Life, Virtualized (or: 3 reasons I love the virtual machine)

One of the things that me mate Dave has written a good bit about recently is virtualization.  Although I'm not an infrastructure expert, I find using virtual machines tremendously useful, for three reasons:


1. Managing my (Mini)-Infrastructure

My life at home is virtualized: I use the free Virtual Server 2005 to manage my humble server "infrastructure."  I run 3 different virtual machines on a low-powered server box which is sitting in the corner. Distributed between those 3 virtual machines are my domain controller (and other router-y bits), my Team Foundation Server, and my media server, which streams tunes on demand to my XBox360.  [More in this setup in the comments below.]

I find the setup extremely flexible, easy to manage and maintain.  As and when I need to upgrade my hardware, I will simply move those virtual PC images to a new box, fire them up, and away we go.


2. Demos that require elaborate setup

I also sometimes use virtual machines for demos.  Because it's easy to "freeze dry" a machine in a demo configuration (my terminology, not theirs), I can prep a virtual machine image until it's "just right," and then repeatedly restore it to that exact state for a number of demos.


3. Evaluating Software without hassle

The third thing I use virtual machines for is evaluating software. 

What's great about evaluating software via a virtual machine is that you don't have to bother with configuring or installing anything.  Instead, you just copy in the monstrous VHD (virtual hard drive) file, fire it up, and jump straight into walkthroughs and hands-on labs, or just mess around.  And there's no need to clean up, because you didn't install any software (beta or released) on your PC - just the self-contained sandbox that is the virtual drive image.

We've had a great Team System / Team Foundation Server virtual machine image available through MSDN Subscriptions for quite a while now.

Some great recent news is that Microsoft has launched the VHD (Virtual Hard Drive) Test Drive Program, which will enable customers and partners to evaluate even more mainstream enterprise software from Microsoft and partners.  As this program launches, we have pre-configured VHDs of Windows Server 2003 R2 and key Microsoft applications such as SQL Server, ISA Server, and Exchange Server + Live Communication Server. 

"With the VHD Test Drive Program, we will also enable our partners for the first time to now be able to distribute their applications and solutions as a pre-configured VHD built on top of Windows Server 2003 R2 and leveraging other Microsoft applications."

Here's more information about Microsoft's VHD Test Drive program


For now, I leave you with this thought: You know that episode of Star Trek when yer man from the holodeck realizes he's living in a virtual world and wishes he could be out in the real world?  Do you think programs on a virtual machine ever realize they're on a virtual machine... and wish they were out running on a real machine?

Comments (12)

  1. Dave Sanders says:

    Can you elaborate more on the specs on your virtual host server?  I’ve been thinking about doing the same exact thing, running a mid range server that sits in the corner to host various development servers for different projects that I’m working on at any one time.  But, in my experience just running my virtuals on my main desktop is pretty resource intensive.  (Using VMWare anyway)

    I’d be interested in hearing more about your set up and if you did anything specific to the dedicated host to reduce its footprint.  In a perfect world I’d like to see a Microsoft Virtual Host O/S that was nothing but a kernel, Virtual Server and a tiny little web server that let you administer the virtual servers on it.  That way it, the host uses the minimal amount of resources possible.

  2. RobBurke says:

    Hi Dave, my machine is a little cube box which was the cheapest thing I could get about a year ago (that was my request), with one exception: it has 2 gigs of RAM.  It’s a low-power box and the fan is almost never on.  I have a USB drive hanging off it which contains a backup of the drive images.  I will find the hardware model and send you a link.

    Although it’s strictly *not* a good Enterprise practice, the way I back up my VPCs is that I have a script that hibernates them, creates a volume shadow copy, xcopies the shadow copies across, and wakes the machines back up.  

    I like your idea for a perfect world.  Windows Server 2003 can run with a very low memory footprint (one of my 3 machines runs with 256MB of RAM), but it would be nice to get it even smaller.  The footprint of my Domain Controller / WINS server box, for example, is just over 2 gigs, which is a bit heavyweight.  Maybe someone can comment on what’s coming in Longhorn Server – I’m not familiar with its modularity but I know that IIS7, for example, is extremely modular.

    I administer everything through the Virtual Server admin tool (web client) and the smart client Virtual Server tool which lets you operate an individual  machine.

  3. Eddie says:

    What setup do you have for media streaming for the XBox360? My files are in a Win2003 R2 machine and I cannot get the Xbox to play the files  (but it does "see" them).

  4. mcsieinf says:

    Dave & Rob – do some searches on longhorn and hypervisor. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what is coming next year 🙂

  5. RobBurke says:

    Eddie – One of my virtual machines is running Windows XP, with Media Connect installed.  I think you’re right – I couldn’t figure out how to get Windows 2003 to stream media to the XBox 360, no matter how hard I tried.  (If anyone has figured this out, I’m all ears!)

  6. RobBurke says:

    I was asked in a mail what I meant by a slow processor.  I’m away for the weekend so I don’t have the exact stats on me, but for now, it’s a low-powered AMD processor sitting in one of these AOpen Cubes:

    Really, there’s no horsepower to speak of here, but it’s quiet and it’s low power. To serve up what I’m doing all I need is a splash of memory.

  7. RobBurke says:

    Mcsieinf — Thank you for that!  Dave told me about Hypervisor a while back and I think that it’s only now I’ve groked its significance.  Wow.  Happy days!!

  8. Rob Burk has an interesting article on Virtualization, entitled "Life, Virtualized". Very cool idea,…

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  12. One of the things that me mate Dave has written a good bit about recently is virtualization. Although I’m not an infrastructure expert, I find using virtual machines tremendously useful, for three reasons: 1. Managing my (Mini)-Infrastructure My life

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