How to use VMware Workstation

This introduction to Workstation demonstrates how to get started and use some of its capabilities, as well as comparing its features to VMware Player.

VMware Workstation gives technical users a cost-effective way to utilize desktop virtualization and IT managers a one-size-fits-all console. This introduction to Workstation demonstrates how to get started and use some of its capabilities, as well as comparing its features to VMware Player.

In the typical corporate environment, Workstation can help companies achieve two of their most important goals: increasing productivity and decreasing cost. For example, technical support representatives who need access to different desktop environments in order to assist customers can do so from a single piece of hardware. Instead of purchasing and maintaining several workstations, the support rep simply starts a different Virtual Machine in VMware Workstation and instantly has access to other operating systems whenever necessary.

One of the biggest headaches in IT is building and deploying new workstations. VMware Workstation simplifies that process by allowing the IT staff to create a new virtual machine one time and deploy it to whoever needs it. The Workstation product isn't necessary for most of the people on the receiving end of those deployments, though. For users who just need to use Virtual Machines created by someone else, VMware Player will fit the bill. IT Managers should plan to use the two products in tandem on their corporate networks.

VMware Workstation versus VMware Player
While there are a few differences between VMware Workstation and VMware Player, three will jump out to most people. First, of course, is the price. VMware Player is a free download, while VMware Workstation will set you back $189.

What does $189 get you? Well, that's where those other two differences come in. First, with VMware Workstation, you can easily copy-and-paste files between Virtual Machines and your host operating system. While the tech savvy can setup SMB shares, use FTP, or find other creative methods to transfer files between OSes with both versions, a simple copy-and-paste is much more convenient for most users. That ability comes with VMware Tools, though, and those tools require VMware Workstation.

The other big difference, as mentioned above, is that VMware Workstation allows you to create your own Virtual Machines, while VMware Player can only use those created elsewhere. If you just need to test-drive the occasional OS or application, or if you only need to use Virtual Machines created by another user in the organization, VMware Player will probably be just fine.

For many developers, testers, and IT professionals, though, the ability to create custom Virtual Machines is the real reason to shell out the money for VMware Workstation. For instance, QA engineers can create multiple Virtual Machines to test various operating systems on a single workstation, reverting to a pristine snapshot whenever something breaks. Systems administrators might use their custom virtual machines to test patches and updates before pushing them onto end-users. And developers can simulate large scale multi-tiered environments from the comfort of their own workstation by simply creating different networked virtual machines

Installing VMware Workstation
Installation is straightforward: choose your path, click 'Next' a few times, enter your license info, and click 'Finish.' After you reboot and accept the license agreement, the fun begins.

First step is to create a new virtual machine. Kicking off the New Virtual Machine Wizard is as easy as clicking File-->New-->Virtual Machine… or simply clicking the "New Virtual Machine" icon on the 'Home' tab.

The first option in the wizard asks you to select a configuration type. More often than not, the 'Typical' configuration will meet your needs, but if you need to create a VM that's compatible with older versions of VMware or with specific hardware requirements, you'll need to opt for the 'Custom' route. If you choose the 'Custom' option, you can select which VMware Workstation version's hardware compatibility level is right for you (Version 4, 5 or 6) and can see right away which VMware products will support your new VM.

On the next screen, you'll select which guest operation system and version you'll use with the new VM. For instance, select the 'Microsoft Windows' radio button and you can choose anything from Windows 3.1 to Windows Server 2008 (still listed as Windows Longhorn in the dropdown menu). In total, VMware Workstation 6 supports 45 different operating systems.

Next, pick a name for your new VM and select a location. If you're using VMware Workstation in a Windows environment, the default path will be My Documents\My Virtual Machines\ .

The next big decision comes on the next screen: selecting the network type. Next to the guest OS, this is probably the most important part of the wizard as your answer here will determine if and how your VM interacts with the rest of the network. For instance, if you choose "Use bridged networking," your VM will interact directly with the rest of your network using its own IP address. Alternatively, you can choose to "Use network address translation (NAT)" and let the guest OS access the network by sharing your host computer's IP address. This option works the same way most networks use NAT to mask their internal IP addresses when accessing the Internet.

If your guest OS doesn't need access to the Internet or other physical computers on the network, choose "Use host-only networking" to limit it to a virtual LAN that exists only on the host computer. Of course, if you want it completely isolated, you can always opt for the self-explanatory "Do not use a network connection" selection.

Finally, determine the amount of disk space you want to allocate to the new VM. This is the maximum amount of space you want the guest OS to use, not necessarily the amount it will need from the start. You can, however, opt to have all that space set aside right away, speeding up the performance of the VM later. Alternatively, you can let the VM grow as needed in the future.

After you click 'Finish,' you'll have yourself a shiny new virtual machine. It's just a shell at that point, though, so you still need to install your guest OS before you can really start using VMware Workstation. The actual installation process will depend on which OS you selected earlier, but it should run exactly like you'd expect if you were installing that same operating system on a pristine hard drive.

By default, VMware Workstation will look for a bootable CD/DVD in your computer's drive during the VM's boot sequence. However, you also have the option of mapping the Virtual Machine's CD-ROM to an ISO image. Instead of burning your favorite distro to a physical media, you just browse to the image on your local hard drive (or an accessible network share).

Once your guest OS installation ends, the fun begins. Just click the aptly named "Start this virtual machine" link, sit back and watch VMware Workstation go.

Editor's update: Check out the new features of Workstation 9.

Justin Stanley is an IT professional in Vancouver, Wash., who also writes for Nerdliness.com.

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