VMware Workstation has long been the gold standard of desktop virtualisation. Powerful and sophisticated, yet easy to use, this pioneering tool sets the bar for solutions addressing this niche product category. In fact, VMware Workstation has been so far out in front for so long, it's hard to imagine a world in which this bellwether product isn't the class leader in virtually every category.
Yet in the past few weeks, the unthinkable has happened: VMware shipped a new version, VMware Workstation 7, and it wasn't the class leader, at least in terms of scalability and perhaps ease of use or, for that matter, overall value.
In terms of scalability, VMware has been eclipsed by Sun Microsystems, which is now shipping a version of VirtualBox that supports up to 32 virtual CPUs per guest OS. Similarly, VMware's lead in usability is being challenged by Parallels, which has finally brought the ease of use of its awardwinning Parallels Desktop for Mac product to the Windows platform. And since both solutions are significantly cheaper than Workstation 7 (Parallels Desktop 4.0 for Windows retails for $79.99, while VirtualBox is completely free), they've backed VMware into a corner that seems to be getting smaller and smaller.
Fortunately for VMware, that corner is still a highly profitable one, populated by vertically oriented users who have very specific needs that only VMware Workstation can fully address. These include professional software developers who need tight IDE integration across a range of development platforms, help desk professionals who want to be able to quickly build and prototype troubleshooting simulations of end user environments, and of course, anyone who supports and manages a VMware-based server farm or VDI deployment where technologies like VMware View 4 and ACE are prevalent.
It's to these users, the proverbial "choir", that VMware is preaching with Workstation 7. Features like support for Windows Aero Glass, in VMs running Vista or Windows 7, are geared toward help desk personnel who need to more accurately replicate end user desktops, while automatic (timed) snapshots, expanded Replay debugging, and deeper IDE integration features help to reassert the product's stranglehold on the ISV crowd. Even core changes, like the ability support up to four virtual CPUs per VM and to host vSphere 4 as a guest platform, are targeted at the company's bread and butter, server consolidating and VDI-loving customer base.
Clearly, VMware no longer views the traditional desktop virtualisation space as competitive, at least not outside of areas where it intersects with broader virtualisation themes. This is the sort of complacency that market leaders get to enjoy, but it's also a double edged sword. VMware's decision to effectively ignore the competition has allowed sleeper products, like the scrappy VirtualBox, to nibble away at the fringes of its user base. And while VMware may dismiss impressive technical feats, like 32-way virtual CPU support, as mere academic exercises (who really needs 32 CPUs in a desktop VM?), the fact that they're being accomplished by someone else, when you're the perceived market leader, is never a good sign.
VMware Workstation 7 now lets you differentiate between logical CPUs and CPU cores when configuring virtual processors for your VMs.
In the meantime, loyal Workstation users will be pleased by the incremental enhancements that version 7 brings. During my own testing, I was impressed by Workstation 7's deft handling of virtual printing support, which is now almost entirely automated. Plus, the capability to automatically snapshot my running VMs at timed intervals gave me more confidence to push my various test scenarios, understanding that any catastrophic failure could be rolled back quite easily.
I also found Workstation 7's take on virtual CPU support interesting. Instead of merely exposing a bunch of generic x86 compute engines, Workstation 7 allows you to present a more refined view to the guest OS by letting you specify whether they appear as discrete CPUs or as multiple cores within a single CPU. This distinction is important because it affects how more recent operating systems, including Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, interact with CPU resources. These latter day OS support core parking and generally tune their scheduling algorithms to match the underlying processor core configuration.
Randall Kennedy was an experienced US-based reviewer whose association with IDG, the publisher of Techworld, was ended when it was revealed that he also ran a test and research company under a pseudonym. We have deleted news and features articles containing references to that company, Devil Mountain from the Techworld site.
Kennedy also contributed a number of reviews to IDG publications. Having re-examined these reviews, we consider them genuine assessments of the products being considered. Some readers will, quite rightly, be sceptical of Kennedy’s conclusions. However, we have left these articles on our database as we think that readers will able to make up their own minds as to whether they provide valuable information.
Overall, VMware Workstation achieves its goal of delivering more red meat to its primary customer base: help desk operators, professional developers, and vSphere and VDI support personnel. Technical challenges from plucky open source upstarts notwithstanding, Workstation remains the gold standard in desktop virtualisation.