Not long ago, VMware released a free version of its virtual machine software, an incarnation the company named VMware Player. Player is distinguished from other versions of VMware (such as VMware Workstation) in that it cannot be used to create new virtual machines; it only runs existing ones. That still makes it a tremendously powerful enterprise-level tool, and in this article, I'll talk about a few of the ways VMware Player can be put to use in an enterprise.
1. Run pre-built virtual appliances for testing
VMware has made available a slew of "virtual appliances" on its Web site for free download. These are pre-built virtual machines that are typically designed to handle a very specific set of functions, and thus they require minimal setup to get running; usually all you need to do is boot the virtual appliance and you'll be taken directly into some manner of configuration menu. Many of these appliances are designed to fulfill functions that one would normally dedicate a whole computer to, such as running a firewall or spam-filtering application.
An instance of the Player could be used to run such an appliance on a single machine, which then could be used provisionally for testing to see if it's a good fit for the company's needs in a broader sense. For instance, if you were using a virtual firewall appliance, you could run it in Player and set up a subnet to route traffic from one or more computers through the Player's network bridge to see how it behaves under actual use.
The VMware appliance directory can be found at www.vmware.com/vmtn/appliances/directory.
2. Use standalone ISO images in the same fashion
Many operating systems that run as virtual appliances also come in the form of .ISO disc images, which can be booted and used through VMware Player as well. One of the downsides of using an .ISO image in this fashion is that it's strictly read-only. You usually can't save any data or changes to the system's configuration. But if there's a need for something of that kind, the Player is a good way to determine if an .ISO format version of the appliance is worth using without having to devote a whole machine to testing it.
Note that if you use a preconfigured machine image that has a virtual hard drive available, and the .ISO you're booting supports working with a hard drive, you won't be as limited. Most standalone .ISO images do support the option to install a working copy of the operating system they're running on the machine in question, but not always.
3. Run standalone test machines as built on Virtual PC or other instances of VMware
One of the other features of VMware Player that makes it particularly useful is that it will run virtual machines as built by other editions of VMware, as well as virtual machines created by Microsoft's Virtual PC. VMware does this with Virtual PC by making a copy of the virtual machine and translating the copy into a native VMware format.
A number of enterprise applications address this. If someone else has been testing a virtual machine in a separate network environment using Virtual PC and you want to continue with or extend on their work in your own enterprise, you can do so directly without having to obtain a license for Virtual PC. You won't be able to edit the settings in that particular Virtual PC machine, but odds are this won't be a big hindrance.
Another way VMware Player is used in this manner is to test possible machine deployments in a virtualized environment, meaning you use the full version of VMware (or Virtual PC) to create a machine based on a live deployment, and then test multiple variations on that deployment. One caveat when doing this: VMware Player does not take advantage of multiple processors, so if you run multiple machines side-by-side on the same hardware, their performance will be seriously degraded. If you're simply testing for the sake of behavior, i.e., whether or not a given deployment acts in a certain way on a certain network for instance -- that's fine, but don't test exclusively for performance in Player. The same goes for appliances; they may run at very close to normal speed, but performance should not be the main consideration when testing in this fashion.
Serdar Yegulalp wrote for Windows Magazine from 1994 through 2001, covering a wide range of technology topics. He now plies his expertise in Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP as publisher of The Windows 2000 Power Users Newsletter and writes technology columns for TechTarget.