Virtual Machine’s for the masses.

• March 8, 2010

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Ever since I read my first article on the subject I was intrigued by the concept of Virtual machines. I was eager to know how practical, easy, and effective it really was to use in an everyday situation.  My approach was not to try and achieve new technical ground or challenge my own capabilities, but rather to see how practical these solutions were for the average user.  I wanted to better understand what skill level was needed to make this work. In addition, I wanted to see how practical the approach is for running a WHS in a VM in the real world.  To avoid any issues with existing hardware/software, I built up a fresh test system out of some extra hardware I had laying around (see below for pictures and specs of my test build).

As this was my first experience with a virtual machine, I did some homework and proceeded to download a few of the more popular solutions. I downloaded Hyper-V, VMware Player, VMware Workstation. and MS Virtual PC.  My purpose besides experimenting with VM’s was to see if I could effectively use one machine to run Windows 7, WHS, XP, and possibly experiment with something like Chrome OS.

A quick install of Hyper-V told me that the complexity of the VM setups and skill level required was a bit high for the average person that wanted an easy way to setup a VM. Not that it is not powerful and flexible, but they are not tailored for the casual user who just wants to run a second OS such as WHS on top of their Windows Media Center PC.  In reality, the Hyper-V and ESXi are much more powerful approaches but they also raise the bar for skills required to effectively setup.

That left me with VMware’s Player (free for personal use), VMware’s Workstation (30 day trial, $189 after trial), and Microsoft’s own Windows Virtual PC (which is also free to users of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate). These appealed to me more since they could be installed on top of an existing windows installation which fell more into the category of “main stream” I was after for this experiment (I used Windows 7 64 Bit Professional for testing).

First up was VMware’s Player. The installation process was painless and within minutes I had a virtual machine ready to install a new OS.  Since by default, VMware Player likes to use an ISO to install the OS, I used the ISO from the WHS trial version as my test bed and pointed to the ISO that was located on my drive. The installation process started and continued for a few minutes before giving me an error “Hard drive capable of hosting Windows Server was not found”. I tried several more times including a few attempts installing from the CD but no matter what I tried the error persisted. I found a few hints on Google on how to resolve it but nothing seemed to work. Not wanting to give up, I then upgraded to VM workstation thinking that might help resolve the issue but the result was exactly the same. After a few more attempts, I decided it was time to try Microsoft’s own Virtual PC.

WHS Error

The installation of Virtual PC is as painless as it gets and is not much different than installing any other application. Once installed, you are ready to create your first VM. After you define the parameters of your virtual machine by answering a few prompts, Virtual PC creates the virtual machine on the specified hard drive. To install your new OS, all that was required was popping the install CD/DVD in your drive, double clicking on your VM within Virtual PC windows, and walk through the install of your OS. The installation went all the way through without a glitch however I noticed it took a bit longer than on a standalone machine. Overall the process was painless, easy, and very straight forward.

Once I got it running, I was able to go back into the properties and add more storage by creating virtual drives (VMware’s Player does not allow full editing of the VM once it is created and you have to create a new one to make changes). After the Virtual hard drives are created, they appear in WHS console and they can be added as either storage or backup. I realize that this solution does not offer you the sheer power and flexibility of Hyper-V or ESXi nor does it presently support 64 bit OS’s, but for 32 bit OS’s like WHS it works perfectly and for most users this is a much easier solution.

VM Login

VM Desktop

VM Storage Pool with 2 more drives

VM Storage Pool

My personal impression when I completed this experiment is that, like most things in life you have to understand what you want and the tradeoffs you are willing to make to get it. Using any type of VM in a home environment is great for testing, experimenting, and works for some people.  Someone who has a PC on all the time running WMC and wants to throw the functionality of WHS on top of it. It works well for all these things but running two OS’s on the same hardware does affect performance a bit. It is not significant but it is there none the less. Although in the right environment it works great, you should really think carefully as to whether or not running WHS on a VM is right for you. In some cases, it might be easier, cheaper, and safer to buy two smaller systems dedicated for a specific task such as a WMC or WHS. Since it is not a Hypervisor and it sits on top of an existing OS you add a level complexity that may not be worth the trade off. One last point, if you plan on sharing WHS and another OS on one machine you might consider that in the event of hardware failure you may will lose both machines.  Using WHS in a VM environment will also make restoring much more complicated.  It also defeats the purpose of using WHS as a back up at least for that machine.  All in all I would say that most of the products I experimented with worked pretty well (except for the error message from the VMware products) however after running a VM for a couple of weeks now, I am convinced I will stick to a dedicated WHS and use VM for experimenting, learning, and playing with other OS’s.

