Real pleasure with virtual machines

FRAMINGHAM (11/07/2003) - Last week we started cleaning up our desk by reducing the number of keyboards and mice by using the two-port, ultra-compact BCKS (Built-on-Cable KVM Switch) from StarTech.com.

As we noted, some odd things happened, such as the keyboard suddenly appearing to have Caps Lock on or the PC being fooled into thinking that a text selection had begun. In the end we gave up on the BCKS because we got tired of clearing these peculiar conditions. Instead we tried the Switchman from Raritan Computer Inc.

The Switchman is functionally the same as the BCKS although it requires more desk real estate - it's not a cable harness like the BCKS, but a box to which all the cables connect, providing "soft" (keyboard key sequences) console switching as does the BCKS, plus physical switches that do the same things.

The Switchman comes in two- and four-port versions, optionally with cables, and it works flawlessly. Pricing starts at US$100 with cables.

At the end of last's week's column we mentioned a product called VMware Workstation and our plans to use it to run Windows under Linux.

Well, we ran it up and, let's see, how could we describe this software? How about: Wow! Fantastic! Sensational! How did we ever live without it? Yep, it is that good, even though we hit a few rough spots at the get-go that had nothing to do with the product.

VMware creates one or more virtual PC environments in which you can run "guest systems" -- Windows Server 2003, XP, 2000, NT 4.0, ME, 98, 95 and 3.1; MS-DOS 6; all Linux distributions (Red Hat Inc., SuSE Linux Ag, and MandrakeSoft SA); FreeBSD; Novell Inc. NetWare 6.0 and 5.1, or pretty much any other operating system that doesn't do anything bizarre with regard to hardware.

VMware emulates all the PC hardware, including the Peripheral Component Interconnect and Industry Standard Architecture buses, small computer systems interface, video, floppy, CD and integrated drive electronics drives, Ethernet interfaces (up to three per virtual machine), serial and parallel ports, Universal Serial Bus interface, mouse, sound card and BIOS. It also supports virtual machines with dual-boot configurations.

The network support in VMware is interesting. You can select from four configurations: none at all; host-only networking, where only the host can be seen by the guest; bridged networking, where the host and the guest share a multiplexed Ethernet connection; or network address translation networking, which is the host-only option but on a private subnet that connects via a gateway to the host's interface.

Installing VMware under Linux is fairly straightforward, although we strongly recommend getting a copy of The Book of VMware by Brian Ward.

The book covers pretty much all the details of getting VMware running in a more accessible way than the VMware documentation, even though that documentation isn't that bad.

Installation under Linux can be done from a TAR archive or a Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) file. A TAR archive is created using the Unix TAR utility. This tool combines multiple files into one archive file. (You often will find these archives compressed with the gzip file compression tool, with the extension .tar.gz.). If you use a TAR archive version you simply unpack the contents (using, for example, the zcat utility under Linux) into a subdirectory and then run the VMware install script.

RPM is a sophisticated system for managing software installations -- it will handle installing, erasing, upgrading, querying and verifying packages. Note, however that Red Hat's graphical version of RPM will not show packages other than those specifically included by Red Hat.

We used the RPM version of VMware, which didn't go as smoothly as we had hoped. We launched the RPM program, and for some reason it didn't run to completion.

Unfortunately as far as RPM was concerned, VMware was now installed and it wouldn't re-install it even though all the files were of zero length. Even more unfortunately, RPM refused to verify or erase the package for exactly the opposite reason: That VMware wasn't installed!

Just what we needed -- another learning experience. Next week, we fix the problem without losing hair.

Soothing words to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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