Balancing the Platforms 

The Demo '99 convention held in California last month saw a wealth of new hardware and applications, but one thing that has caused something of a stir in the computer world is a software product that allows a user to drive both a Dodge and a Buick at the same time.

Figuratively speaking, anyway.

A new software product called VMware allows computer users to run more than one operating system at the same time. The operating system is the program that, after being loaded first when the computer is started up, manages all the other programs in the computer. The most popular operating system in the world is Microsoft Windows.

In the past few years, many computer users have begun using an alternative to Windows and Macintosh called Linux. Linux users now number in the millions, and while the original Linux users were pure computer geeks, the appeal is broadening as more applications become available and the interface becomes easier to use.

Some games and applications, however, will likely never have a Linux version available. So, Linux users who want to run these programs have been forced to either have a second computer with Windows on it, or else "dual boot," storing both operating systems on one machine, and rebooting to switch between them. Imagine having to pull the Buick over the curb, stop the engine, get out your other set of keys, and start up the Dodge.

VMware removes the reboot requirement.

With VMware, for example, you can run Linux as the "host" operating system, and run Windows 98 in a window as a "guest"-and run all your Windows apps therein.

VMware will eventually support Windows 3.1, 95, 98 and NT, as well as Linux and an array of UNIX variants. Sorry, Mac users-until Macintosh designs its software to run on Intel-based chips, the MacOS is not among the supported platforms.

Why is this making waves? Jason Wold, information technology manager for Compaq's Western Research and Network System Laboratories sums it up this way in a VMware report:

"The VMware technology is simply amazing: an ingenious way to run a multi-operating system platform, without the problems of other emulation or multi-boot schemes I have seen. Users no longer need to choose which operating system they want to boot; they can have them all at the same time! The ability to snapshot a known good (or bad) configuration is a system administrator's dream. I think the full potential of the VMware Virtual Platform is not even realized yet." A few easily imaginable scenarios in which VMware could come in handy include:

• Software developers who need to create applications that run smoothly on multiple platforms can do their programming in Linux and test in various flavors of Windows, with no need for multiple machines or downtime for reboots.

• Linux enthusiasts can run their OS of favor, but still maintain a window in which they can run Windows games and apps. Some analysts believe that this setup alone may accelerate the significant migration to Linux already underway.

• Systems administrators in environments that include both UNIX and NT servers can run the administrative tools associated with each platform on a single machine.

• Web developers can install server software on a Linux box, and test the sites and scripts they create with a Windows browser internally.

• Windows NT servers, noted by some for its tendency to crash when multiple applications are running for days or weeks, could separate the duties into two or more NT "sessions"; if one session crashed, the others would be unaffected.

Some industry gurus see VMware as providing a freedom of choice that could ease the vice-like grip that Microsoft maintains on the zillions of Windows users in the world. However, VMware could actually increase the market for Bill Gates and Linux, since people are no longer restricted to a single OS as they once were.

The founders of VMware insist they bear no grudge against Mr. Gates and his software behemoth. In fact, prior to the announcement of the existence of VMware, the developers held a courtesy briefing for engineers and executives at Microsoft headquarters.

While the $300 planned price tag has some Linux geeks-who are accustomed to free-everything-in an uproar, many see the added functionality and the delicious jab at Microsoft as being worth it. One Linux enthusiast commented in a discussion group, "This is exactly what we need. Keep the possibility to run Windows so it is not painful to try out Linux. Most people don't want to switch to Linux because that are scared of not having all their little WinGizmos anymore."

A system administrator at Missoula-based Internet Connect Services with whom I spoke is not as concerned with "WinGizmos" as he is with efficiency. Of VMware, he says, "this product will enable me to view and maintain every network type in our operation without having to reboot between operating systems."

Performance-wise, there is some degradation, but VMware insists that applications in the guest operating systems will still run at about 90 percent of normal speeds. Still, a somewhat beefy machine is suggested, like a 300 MHz processor and at least 64 megs of RAM.

Is VMware the "next big thing"? Perhaps not; it'll appeal mostly to developers, systems admins and hardcore Linux geeks for now, but the technology is brand new, and only time will tell how this powerful new program could impact the average computer user in the future. For more info, check the VMware website:

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