Test System

Specs:

Item Description
Case: Lian-Li Lancool PC-K7B
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-G31M-ES2L Micro-ATX
Memory: G.Skill DDR2 4 Gigs (2×2)
CPU: Intel E6500
Power Supply: OCZ ModXtream 500W
Hard Drive #1 300 Gig VelociRaptor
Hard Drive #2 WD 500 Gig Green Series Drive
Hard Drive #3 WD 1T Green Series Drive

Pictures (Test System)

DSC01095

DSC01096

DSC01110

DSC01111

DSC01113

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Category: Software, Virtualization, Windows Home Server

Comments (12)

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  1. jvk says:

    Thanks for posting this, very informative! I'm playing with Microsoft VM currently and this will definetly help.

  2. fasthair says:

    HI pcdoc,

    I can tell you what is went wrong with the VMPlayer install of WHS. During the creation of the HDD VMP made it a SCSI drive and not IDE. What I did to get around this was create a second VM HDD before starting the OS install. When making the new VM HDD you can tell VP what type of drive to create… ie SCSI/IDE. Then once it is made just delete the first drive then install the OS.

    fasthair

  3. pcdoc says:

    Fasthair,

    I did try that and expected it to work however for some reason was uncessful as that option was grayed out on my test. I tried several different attempts then finally moved on. I am sure there is a way but as this was my first attempt I wanted to see how ready for primetime this is. Thanks for the feedback.

  4. pcdoc says:

    Thanks wodysweb for the input. I know you have a good amount of experience with VM as I have read your posts, which in fact inspired me to dive in. If I decide to give it another go I will try these drivers as the ones It tried did not work. Seems as if they should address this by including it in the default installation especially if they are looking for wide acceptance. Thanks again for the input.

  5. EDR says:

    pcdoc,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Your article was very interesting.

    Ed R

  6. wodysweb says:

    Hi pcdoc,

    Good to see your diving in with virtualization. As fasthair said above, VMWare defaults their storage drives to connect with SCSI vs IDE. All you need is to download the scsi drivers in a virtual floppy from here: http://downloads.vmware.com/d/details/scsi_dt_server_wkst_ace/dHdiQGh3YiVq , and you’re good to go. It’s the same process you would follow if you were installing WHS or any other OS on a storage controller without built-in drivers.

    My personal favorite for “host based” virtualization is VMWare Server which will let you totally configure the OS unlike VMWare Player that you mentioned. It can also run 64 bit OS’s which you noted Virtual PC can’t do.

  7. ImTheTypeOfGuy says:

    pcdoc,

    Can you post a link to the download site for MS host version of VM? Their website always confuses me between host verse baremetal.

  8. EDR says:

    TypeOfGuy,

    Here is the download link for the free VMware Server 2:
    https://www.vmware.com/tryvmware/?p=server20&…

    The link to VMware Server's main page:
    http://www.vmware.com/products/server/

    Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 SP1, which is also free:
    http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/evalcenter/bb7

    You can download a 32bit version and a 64bit version. Just to see it start I installed the 32bit version in a copy of XP I had running on a atom processor that I have been putting a lot of software on just to try out.

    "Virtual Server 2005 R2 SP1 is the server virtualization technology engineered for the Windows Server platform. As a key part of any server consolidation strategy, Virtual Server 2005 R2 SP1 increases hardware utilization and enables IT staff to rapidly configure and deploy new servers. And when you download the free software, you're automatically registered to receive valuable resources delivered at strategic intervals as you familiarize yourself with the product."

    I hope this helps,

    Ed R

  9. diehard says:

    Interesting read, thanks.

  10. pcdoc says:

    The link is below. Initially show as XP mode but it is a separate download. Good luck.

    http://www.microsoft.com/windows/virtual-pc/downl

  11. jbree says:

    I currently have WHS running within VirtualBox (free virtualisation from Sun), it works a treat with very few issues. I have a single drive (200Gb) in my machine that is dedicated to hosting the server to reduce seek contention and recently I needed to increase the storage space. I investigated the option of expanding the Virtual Disk Image (VDI) but that looked too dangerous and cumbersome for my liking. Instead, I created a new VDI on another drive, added it to the WHS virtual machine and presto! an extra 200Gb available.

    I have my 3 devices all backing up to the WHS and my data and photo shares running from the WHS. The machine hosting VirtualBox is actually my Media Center machine with a TV tuner card which performs all my recordings and streams movies to my xbox. I am not ready to move the movies and recorded TV to the WHS yet as I do not see the point when the Xbox connects the the MC easily (hopefully there will be better MC integration in the future for WHS).

    In all, I think running WHS in a VM is a great idea as it is one less machine physically running, it is easy to setup and management and it is now portable. Upgrading the processor speed, RAM or drive space is far easier than a complete rebuild and resetup, simply upgrade the underlying hardware of the VM Host. My offsite backups now also include a copy of the VDIs for even faster restore when necessary. Next step, online backups for my data (already using drop box for some but I am looking at Carbonite or equivalent for my 60Gb of data nad photos).

  12. geek-accountant says:

    You should try Xenserver. My first choice was ESXi, but when it gave me trouble installing, I quickly decided to give Xenserver a try and have never looked back.

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