Virtually everything

Posted by AB
Jan 15 2008

Being in the software business, I have to upgrade my main development machine rather often. When switching to a new computer, the most frustrating part of the process is setting it up just the way I like it. That means not only moving the source code and other files over, but also installing the applications I need, configuring their settings, fine-tuning their options to make they work just right. I used to spend at least a couple of days doing such tedious tasks, before I could start to actually work with the new computer.

A couple of years ago, when preparing to move to a yet another new computer, and remembering how depressing it was the previous time, I decided to try something new: instead of reinstalling all my development tools directly, I created a virtual machine in the new computer first, and then installed the applications and utilities inside of that virtual computer. From that time on, I work from within the virtual machine, using the real computer just as the host of the virtual one.

Now, a couple of years later, I can say that that was one of the best moves I’ve done that reduced my stress level and increased my productivity. I had to move to a new computer a couple of times after that, and when I did that, all I needed to do to recreate my familiar development environment was to install the virtual machine software, copy the virtual machine to the new computer, and presto – I was back in the game in no time at all. Another convenience was that whenever I went on a trip, all I needed to do to take my development shop with me was copy the virtual machine to the laptop, and I could keep working on my software projects while on the go!

Of course, going virtual for software development requires the host computer to have a fast processor and plenty of RAM (a fast hard drive does not hurt, too). My current host computer has 2 GB of RAM and uses a Core 2 Duo processor that provides hardware support for virtualization. That makes my software development application (Microsoft Visual Studio) to work within the virtual machine just as fast as within the real one. (At least that’s how it feels, I did not do any special timings).

I liked having an independent virtual machine for the software development so much that a bit later I’ve created a few more dedicated virtual machines to run other parts of my software business as well: one such machine contains all my web site development tools and applications, including a local web server running the local copy of my web sites. Another virtual machine is dedicated to keeping the database of the customers, bookkeeping software, and other related tools.

In case you’ve spent the last few years on the moon and are not familiar with the virtual machine software, you can get started by taking a look at Microsoft Virtual PC and/or VMWare Server: both are easy to set up and use, both are free, both have good performance. VMWare Server offers more flexibility in the virtual machine configuration, and it provides support for the USB devices, while Virtual PC is easier to setup and use. I use both Virtual PC and VMWare Server, but I could not get them both to work on the same computer at the same time: if one of them was running, then an attempt to start the other one caused the host computer to crash. However, using them one at a time or on different host computers caused no problems.

One drawback of setting up the virtual machines is that many software vendors treat them like separate physical computers, and if you have purchased a one-computer license, you may not be allowed to install separate copies of the software in several virtual machines, even if they operate on the same physical host computer. I find such restrictions quite annoying. (They are the relicts from the old pre-virtual computing days). If you have a software tool that you must install in more than one virtual machine, check its license agreement, and if you find that you are not allowed to use the software in several virtual machines, contact the vendor and ask them to reconsider their license terms. If enough of us start demanding it, they may actually do that.

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