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Shared folders: How to improve file management in VMware Workstation

In Workstation, enabling shared folders between a host and VM can streamline management and increase storage space. But it creates security risks, so weigh the options carefully.

Shared folders in VMware Workstation allow for more efficient use of storage space and easier file management. Enabling this feature is simple, but you must weigh the security risks.

Shared folders allow Workstation virtual machines (VMs) to access folders on the host, so you don’t need to duplicate important files for each VM. Instead, VMs can access one master copy stored in a shared folder on the host, which will save you time and storage space. This configuration also simplifies version control for files, meaning that you don’t have to worry about different file versions floating around your virtual infrastructure.

Shared folders do have some downsides, however. Without the proper file management permissions in place, unauthorized users may be able to access sensitive data shared between the VM and host. Malware and viruses can also use shared folders as a gateway to escape the VM and enter the host. But you can mitigate these security concerns with routine patching, firewalls and antivirus software.

If you’ve decided to share folders, follow these steps in the Workstation VM.

Step one: Enable sharing

Starting in VMware Workstation 6, sharing folders between the host and guest VMs was disabled by default for security reasons.

To enable shared folders, go to a powered-on VM and selectSettings > Options > Shared Folders. You will be presented with the folder-sharing menu on the right, with the following options:

  • Disabled: The default option doesn’t allow shared folders between the host and guest.
  • Always Enabled: This setting allows folder sharing regardless of whether the VM is powered on or off. Think of it as persistent drive mapping.
  • Enabled until next power off or suspend: This option provides better security than the Always Enabled selection because it disconnects your shared folders when the VM is powered off or suspended. It can reduce security risks if you forget about the shared folders and exit the VM, allowing someone else to power on the VM and the compromise files in the shared folder. Once the guest VM is powered on again, folder sharing is set to Disabled.
  • Map as a network drive in Windows guests: This option is a great for Windows-based VMs. The shared folder will appear as a connected drive and assigned a drive letter, which provides a level of familiarity for most users.

Figure 1
(Click image for an enlarged view.)

Step two: Start the Add Shared Folder Wizard

Select the Add button to start the wizard. In the browser window, choose the host folder that you want to share with the VM.

Once you complete the wizard, the host folder is displayed in the Folders window below the folder-sharing options.

Figure 2
I shared the C:\downloads folder on my host machine. (Click image for an enlarged view. .)

Step three: View your host share in the VM

If you select Map as a network drive in Windows guests, the guest VM assigns a drive letter to the host folder, and you can access the folder through Windows Explorer like any mapped drive.  As you add host folders, the new ones appear underneath the same drive mapping.

Sharing folders with Linux guests

To share host folders with a Linux VM, just follow the same steps, except you obviously do not have the Windows drive-mapping option.

Figure 3
A view of the shared C:\download folder from an Ubuntu 10 VM. (Click image for an enlarged view. .)

For those not familiar with the Linux file structure, look for your shared folders under /mnt/hgfs directory.

Requirements for shared folders

  • VMware Workstation 5 or later
  • The VMs must run Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows 2003, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Solaris x86 10 Update 1 or higher or Linux kernel 2.6 or higher
  • The VM must have VMware Tools
  • Appropriate file management permissions, including the ability to view the host folder and read the files

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