully stable and functional virtual machine.

My main use for the VMs would be two-fold:

  • Provide another OS to test things on without the dual-boot setup where only one is accessible at a time
  • Allow me to rollback changes made after I install applications to test them out.

After finding and investigating a handful of products, I ended up with VMWare Server. If you’re doing anything with VMs, the name VMWare comes up more than once. Their product VMWare Server is free and pretty simple to get started with, hopefully with this write-up, it will be even easier.

VMWare Server starts with an almost 600 MB download and leaves you with little impression that anything was actually installed. A desktop icon and Start Menu entry are created, but it took some manual reading to figure out how and where exactly to get started.

The shortcuts will point to http://127.0.0.1:8333/ui/# and will open your default browser to that location (a server that is now running on your local machine). I received an error message going to this shortcut each time because I did not have a TLS certificate. Instead, you can update the shortcut or just enter the address http://127.0.0.1:8222/ui/# to get to the login prompt for your VMWare server infrastructure if you do not have a TLS certificate for that machine. You should be able to access this server across the network if you update the URL and modify the firewall appropriately.

To login, you’ll want to use the credentials for a Windows account with administrator privileges. I successfully used the local admin account of my host machine to log in.

login

After logging in, you’ll be presented with a little dashboard that provides a summary of your system. Once you have some VMs added, you’ll be able to see information relevant to them as well.

dashboard

Let’s create our first VM then. Switch to the Virtual Machines tab and on the right side, click the Create a new VM link. This will pop-up a dialog box where we can choose all the settings for your VM. Name your VM something descriptive and hit next.

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Go through all the steps that the on-screen dialog prompts you for and choose your OS (for optimization reasons), how much RAM to allocate your VM, how large and where to save the virtual hard drive, the settings for processors, cd-rom, floppy drive, USB controller, and other choices. It’s pretty simple to tailor the configuration to get the VM you want and your machine can support. You’ll have to decide based on trial-and-error to get the best performance for your host machine and the guest VMs depending on how much RAM and the speed of your processor.

In this example, I am building a 32-bit Windows Vista VM. Since I know regularly, I would never want to run Vista with less than 2GB of RAM, I’ll give the VM 2GB for now. Don’t worry too much about the settings. If you want to change something later, you can always just power down your VM and modify these settings in the summary tab later.

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Once you have the VM built to your specification, it’s time to see what it looks like. Switch to the Console tab and power it on by hitting the green play button near the top.

vmconsole

Uh-oh. We’ll need to install a plug-in for Firefox first in order to launch the console. Click the link to install the plug-in. Allow the site to install software and install the VMWare Remote Console plug-in like any other Firefox extension.

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Once you have the plug-in installed, you can launch the console.

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This window will basically load and look like any physical machine when you install an operating system.

Note: A virtual machine is still required to comply with software licensing agreements. Some operating systems, like Server 2008, may allow for a physical and virtual machine installation with the purchased license. (For example, Windows Server 2008 Enterprise allows 1 physical installation and 4 virtual installations.) Check the license information for details.

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Just follow all the on-screen instructions like you normally would to install an operating system on a new machine and soon you’ll have a completed virtual machine just waiting for you to login. You can copy+paste text from the host machine to the VM and vice versa through the console, just as you could through Remote Desktop.

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Besides the VMWare console, you can also use Remote Desktop to connect to the machine if the machine you setup supports it and is configured correctly.

One thing to note is the recommendation to install VMWare Tools. Loading this tool into your VM will improve the performance in the graphics and mouse areas, in particular. With the machine booted up and logged in, click the Install VMWare Tools… link in the VM summary tab. This will basically insert the CD to install your VM

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Below, you can see a screenshot of task manager to indicate the resource consumption by VMWare Server while it is in use. I put a dot next to the related processes so you can see the total cost. You can see this takes up quite a bit of resources, but understandably, it is running another whole instance of an operating system. This may mean that you’ll want to have a beefier machine if you’re going to host a number of VMs and keep them running. You can see the specs of my machine below the Task Manager screenshot.

vm-resources1

For information sake, here’s my setup:
Intel Core 2 Duo E6600
2x Western Digital 1 TB hard drives in a RAID mirror
MSI OC GeForce 8800 GT 512MB video card
8 GB Kingston RAM
Windows Server 2008 x64

There are a lot of different features to gain from using virtual machines. You gain the ability to easily take snapshots, work with multiple machines from one console, run legacy operating systems and applications, and many more while you also save electricity and space by not having so many physical boxes around.

VMWare Server is a different interface, but almost just as easy as Microsoft’s Hyper-V. I have not noticed any negative impacts on my computers performance since having it installed. I was quite surprised at how much reading I had to do in order to get started with VMWare Server. In order to hopefully provide a convenience to you, here’s a quick summary:

To login to the VMWare Server console after installing it visit: http://127.0.0.1:8222/ui/# or :8333 (if you have TLS)

Login using a host administrator username and password.

You can find some of that reading here (all from VMWare.com):

Documentation

Release notes

User guide

Guest OS guide

If you’re looking to benchmark a VM, see VMWare’s free tool VMMark.

Start building your virtual network of machines with VMWare Server.