Virtual Computing Gets Real

Virtual PC is a flexible, full-featured virtualization environment.

Even just a couple of years ago, the mention of virtualization conjured up images of white-coated lab geeks working deep in the recesses of places like MIT or Stanford. Virtualization still has its place in research, software testing and other erudite applications, but the cost and time savings it brings to enterprise operations have set it well on its way to becoming a mainstream technology.

Microsoft has virtualization tools on both the server side (see "Virtualization Saves Real Dollars," June 2006, Redmond Channel Partner) and the desktop. The company acquired its desktop tool from Connectix in February 2003. The following year, it released the product as Microsoft Virtual PC 2004.

Virtual PC (VPC) has been locked in a "virtual" dead heat with VMware Workstation for the last several years. The trick is to divine your customer's needs and figure out how they could benefit from virtualization. Then you can better match them with VPC's capabilities.

Virtual PC 2004

Microsoft Corp.
Release Date: December 2003
Price: $129 per single license (volume licensing and guest operating system
licensing priced separately)

Virtualization Nation
Companies turn to virtualization as a means by which to save money in hardware and licensing fees and save time and effort in deployment and management. Using virtualization as part of a network infrastructure also helps your customers tighten security, improve efficiency and establish a more flexible deployment framework.

VPC lets your customers set up a physical computer to run as if it were two or more computers. The number and capacity of virtual machines (VMs) they can run is limited only by the resources available on the physical computer. Running Windows XP as the base operating system, they can install multiple instances of different guest operating systems in VMs and have them run concurrently.

Microsoft VPC officially supports the following operating systems as guests within its VMs: Windows 95, 98, Me, NT 4.0 Workstation, 2000 Professional and XP; plus MS-DOS, OS/2 Warp Version 4 Fix Pack 15, OS/2 Warp Convenience Pack 1 and Convenience Pack 2. Your customers can also run Red Hat Linux, Novell NetWare and other flavors of Linux within their VMs. Performance may vary because they aren't specifically supported.

Each VM behaves like an individual computer. VPC emulates all the aspects and elements of a physical computer, establishing a virtual processor; sound, video and network cards; even virtual hard drives. Customers can set up dynamic, fixed-size or linked virtual hard disks with each VM. They can also set up Differencing disks to share disks among multiple users and VMs and track changes, and Undo disks to preserve a copy of the original drive state.

Any application your customers install on a VM will work just as it would on a physical machine. They won't distinguish a VM from a physical computer. This adds an effective layer of protection for the physical host computer. Any changes that users make to VMs won't affect the physical computers that are running the host and guest OSes. Any viruses or spyware loaded onto a virtual machine are easily eradicated simply by ending the session.

Under the Hood
There are several other areas of functionality to emphasize when presenting VPC to potential customers. Guest-host integration is a big one. The level of integration between the guest OS and host OS is virtually seamless. If you or your customer installs Virtual Machine Additions in the guest OS running within the VM, they can then easily copy, paste, drag and drop between guest and host.

There are several options for configuring VMs, installing or uninstalling applications and allocating memory resources based on what the physical computer has available.

Customers can switch between operating systems and different VMs as easily as they switch between Windows applications. To conserve resources, they can also pause an inactive VM so it won't waste any CPU cycles on the physical computer. They can also save VMs to disk and restore them later, which is much faster than restarting the guest operating system. VPC has a single interface for handling these management tasks.

The updates that came with Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 Service Pack 1 (SP1) improved the overall reliability, performance and manageability of VPC. It also now supports running Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition as a host operating system.

Competitive Landscape
Virtualization on the desktop is essentially a two-horse race—Virtual PC and VMware Workstation. It's the same situation on the ser ver side between Microsoft Virtual Server and VMware Server and ESX Server.
VPC and VMware Workstation each do more or less the same thing in similar ways, with some variations in interface, operation and performance. Each has a solid base of dedicated users, so when you're selling a customer on virtualization as a concept and VPC as the platform of choice, your primary concern will be VMware Workstation.

VMware Workstation can run Windows, Linux, NetWare or Solaris x86 within its VMs. Version 5.5 supports 64-bit guest and host operating systems from Microsoft, many of the latest open source distributions and new processors from Intel and AMD. It also lets users open and convert Microsoft VMs and Symantec LiveState Recovery images, and comes bundled with VMware Player (VMware's free application that runs VMs created by VMware Workstation, GSX Server or ESX Server).

There are other virtualization methods and tools, like Altiris SVS, which focuses on application virtualization rather than the entire operating system and all properties of the physical computer. Softricity's Softgrid (which Microsoft recently acquired) turns locally installed Windows applications into virtual network services using application virtualization and streaming technology. Expect Microsoft to position this to ease migration to Vista.

Spotlight Highlights

Key Features:

  • Tight integration between host and guest operating systems
  • Runs just about any operating system in a virtual machine

Competition: VMware Workstation


  • Significant cost and time savings
  • Well suited for migration projects and preserving legacy app

Marketing and Sales
Microsoft is poised for a heavy push on virtualization. There are plenty of resources online that can help you educate potential customers about the concept of virtualization and details about VPC. For adding technical background to your sales presentations or if you just want to pass them out to your customers, there are several white papers on the VPC page that cover general technical issues, deploying VPC and using VPC as a development and debugging platform.

The VPC Newsgroup is a lively forum where you and your customers can share stories and tips, discuss issues and exchange ideas about getting the most out of VPC. This is a valuable resource and a good way to connect with current VPC users and help your customers do the same. There's also the VPC Guy's blog, a good resource for sharing deeply technical issues.

The VPC Knowledge Base is another useful resource. There are more than 250,000 articles contributed by support technicians after resolving particular customer issues. Microsoft is always updating, expanding and refining the Knowledge Base, so it's worth checking on a regular basis.

The Final Word
VPC lets your customers run multiple machines and multiple operating systems on a single computer. The benefits of this flexibility and the potential cost and time savings are significant in a variety of situations.

And again, the bottom line is that VPC lets your customers use one computer as if it were two or three (or more). Your presentation to potential customers should point out how this aspect of VPC means it can quickly generate a return on investment many times over—and those savings are in real dollars.